Hawick regeneration chief Derick Tait has called on Scottish Borders Council to “put its money where its mouth is” by using new powers to cut business rates.
The call comes a week after the Hawick News highlighted new Scottish Government legislation designed to give local authorities the power to cut business rates in a bid to regenerate local high streets.
Last week, SBC told the Hawick News: “An officers’ working group is considering these changes and expects to report to councillors in early 2016.”
But Future Hawick chairman Derick Tait says the council should be considering rates reductions now: “Over the years, the predominant issue at any Future Hawick seminar has been business rates and queries to the council have always met with the same response, which is basically ‘we’d like to help, but our hands are tied’.”
He added: “Well, the ties have now been loosened and SBC has been presented with a unique opportunity to help local businesses by reducing the rates burden, and at the same time attract inward investment to our town. “
Mr Tait said the council needs to act now: “Hawick businesses have been calling for help for several years, so it’s now time for the council to put its money where its mouth is. An immediate rates reduction should not be out of the question. High Street survival depends on it.”
The new tax-cutting powers were announced by SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney at his party’s conference in Aberdeen.The aim is to boost economic activity and according to Mr Swinney it gives councils “real control over their own futures” and commenting further on the new Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, he added: “With these new flexibilities, councils could use their local knowledge to attract new investment into town centres and help create vibrant communities.”
The new act, passed in June this year, means councils will be able to reduce rates bills based on criteria they choose, such as the type of property, its location, occupation or activity.
Local estate agent Jim Hay says it’s time the council took advantage of the new powers to end the “very unfair” rates burden on the High Street: “I find it staggering that Scottish Borders Council have had nothing to say or made any statement apart from that a working party will look at this in 2016.”
Mr Hay added: “We have been crying out collectively for years about the current business rates scheme and have always been told by SBC that their hands were tied. Well now they have the power but seem to be sitting on their hands.
“It is no coincidence that shops not on the main street are all full, as they pay nothing under the current scheme, yet all the vacant shops are those that are in the centre of the street and only get 25 per cent rates relief.”
He added: “I am positive that if the rates were reduced on the High Street the majority of the shops would be filled.”
According to local businessman and gym co-owner Greg Dalgleish, it’s vital that the council embraces this new legislation.
Mr Dalgleish said: “Scottish Borders Council have been well aware of the new legislation but the bottom line is they have done nothing about it. This is designed to boost economic activity and to attract new investment into the town. I would urge every business owner to demand answers and action from SBC.”
Councillor Stuart Bell, SBC’s economic development spokesperson, said: “This could provide an opportunity for businesses to benefit but any relief will ultimately have to be paid for by the council tax payer.
“This needs to be examined carefully.”