A new government initiative to decentralise power to local authorities and communities, has been cautiously welcomed by retail bodies.
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles yesterday unveiled The Localism Bill which, along with removing other powers from Whitehall, will allow communities to take over failing businesses such as shops.
Planning laws will also be transformed so that communities have the power to grant planning permission if a local majority are in favour of a proposed construction.
Business groups while welcoming aspects of the proposals have warned that extra regulations are a worry, and “could impose costs and undermine investment and job creation”, according to Director General of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Stephen Robertson.
Pickles argued: “By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth - and build a stronger, fairer Britain.
“It’s the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society.”
One aspect of the bill the BRC is very pleased with is the new legal requirement that there must be a business vote in favour before the introduction of any Business Rates Supplement (BRS).
Robertson commented: “Retailers already pay £4.5 billion a year in business rates, a quarter of the total and more than any other sector.
“Figures compiled for the BRC show that, for example, retailers in Reading alone could have faced £1 million of extra tax. Now that cannot be introduced without their agreement.”
Concerns remain however that an increase in nimbyism and the creation of conflicted local building requirements could slow down business growth and adversely affect the economy.
The Association of Convenience Stores CEO James Lowman is broadly in support of more community input in local businesses but has warned that “community-run shops are no substitute for healthy high streets”.
Another group concerned about aspects of the new legislation is the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC), which fears that sometimes unpopular but economically important retail development could be blocked by interfering local groups.
Edward Cooke, Executive Director of the BCSC, commented: “The focus on neighbourhood plans and local decision-making should in principle encourage communities to attract investment and development that is fit for purpose.
“However, we must acknowledge that it could also facilitate an increase in opposition to new development. Devolving greater powers to local authorities may also result in different rules and procedures around the country, creating inconsistency and uncertainly for the development process.”
The government is confident though that local communities and business will benefit from the changes made by these new laws.
Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark said: “This bill will provide the enduring legislative foundation for a new, decentralised Britain, where power is returned to the people to which it belongs.
“We believe that communities should have the freedom to manage their own affairs in their way, and be empowered, not suppressed, by government.”