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Initially it was disappointment, which then quickly turned to annoyance. Now the private sector is downright livid about the government’s decision to scrap business rate relief on empty buildings.

But how do you get the message across so that it means something to the public at large?

‘It’s like making the unemployed pay income tax,’ said the British Property Federation (BPF) this week. That’s a pretty powerful analogy.

An alternative might have been ‘it’s like docking the benefits of disabled people who don’t find jobs’.

But they’ve already done that. In fact, best not give those cash-strapped mandarins any more ideas.

The decision to scrap rate relief earlier this year is one idea that some have estimated is now worth £2bn to the government.

It’s not hard to see why – drive around most towns and cities and count the empty premises.

What seemed a daft idea at the time now appears to be nothing short of ridiculous.

‘Taxing hardship and business failure is a ludicrous way to help people through the hard times,’ said BPF chief executive Liz Peace this week. In an open letter, the federation has urged Gordon Brown to reverse the decision.

Among those backing the BPF is Asda, which apparently went as far as flattening a call centre to avoid empty rates.

‘The government has imposed an ill-timed tax on empty properties which has had a number of unintended consequences,’ said the supermarket giant.

It had planned a £100m redevelopment of a 2.5ha site in New Barnet, Hertfordshire, but decided instead to demolish the building. It’s rather like eating your telly to avoid paying the TV licence.

While ‘unintended consequences’ like this are hardly likely to tug at Mr Brown’s heartstrings, there are others that you’d have thought might at least spark serious discussion of a U-turn.

For starters, there are the thousands of smaller businesses which have had to close premises thanks to the credit crunch.

Added to that are local authorities – Bristol Council is paying more than £380,000 a year on 56 vacant buildings.

And then there’s the damage it’s doing to the government’s oft-cited urban renaissance.

As John Nicholls, boss of Leicester Regeneration Company, puts it: ‘There is a lot of pre-emptive demolition going on. This is already having a visual impact – cities are beginning to look like broken teeth.’

If the government doesn’t act quickly our cities will soon have even less to smile about.

Austin Macauley, editor, New Start Online magazine


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