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Save our high street: businesses seek support in Thursday’s Scottish Budget

Union Street, Aberdeen. Pic by Chris Sumner/DCTMEDIA

Property owners and occupiers have highlighted the need for support for the beleaguered high street as the pandemic drags into a potential third year.

Ahead of this week’s Scottish Budget, the Scottish Property Federation (SPF) has written to finance secretary Kate Forbes, urging her to use the levers at her disposal to aid businesses to protect employment and rejuvenate high streets and town centres that have been laid low by the pandemic.

business support
Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes will present the Scottish budget on Thursday.

The property group wants the government to incentivise the retrofit of existing commercial buildings and promote property improvements to support zero carbon heat in Scotland.

Similar measures were implemented in England following the UK Chancellor’s Autumn budget.

Meanwhile, businesses occupying high street premises are looking for the finance secretary to extend business rates in line with the UK.

In October, Rishi Sunak announced a 50% reduction for another year for those sectors that have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic including the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaving 11 Downing Street, London before delivering his Budget to the House of Commons. Photo Jacob King/PA Wire

Most Scottish companies in these sectors have benefited from no rates bills during Covid-19 but are due to revert to pre-pandemic levels in the spring.

Businesses are now looking to Ms Forbes to also extend this rates relief package when she unveils her budget in Holyrood.

In addition, the SPF has highlighted the difficulties faced by businesses of all sizes that continue to struggle in the face of the ongoing pandemic, yet have not been supported through the rates relief provided for other companies.

As the pandemic drags into a potential third year, it will be vital for a broader economic support package, SPF said.

Unwelcome new variant threatens city centres

Kevin Robertson, chair of the SPF, said: “Against the backdrop of the pandemic’s enduring impact on the economy, the finance secretary has an opportunity Thursday to use her powers to help to protect businesses, promote investment in our high streets and ensure that our buildings are prepared for a net-zero Scotland.

“It is vital this opportunity is not lost.

“We have a counterintuitive business rates system in Scotland that can penalise property owners for improving the sustainability of their buildings and this must be addressed.

“While more stringent energy efficiency regulations are coming down the track for new buildings, we cannot forget about our existing stock and the need to end its contribution to climate change.

“With the unwelcome discovery of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 threatening to slow the reopening of our town and city centre economies, we have supported the wider business community calls for rates relief for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

“But we need further action from the Scottish Government to help those businesses that have not been directly supported over the past two years.”

Kyle Ross, Sovereign.

Kyle Ross, managing director of Sovereign Grooming, which has a salon on Union Street, said a mix of direct business support as well as measured to ensure businesses and their premises meet climate change requirements was needed on Thursday.

Number one ask

He said: “The pandemic has been extremely tough for almost all business on the high street, and survival has had to take priority.

“However, we are all aware of the part we need to play in decarbonising the economy – and we want to play our part.

“Businesses like ours will need support to reach green objectives.

“A business rates holiday extension would be my number one ask of the minister, but support for helping reduce our carbon footprint would also be welcomed.”

The calls come as new figures show Scotland lost nearly 20,000 businesses during a single year of the Covid crisis.

According to the Businesses in Scotland statistical release between March 2020 and March 2021, the estimated number of companies fell by 19,805, a drop of 5.4%. There are now 344,505 enterprises in Scotland, the smallest number since 2014 when there were 329,765.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland has urged the government to earmark funds for grants to help SMEs build digital skills and reduce their environmental impact.

In addition, it has asked the government to investigate a collective insurance scheme for the country’s self-employed, taking inspiration from similar initiatives on the continent.

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