Retailing matters to our economy. The most recent data shows that it represents some 7% of GDP and employed over two and half million people.
And vital to this industry is the diversity and innovation which small, local shops bring. When consumers are asked about the type of retail centre they want, they always cite the variety, commitment to service and diversity which smaller, local shops offer.
But there is also a human side. I have long held the view that it’s our local shops who make time for their customers, especially elderly and frail. You bring that human touch which is not just about good service, it’s about being part of a community.
So let me start by saying thank you, to you and all your staff who make time for others and so make yourselves the heart of the community.
Tackling retail crime
Sadly, of course in doing so you are often exposed to theft and violence from a minority in our community. All too often it is the local shopkeeper and their staff who bear the brunt of crime in our towns and cities. And as many of you know retail crime seems not to be a priority under this Government.
That is why my Party set up the Retail Crime Commission, to consider how we can help better protect you. I am very grateful to the ACS for your excellent contribution to the commission’s work, and I can confirm that we are at this very moment considering carefully how we can turn your ideas into practical action, if we are elected to Government.
Labour doesn’t understand you
Sadly, under Labour its not just crime that is hurting local shops. It’s the Government’s own policies.
Take, for example, their decision to increase your corporation tax rate next year to 22p. Or their blind determination to ban tobacco retail displays, despite the evidence. Or worst of all, take their decision to plough on with raising VAT in January, at exactly the wrong time for retailers.
They just don’t get it.
I think part of the problem is that Labour Ministers don’t understand business because most of them have never worked in one – let alone run one.
They don’t understand that for many firms its not profit but cash flow that’s key. They don’t realise that every hour spent filling in government forms is time lost to creating wealth and jobs. And they simply don’t understand that what business needs is not endless petty initiatives, but a clear, long term direction so that you can plan, invest and grow with confidence.
And I say this as someone who started his own business at the bottom of the last recession, in the summer of 1991.
So I remember all too well the strain and the stress of not knowing if there will be enough money at the end of the week. But I also know how satisfying it can be to be your own boss, to make your own way.
Indeed that passionate belief in working for yourself is one of the reasons I became a Conservative. Because we believe that governments don’t create wealth. You do.
Our job – if elected to government – is to sort out the public finances, help you reduce your costs, enable you to compete for more custom and then to stop meddling and tinkering and let you get on and grow your business.
Conservatives - making a difference
And that’s why I welcome the principles of your Heart of the Community campaign. Let me tell you how a Conservative Government - if elected - would deliver many of the changes you want.
First, we agree with you that government should help cut your costs. So we will reverse Labour’s planned rise in corporation tax, taking the rate back to 20p in the pound. You’ve earned that profit, and we hope you’ll reinvest it in the business so you can grow.
But we also want to tackle the burden of business rates. They are a fixed overhead and so squeeze good businesses in recession.
That’s why we are going to make small business rates relief automatic, for businesses in England. Labour were right to introduce this relief, but fewer than half of the eligible businesses receive it, often because of red tape.
So a Conservative Government will scrap the red tape and make it automatic, saving you up to £1,100 per annum. If you’re eligible, you’ll get it. No forms, no red tape.
But we need to go further. We know how tough it is on many high streets. Some areas are coping, but others are not. So we need to empower local councils to direct help where it’s most needed.
So a Conservative Government would give councils the power to discount business rates bills within their area to meet local need. Funded locally, this new power will enable your council to respond directly to help those high streets suffering the most.
And we’ll give you the power to block any planned business rate increase by a council, using the business improvement district model. If local businesses say no, there will be no supplementary business rates to pay.
Putting town centres first
Second, we share with you a belief that in recent years planning policy has started to loosen, leaving too many town centres vulnerable. The Barker Review and the Government’s decision to move away from the needs test have undermined what had been a robust and effective town centre first planning policy.
For all the warm words of Ministers we don’t believe that their package of changes will help local shops or town centres, struggling to compete with out of town supermarkets.
So a Conservative Government will strengthen the policy of putting town centres first, not least by retaining PPS6 and the vital ‘needs’ test.
Cutting red tape
The third way in which we want to help you, relates to the points raised by your manifesto on regulation.
Since 1997, the burden of regulation has risen steadily. Indeed it now stands at the equivalent of 14 new regulations every working day. And the FSB reckon that the cost in time to the typical small business is seven hours every week.
It’s time to stop this. That why at our Conference Ken Clarke set out a comprehensive plan to reverse the tide.
It’s a package of reform which seeks not to tinker with individual measures. Rather we will change the machinery and culture of government which currently sees regulation as the first option, when it should be the last resort. Let me give you three examples of our plans.
We will start by enforcing a stringent system of One In One Out, where any new law must include a cut in old laws which together produce a net reduction of 5% in the regulatory burden. Civil servants need to understand that it’s the overall cost to small business which is so crippling and we intend to reduce it.
Then, we will tackle the regulators. Under Labour the number of regulators has soared, to over 150. They’re too large and the cost of compliance is strangling good firms.
So we will apply a ‘sunset clause to all regulators. During the first term of a Conservative Government we will ask each of them to explain to us why they should exist. At all.
And our aim will be clear and simple. By the end of the next Parliament, we want to have fewer regulators, we want them to be smaller and they must cost you less.
And our third de-regulatory change will be to reform the employment and discrimination tribunals. If we are to help tackle unemployment, we must make it easier for employers to take people on. But many business owners fear taking on staff.
One of the reasons cited to me is the huge rise in vexatious claims by disgruntled employees, resulting in cases which small employers settle on the steps of the tribunal, because of the cost of fighting the case. It isn’t fair and it’s holding back employment.
So we intend to consult carefully on how we can change the employment and discrimination tribunal system, to make it quicker and cheaper and so that it is fair to all sides, employee AND employer. It’s time for a change.
These are difficult times, especially on the high street. What’s needed now is a clear change of direction, so that local shops can plan with confidence and take on the big boys.
A Conservative Government would make that change. We’d cut your corporation tax rates and help you with your business rates. We’ll free you from needless red tape, and make employment tribunals fairer. And we’ll give town centres the planning support they need, so you can compete on fairer terms and give consumers the diversity and quality of service they want.
I know you want that chance to compete. We’ll help you make it happen.