Small businesses don’t deserve this Pavement Tax

Please note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.
I’m writing this, after a busy few weeks away from the blog, on the train up to #cpc13 in Manchester – the first chance I’ve had to commit words to screen since Thursday’s public meeting on Labour’s new Pavement Tax in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.
 
Supporting small businesses are three words guaranteed to get a good airing in Manchester this week – and it was curious to hear these same words bandied about a fair bit by Ed Miliband last week at the Labour Party gathering in Brighton.  In Ed’s case, his warm words about cutting business rates sound pretty hollow here in Greenwich, where his own Labour council has introduced a punitive new charge on local traders who use the pavement outside their shops.  Think grocers, florists, cafes – and in actual fact almost every type of business that is being hit by this Pavement Tax at a time when many are struggling and need support.
 
Thursday’s public meeting against the council’s move was organised by local Conservative candidate Terry Wheeler and the Federation of Small Business, and drew a large number of traders, residents and campaigners together to discuss the next steps.  More than 2,000 signatures have been collected so far for a petition calling for the tax to be scrapped, which will be presented at October’s council meeting.  
 
Conservative group leader Cllr Spencer Drury made a powerful case against the wholy undemocratic process by which the tax has been introduced. It was not voted on even by Cabinet members, nevermind councillors as a whole, and was introduced with zero consultation.
 
At the meeting, Labour Cabinet member Cllr Maureen O’Mara was reported to have privately told one Greenwich trader, when challenged on the matter, that she wished she had never introduced the tax and wanted the whole problem to go away.  She is clearly not as brave face-to-face as she is from the safety of the Labour benches, where at the last council meeting she crowed that she wished she had introduced the charge “10 years ago”.
 
It would be hard to overstate the level of anger from traders that came out on Thursday night, and rightly so. Small businesses are the lifeblood of our local economy, and crucially, our community.  They don’t just provide goods and services, but meeting points, networks for local information and a sense of local belonging. Even more importantly, they provide much needed jobs – and in many cases they simply will not be able to afford the hundreds of pounds being demanded of them.
 
All this pain, according to the council, will only raise £20,000, which suggests an enormous bureaucratic overhead to add to our already bloated local goverment. There are also complaints that officers are not treating traders equally in their implementation of the policy.  
 
There was tongue-in-cheek talk on Thursday night of a surcharge just for councillors to make them understand that this tax will inevitably mean higher prices for local residents as traders struggle to swallow the extra overhead.  If I were a Labour councillor, however, I would be far more concerned about my postbag – if any are reading this: expect a deluge of letters between now and the council meeting at the end of October.
 
I think we can win this one – and Greenwich Conservatives will be doing everything we can, with traders and the FSB, to convince the Labour administration to u-turn on this incredibly damaging policy.
 
And one final wider point – if Ed Miliband wants to prove he is serious about supporting small business, he could do worse than picking up the phone to his council leaders like Chris Roberts, and get them to start taking the issue seriously in the areas they are supposed to represent.