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news on the future of our high street shop

the business rates saga (continued)

The good news (nothing to do with the rates, though)

Since last time I wrote the wool shop has won an award: the Local Trading Hero Award, from Milton Keynes Council and Destination Milton Keynes.

Thanks to all who voted for our shop.

The ‘still waiting’ news

After contacting Mark Lancaster, our local Conservative MP, and receiving a response from him saying he was willing to help, I met him by chance, just before Christmas, in the queue at our local butchers (good, he  supports local businesses too). I took the opportunity whilst we waited to ask him if there was any progress regarding obtaining small business relief for our shop. He told me I should hear something by mid January, as he had a meeting scheduled for the 8th January and the issue of the shop was on his agenda. Well, today it’s 15th January. So far I’ve heard nothing.

Some customers/friends have mentioned they also have written to the MP. People don’t want this shop to close (neither do I. Even I still have to draw a salary from this shop, I love it here!). Groups of knitters and yarn lovers visit Olney  from far away on a regular basis. So far this week we’ve had 5 lovely ladies from Harpenden, 3 mums (with toddlers) from Derbyshire, and part of a WI group from Northamptonshire. They were all delighted with the yarns at the shop, went shopping around Olney (they all had shopping bags from some of the local shops) and had lunch/refreshments from the local eateries. I think it’s safe to assume the wool shop is bringing business to our lovely town, visitors are having a pleasant visit and it’s a win/win situation. I’ve had news that a large store that used to sell yarn has closed in Northampton, so I presume some Northampton yarnies will be visiting us soon enough. I’ll put the kettle on, it’s nice to have a cuppa when looking through patterns 🙂

So what are the options?

Option number one (my preferred solution): Mr Lancaster speaks to someone who finally decides ‘the bucket stops here’ and grants us small business rates relief, therefore making it affordable for the shop to keep running as it is. You continue to get to see and feel the yarn before you buy, can get free held and advice, assistance with pattern queries, design of individual garments, a cuppa and a chat. I will get back to ordering yarn, preparing and running new courses and groups, advertising , publishing free patterns in the MK Pulse, and continuing promoting the town’s offerings. Everyone happy.

Option number two: Greed prevails and I have to leave the shop. If I can swap places and move to cheaper premises within Olney, I will do so and let everyone know. Otherwise…

Option number three: The wool shop moves away from Olney. Should I find suitable premises elsewhere. This option needs further investigation.

Option number four: The wool shop becomes yet another online shop. Happy to order yarn for you, work as a mail order company. Drawbacks: you don’t get to see the real colours and fondle the yarn before you buy, plus there’s a postage charge. Not so bad: the original wool shop kits will still be available, but online. No pattern advice. No personal touch. No help sewing up, finishing, mending mistakes etc.

So here we are, in tenterhooks, waiting to see what happens.

Thank you to all of you who have helped writing to the authorities, MPs, e-mailing, twittering, etc – thanks for your support and let’s  hope things work out for the best.

Will keep you informed.

Keep creative, keep warm. 🙂 Love, Ana x



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the business rates saga – or ‘are we or are we not a small business?’

small business relief?

the story so far

When the wool shop open back in April 2011 we took over the premises previously occupied by Age UK (then Age Concern). As they are a registered charity they are exempt of paying business rates. However, as we are a business, we have to pay them, and that’s just fair. What is not fair is the passing from pillar to post to which we have been subjected when it came to obtaining small business relief on them.

For those of you who don’t know about the wool shop, we occupy a medium size retail unit in the High Street of Olney (Buckinghamshire). The wool shop is run by a sole trader (me) who works mainly on her own 7 days a week (Sundays only from 11h to 15h – and during the summer school holidays I close on Sundays).

The turnover in this type of independent, craft and community based business is not very high and the wool shop is no exception. By no stretch of the imagination would this be classed as a medium or large business. However when I received the invoice for the business rates (non domestic rates) I had the shock of my life. My first feeling was of sheer dismay as I thought I would have to close down my lovely shop. The bill was enormous!

Speaking to friends I was advised to seek assistance to lower this bill as I should be eligible for small business relief. My husband enlisted the help of a company that specialises in this type of thing but they were pretty useless: luckily it was  on a ‘no gain, no fee’ basis so we didn’t waste any money on them.

I then went on line to check the local council (Milton Keynes Council) website, and found out the limit of rateable value over which businesses are no longer eligible for small business relief – and mine was just above this limit. That was another surprise because the shop is not that large… I then  came across the VOA (Valuation Office) website, where I discovered the reason why our rateable value was so high: They had taken the whole storage area, the kitchen, boiler room, and the toilet of the premises and classed the whole lot as RETAIL area!!! (This area is valued at a high rate per m2).

When they valued the premises they had totally ignored the wall separating the actual shop from the store room and all the other smaller areas… So I called them again to make them aware of this fact. I filled all the required forms and re-applied for small business rates relief… I was told  to contact the VOA as they should come to have a look at the premises to make sure there was an actual wall and the storage area is a real storage area. I did. They came. And here comes the ‘technicality’: apparently it’s the ‘wrong’ sort of wall. If the wall is to be removed the whole building wouldn’t collapse, it is not a structural wall, so therefore the whole shop counts as retail area as I could theoretically remove this wall and have a large shop (albeit without storage space, kitchen, nor toilet, but a huge shop nonetheless)…

Except that the conditions on my lease specify I am NOT allowed to remove any of the existing walls.

Apart from the fact that a) I need a storage area, and b) I never wanted such a huge shop (plus I would need a small fortune to refit it!).

So far I have contacted Debbie Brock (Milton Keynes Councillor), who helped me getting the Council to ask me to contact the VOA (again).

I have also contacted Mark Lancaster, our local Conservative MP, first by e-mail to the Houses of Parliament address and  that didn’t bring any joy other than prompting yet another fruitless visit by the Valuation Agency Officer. I have also written him a letter making him aware of this issue. This letter was hand delivered to his home address here in Olney, on Sunday, a couple of weeks ago, and so far I haven’t heard anything.

Any ideas of how can a small business owner prove she is in fact running a small business, and obtain the due small business relief on her non domestic rates would be very welcome. I think I’m being passed from pillar to post and so far no-one has taken any action in helping us getting a FAIR tax relief for our independent, and very much loved, little wool shop.

Surely there must be something that can be done. I feel they are using this ‘non retaining wall’ issue as a stupid technicality, another excuse to get more money out of small business owners like me, whilst the high streets become full of either charity shops (tax exempt), chain stores void of any individuality, or multinational corporations who avoid paying million of pounds by exploiting fiscal loopholes.

Still, let’s hope Mr Lancaster comes back to us with a solution… watch this space!