The unexpected reform in the Chancellor’s speech to the Conservative conference was his proposal on business rates. He has offered to local government the transfer of all business rate revenue. This £26 billion a year would replace all the current grant income Councils receive from central government.
The reform will be complex. In order to make it work the Treasury will need to identify additional spending areas to transfer to local government, as business rate revenue exceeds grants. These will need to be agreed with Councils and the necessary arrangements put in place for them to run this extra spending.
The Treasury will wish to keep an overall limit on the level of business rates. They were transferred to central government for that very reason, to prevent local Councils trying to extract too much from business, which can work in the short term but creates longer term problems as business leaves a high tax area or fails to come to invest there.
The Treasury will also need to provide a means of sending some of the business rate money collected in a successful and prosperous area to poorer parts of the country. The City of London is the most extreme example, with a huge business rate income but few overnight residents to spend the tax on. As now there will need to be some formula for evening out the money, and a new mechanism to claw it back from Councils in receipt of it.
Areas with elected Mayors will be able to increase the tax for better infrastructure. This power will need careful use, as business is more worried in the short term by the level of the tax than by what the tax will be spent on.