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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!


4 thoughts on “the business rates saga – or ‘are we or are we not a small business?’

  1. Ana….I can’t believe the situation with regard to your rates (mine are enormous too! But fortunately my rent is OK so it balances out)
    It would be awful if you and your business had to leave Olney…have you looked at a smaller shop? The one vacated by DYchurch is empty.

    1. Kathy, thanks for your comment. My rent is rather huge too, which adds to the problem. I’m looking to see if I can find other premises. I would LOVE to stay in Olney, unfortunately, if things don’t change for the better regarding the rates I will have to leave (but not too far!) – Although Dychurch Lifestyle is in a fantastic location, the premises are too small as I want to continue to provide the same level of service to customers, run clubs, lessons and workshops, and I wouldn’t be able to do that in such a tiny shop. We’ll see what happens – I’ve spoken to Mark Lancaster and he’s investigating possible solutions. Fingers crossed. x

  2. i live in northampton and have just come over to your lovely shop again,only to find it is being turned into a bistro.but it did say that you were having a relocation sale,i hope you are not going too far. what a shame .i am sorry that this country has treated you so badly.can you write another blog telling us where you will be.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The good news is that I won’t be moving too far, in fact, it will be better for you as I’ll be much closer to junction 14 of the M1, a wee hop from Northampton. My plan is to move to Newport Pagnell. I will be blogging about it as soon as it’s all confirmed. I look forward to welcoming you to the new shop.
      All the best, Ana

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