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This is one heck of a blog but I wanted to get my thoughts all in one place for those that would like more information about the situation we're in. The position and layers of events that have accumulated are huge, so I will try to give you a short (ish) and hopefully easily understood summary. This is an amalgamation of the petition that is live now, as well as some key dates and information that are not on the petition.
We are disappointed to find out that due to Bristol City Council voting (Feb 23) to end Discretionary Business Rate Relief from 1st April 24, we - along with other non-profits - will be liable for the same Business Rates as big chains such as the profit driven global chains Ted Baker, Apple and Fat Face. They have already increased our Business rates bill this year from £0 to £6963.20, and from April 2024 our rates bill will increase to £34,816.00 per year. Like other non-profits and Community Interest Companies facing a similar increase, it will force us all to close.
This increase in business rates/stopping of rate relief, means the loss of 9 members of staff and the many ways we provide real, practical support for the creative community of Bristol - not just in terms of providing access to prime retail for the beautiful work of over 150 local and sustainable artists and makers. We use 100% of the profits (after paying living wage and overheads) to fund charity workshops/social action groups and offer a gallery space and community workshop space for hire at cost price. We help deliver outstanding results for local makers, their wider Bristol community as a whole, and the planet.
We work with local Universities and schools to offer placements and valuable work experience. We offer free business mentoring and social events for local businesses, and run paid courses for more specific support. We are registered as a Sustainable Impact Champion and have completed the Good Employment Charter. We use 100% renewable energy and all of their promotional material is recycled and printed locally. We create very minimal waste and every single product we stock is carefully researched for its environmental impact.
Prior Shop has won multiple nationally-recognised awards for what we do.
I understand that budgets have been cut and decisions need to be made during this challenging time, however we find the decision of the council to be short-sighted. The impact of this vote will directly impact Bristol organisations that are uplifting and enriching the local community. This feels particularly self-sabotaging given the fact that the Vacant Property Grants team of the council are offering £10k for businesses “to bring a vacant commercial property back into permanent use to improve our high streets”, whilst the Business Rates department is reducing the rate relief so that businesses already occupying spaces have to close. It's hard to see the logic behind these sorts of decisions.
For those of you unfamiliar with how Business Rates are allocated - Business Rates are charged based on the square metre that a business occupies. From my research on the Value Office Agency website, every business is classed with a special code and therefore charged a different base rate per m². The range is unfairly allocated - for example, warehouses are charged £20 per m² and physical shops are charged an enormous £780 per m². It is not based on the turnover, profit or values of a business. So for example, Amazon, a huge warehouse based organisation will pay considerably less than a local independent business with a physical shop. This is decided by Government and not by local councils.
In addition, businesses that occupy small/medium sized premises are exempt from Business Rates but businesses who occupy larger spaces are charged. This 'blanket rule' stops the growth of Social Enterprises because if they take on a large premises - ultimately to help more people and increase the investment they have in the local community - they are grouped with large profit driven companies and charged an extortionate, unachievable rate solely because of the floorplan.
If you are a registered Charity you receive 80% mandatory relief. This is agreed by the Government. Then every local council is given the power to offer the same relief under the title 'Discretionary Rate Relief', to non profit, social enterprises that they feel are worthy. However, on the 21st February 2023, Bristol council ‘voted’ to remove this support. This was apparently by public consultation. I cannot find any information in this link that the council sent me of the minutes.
July 2021 - Before I signed the first Pop Up lease at Cabot Circus I rang the Business Rates department to confirm that registered non profits are eligible for 100% rates relief. They confirmed that we would be. We would not have taken on the unit otherwise.
August 2021 - I signed the lease with Cabot Circus.
September 2021 - (27th) I opened the store.
October 2021 - I Applied for the Discretionary Rate Relief.
October - January 2021 - No reply from the Rate Relief team. I kept emailing, asking for updates. In February 2021 we received a letter that Prior Shop was granted 100% for 2 months and then 95% for April 22 - 23.
January 2021 I spoke to another member of the Business Rates team to enquire about the following year 23 - 24, and they said everyone has to fill out the form every 2 years, but if my business hadn’t changed and I was still eligible, then I would still receive it. I had no reason to think that I wouldn’t be awarded with it every year and the annual application form was just a formality.
July 2022 I began sending emails to enquire about applying again for the next year 23 - 24. I sent multiple emails spanning July 22 - September 22 including stats and facts about our organisation. I needed confirmation. No reply.
February 2023 - I received an email to say the value rate of the property had reduced but so had our rate relief. They had reduced it to 20% (from 95%). Thankfully the Retail and Hospitality Grant was in place (giving ALL retail spaces including profitable ones discount) which took our total relief to 80% but this was still a lot more than I was expecting to pay as a non-profit who took on the lease originally told us we would pay 0%.
February 2023 - June 2023 I sent four emails to the Rate Department (and called numerous times) to ask why this had happened, why the relief had stopped and what to do if I couldn’t afford it. I received no reply.
June 2023 I sent an email to a Business Development Officer at the council to outline my concerns and stress that I haven’t heard from the Rate department. I asked for his help to escalate.
June 2023 I received a reply from the Business Rates team. C Warbaton outlined that there is no more available funding for this year and that “Bristol City Council is facing many financial challenges and has consulted publicly on a number of proposals to deliver a balanced budget. At its meeting on 21 February 2023 (ModernGov - bristol.gov.uk), the council voted to end discretionary business rate relief from 1 April 2024”.
NB: It is a sea of information via the link above but I found the report that you can read here
Continued: “Regrettably, you do not qualify for the Mandatory Charitable Relief, as you are not a community amateur sports club (CASC) nor entered in the Charity Commissions Register. A charity is described in Section 67(10) Local Government Finance Act 1988 as being an “institution or other organisation established for charitable purposes only or any persons administering a trust established for charitable purposes only”. The question as to whether an organisation is a charity may be resolved in the majority of cases by reference to the register of charities maintained by the Charity Commissioners under Section 29 Charities Act 2011. Entry in the register is conclusive evidence that an organisation is a charity, and is proof for all purposes except challenge of that registration. Should your status change, we will update our records accordingly”
I read the report and 61% of a survey of 4000 people voted to end discretionary rate relief. However, I have found the survey via the report and the question about the Discretionary Rate Relief is vague and implies that organisations like ours would STILL be in receipt of the relief. What do you think?
In their response they did not answer my question about what will happen if I cannot pay it. Instead, they just split my payments over more months (with no reduction).
June - July 2023 - Over the last few weeks I have:
- Sent a reply to the Business Rates team to express my frustration.
- I have submitted a formal complaint with the council (automatic reply said they hope to respond by 19th July).
- I have emailed Thangham Debbonaire, Barry Parsons and Jenny Bartle for assistance (no reply yet)
- I have submitted a Valuation Check with the VOA as our business rates are based on the whole ground floor being retail, when only half of it is retail. I have also asked our ‘code’ to be changed to Theatre and Arts (like Arnolifini) as it has a much smaller base rate than retail. This is unlikely to be successful but worth a shot.
- Tried to set up an E-petition with the council but it was rejected because the complaint is still active.
- Set up a Change.org Petition https://chng.it/MbLvNbpD and posted about this on Social media. Please read the comments on both www.instagram.com/priorshopbristol
- Had a meeting with a Charity Law Firm about setting Prior up as a Charity. It might be possible but is a very long, costly and admin heavy process, with no guarantee. The issue is whether the Charity Commission accepts my claim that the trade of the shop is for community and or environmental purpose - which I believe it is. The Law Firm said it might be challenging.
- Contacted the High Street Recovery Department to see if they could assist.
Over the last 12 months, Prior Shop has supported Bristol's community and economy with the following:
- 815 people have attended our workshops and we have supported over 72 independent local workshop hosts.
- 800 people have attended a private view of an exhibition (not including the footfall for the exhibitions duration) and Prior has supported 12 local artists/groups.
- Provided creative workshops for a total of 54 vulnerable adults.
- Led business networking events, workshops and events supporting 170 small businesses.
- Hosted work experience for 9 young people and led tours and discussions for 3 university groups (73 students in total)
- Provided access, income, marketing and advice for 150 independent designers and makers, 70% of them living in Bristol.
- Provided over Living Wage employment for 9 local people.
- Plus the cumulative benefits of using local accountants, window cleaners, printers, fabricators, suppliers etc.
Other things to note:
- I’ve invested in the building with a total overall of the lighting system to be more environmentally friendly. This has cost me £7,000 (£3,000 from my own personal money).
- The landlords at Cabot Circus are very supportive of independent businesses and although they need to meet the requirements of customers wanting to find large chains in the shopping centre, they also have a variety of pop-up schemes for small businesses to take advantage of. Most small businesses do not take up this great importunity due to the extortionate cost of business rates.
We would like Bristol City Council to reinstate the Discretionary Rate Relief for non-profits and Community Interest Companies. We also urge Bristol City Council to provide ongoing support (this year and ongoing) for organisations like Prior Shop to occupy large units and therefore increasing the myriad ways we invest in the Bristol economy. We disagree with the disproportionate and unjust way Business Rates are classed based on size and 'code' (Amazon example) and not on turnover, profit or purpose of the business occupying it.
Our final position is that local, independent businesses who do not make a profit, whose sole purpose is to support the community, should not have to pay the same Business Rates as profit-driven organisations that do very little for Bristol's economy and import mass made products (with VAT relief). We really need Bristol City Council to reinstate the Discretionary Rate Relief for non-profits and Community Interest Companies so they can continue to do good.
21/07/23 UPDATE FROM THE COUNCIL
Here is the update from the council. I truly appreciate that budgets are minimal and that vast savings need to be made. I can’t image how difficult this is to manage, however it seems so counterproductive in a time where the high street is dying; as is the trade of skilled local makers. I have a platform, social capital and quantifiable evidence that what we do improves this, but we are penalised with such a disproportionately high business rates bill.
From the council:
"Further to ongoing correspondence with our business rates team, we can only reiterate that the council’s decision to end discretionary rate relief has been made in the light of significant, well documented budgetary pressures. While it was not a decision taken lightly we cannot see any circumstances under which it will be rescinded in the foreseeable future"
There is a big campaign to start here. Business Rates are disproportionate and suffocate the innovations needed for sustainable growth. As mentioned above some businesses have a base rate of £20 per sq m, others £59 and our shop is £780 per sq m! It is unfairly based on the assumption of the buildings profit capacities, not what the business is using it for.
This stops the growth and revival of the high street and keeps independent shops on the outskirts and large fast fashion chains dominating the high street
The high street needs local, responsible and transparent retail shops selling the work made my local skilled craftspeople. It’s the answer to the high street and unfair Business Rates directly block this. I’d like to see a mandatory relief for small businesses that sell the work of UK makers.
- beck 🧡
Lots of you ask what you can do to help…
1. Sign our petition. Please be aware that the donate/’chip in’ part of the process is organised by Change.org. The money does not come to us and if you select this, you donate to them to increase the awareness of the campaign. If you are using a desktop computer, please add a comment as it will strengthen our appeal.
2. Shop with us. Even if it’s just a card or a soap :)
3. Help with the promotion of our shop - invite your colleagues, friends and family to shop with us. We haven’t got a marketing budget, and besides word-of-mouth marketing is KING!
4. Email your local MP’s - even if you’re not in Bristol. I’m sure other councils are cutting budgets in the same way and we need to save our high streets. The U.K. is full of skilled artisans, designers and creative tradespeople. We can’t let these assets starve.
Thanks so much. It’s not the end yet - it's my battle cry 💪🏼
Love Beck xxx