Economical with the actualite

I have been moving house over the holiday period and only got the broadband back yesterday, hence the break from blogging.

In catching up with news, I came across this letter by Dr Brian Gibbons, Minister for Social Justice and Local Government , who takes me to task over an article on business rates:

I read Dylan Jones-Evans’ comment piece in your newspaper on December 22 about support for small businesses and business rates in Wales. I am concerned that your readers, particularly owners of small businesses, would be left with the impression that the Welsh Assembly Government is not taking action to support small businesses during these economically difficult times; this could not be further from the truth.

In September this year I announced a £7 million package of business rate relief that will support smaller businesses across Wales. This additional funding has taken business rate support for small businesses to £20 million. Around 37,000 businesses across Wales already get help from the small business rate relief scheme and 10,600 more small businesses could benefit from a significant reduction in their rates under the new package. It will help small, independently owned shops, public houses, and food outlets and will boost the provision of child care for working parents by helping day nurseries.

In November I announced further rate relief measures specifically aimed at small businesses. For the financial year 2009-10 the threshold at which empty properties are liable to pay business rates will be raised from £2,200 to £15,000. It is estimated that this will exempt around 70% of empty properties.

We are also providing a wide range of other support to businesses across Wales. For example, Flexible Support for Business helps people who wish to start, grow or develop a business in Wales; this will be backed by £290 million. These measures demonstrate our commitment to providing real assistance to smaller businesses to help them in these tough times for the economy.

This is Assembly spin at its best and, given the festive season, I will refrain from calling this blog post b****cks for obvious reasons.

Let me repeat this again.

Welsh businesses do not get the same level of rate relief as those in England and Scotland, which is the point I have been making for over twelve months. The current relief is also well below what businesses in rural Wales were receiving before the Assembly Government abolished the rural rate relief scheme in 2007. Yes, thousands of firms are receiving relief (as they always did) but at nowhere near the rate they were previously and not at the same rate as businesses outside of Wales.

If Brian and his spin merchants can show that Welsh firms are better off, then I am happy to withdraw the remarks.

If not, then perhaps rather than getting his PR people to bend the facts to suit the government line, he can take some real action and increase the amount of rate relief to small businesses in Wales to ensure that there is a level playing field between Welsh firms and those in England and Scotland. It would also ensure that we do not remain the 'poor cousins' as compared to our neighbours in the UK.

As for 'increasing the threshold at which empty properties are liable to pay business rates, this decision came directly from the Pre-Budget Report and had absolutely nothing to do with any Assembly policy. Given that rate relief is a devolved matter, businesses can only wonder why Mr Gibbons didn't do anything before November and waited for the Labour Government in Westminster to make a decision before he acted.

In addition, rather than spending £290 million on 'business support', why not transfer some of this directly into the pockets of small businesses by making business rate relief higher than the rest of the UK cutting out the tens of millions spent on bureaucracy and civil servants to administer the support.

Finally, he should ask his fellow cabinet member, the Minister for Economy and Transport who said, in April 2007, that proper cuts in business rates would see 50,000 small businesses taken out of the business rates net. Instead of the limited support offered by the current Government, this move would have seen a real improvement which would benefit small businesses without an increase in bureaucracy.

Perhaps the New Year will see some real policies that impact on the business sector emerging from the Assembly but, like many, I am not holding my breath.

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