Criticism heard of two scourges of the UK High Street
Criticism heard of two scourges of the UK High Street
05 NOVEMBER 2018 8:22 AM

There is so much to be said and cheered about U.K. hospitality and the High Streets of its cities, towns and villages, but fixed-odds betting machines and onerous business-rate taxes are not two of them. Cheery news comes this week that both are being tackled.

Two political pieces of news cheered me up this week, during what is the first week of somewhat chilly weather here in the United Kingdom.

First, there was the resignation of a Member of Parliament, although I should add it is the reason for the resignation, not the resignation itself, that is uplifting. The other bit of good news is the imposition of transitional business rate relief in the United Kingdom in the ruling party’s late 2018 budget.

An honorable retreat
Tracey Crouch, the former U.K. government’s parliamentary under-secretary of state for sport, tourism and heritage at the department for culture, media and sport, has resigned from her current role as the minister of sport, over what she perceives as delays to the crackdown on the maximum monetary stakes permitted on fixed-odds betting machines.

Good for her. The Member of Parliament for Chatham and Aylesford—by the by, in the county I was born in—reacted to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget announcement last Monday, part of which was that the maximum stake would be dropped from £100 to £2, but only next October.

Crouch deems this unpardonable, saying that lives of addicted gamblers were being put at risk.

These machines are far too easily accessible. There really is no control over who can use them and with how much money, despite protestations from the gaming industry that there are. I also believe there is no real enthusiasm from the government to dent its tax revenue from the machines.*

These machines are the despicable end of an industry, hidden in sad corners, and I am glad I have not seen any such machine in a hotel for many decades. When they were in hotels, at least they ate 50-pence pieces, not credit cards and in-store debit cards.

We have seen the sight of a politician doing an honorable thing.

If in doubt, test in Scotland
United Kingdom governments—usually comprising the English and definitely educated in Oxford or Cambridge—have had a sure-fire way of testing any unpleasantness: Do it in Scotland first.

That is not so easy to do now, though, as Scotland has its own elected government.

This time-trusted method has backfired. In the 1980s, a tax called the poll tax was imposed first on Scotland to see what seismic effect it would have there before unleashing it on the much larger population of England. Many Scots resisted the tax, and many spent time in court or prison for doing so. The tax never did see the light of day.

Now, the unpopular tax is business rates, and notably the reorganization of them imposed in the last few years and put into law this last calendar year. I and UKHospitality, the U.K.’s principal hospitality lobbying group, have called for changes to be made to make them fairer.

Hotels tend to be inflexible in terms of not operating on the High Street—that is, in the digital arena along with Amazon and the rest. Beds are physical and need an address.

The Scottish government in the last few weeks gave assistance to owners, and only a cynic would suggest that U.K. government, after seeing that, rather thought it had better do the same for all the county.

UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said before the chancellor’s budget that “continuing transitional relief will give hospitality businesses that have been crippled by rates hikes some much-needed breathing space. … The U.K. government needs to follow suit (during 29 October’s) budget by extending relief to pubs and widening it to the entire hospitality sector.”

The focus needs to be put on properly taxing multinational companies that sit on the internet, not on placing the onus to recoup “lost” income from those that sit on the High Street.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

*Clarification, 6 November 2018: This column was updated for clarity.

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