Plea for business rates holiday turned down

Shops closed down on Hawick High Street.
Shops closed down on Hawick High Street.

A bid to give struggling traders in Hawick’s High Street a six-month ‘holiday’ from paying business rates has been summarily rejected.

The proposal was submitted to Scottish Borders Council last week by charitable regeneration group Future Hawick.

In its submission – sent to all six Hawick councillors, SBC leader David Parker and executive member for economic development Stuart Bell – the group claimed that 25% of town centre shops were currently vacant, compared to 17% in Galashiels, and that the vacancy rate for larger High Street shops was 43%.

“Footfall in Hawick has dropped significantly compared to Galashiels,” states the group. “Hawick has traditionally been insulated from spending leakage to the north, but this may have changed with the growth of Galashiels and the arrival there of the Borders Railway from which Hawick is not getting the benefit.

“We would support a limited rates relief period for the owners of empty shops in return for an improved shopfront appearance and regular evidence of a concerted marketing effort in respect of the premises.

“Failure to comply would result in rates being applied and this initiative can only help improve occupancy prospects.

“Help is also urgently needed for the many existing small local traders who strive daily to keep our High Street alive.

“We appreciate that many of these presently qualify for varying degrees of rates relief … but we believe that a full ‘rates holiday’ for a six-month pilot period would greatly help these businesses and have minimum impact on council finances.

“It would help bring our High Street traders together and, at the same time do much to help the regeneration of our town centre.”

But in a response to the group, Councillor Bell said: “No [rates relief] scheme can be open-ended as the financial implications for the council cannot be contained and, therefore, the proposal cannot be supported by the council.

“As a result it will not be presented formally to elected members.

“It is becoming clear that a fair, flexible non-domestic rates relief scheme will be very difficult to establish and sustain financially.

“Developing a new rates relief scheme which reflects Future Hawick’s aspirations is challenging for [council] officers … a scheme as proposed is not a vehicle by which this can be done.

“I realise Future Hawick will be disappointed by this conclusion, but I think it is better to learn and move on.”

Mr Bell’s edict produced an angry reaction from Councillor Watson McAteer (Hawick and Denholm) an Independent member of the opposition at Newtown.

“I find it astonishing this sincere and well thought-out request has been summarily rejected by Mr Bell, after consultation, presumably, with Mr Parker, without the slightest courtesy of engagement or discussion with the Hawick councillors, let alone the wider elected membership,” said Mr McAteer.