Small Talk: Osborne prolongs the great business rates robbery

  • @davidprosserind

All Chancellors give with one hand only to take with another – that's the job – but for far too many small businesses, George Osborne's Autumn Statement only prolongs the agony. For all the talk of targeted help for small businesses, the great business rates robbery will continue.

It's true that a minority of the smallest businesses will now benefit from small business rate relief for longer than previously expected – the doubling up of relief will now stay in place until April 2014, rather than expiring in a few months' time. But that won't help most small businesses because they're too large to benefit from the relief.

The total number of properties in England (different rules on business rates apply elsewhere in the UK) eligible to pay business rates is 1.8 million, and their average rateable value is £32,000. On that basis, the £12,000 cap on business rates relief looks pretty stingey – particularly given that a small business is officially defined as any business in a property with a total rateable value of £18,000 or less.

In fact, around half a million small businesses are theoretically entitled to claim this relief. In practice, many won't get the benefit because it has to be applied for, despite repeated promises to make payment automatic. Take-up rates in previous years have typically run at around 50 per cent.

Bear in mind too that only businesses in properties with a rateable value below £6,000 are entitled to claim the maximum level of relief (50 per cent, or 100 per cent for as long as doubling up continues). Those in businesses with rateable values between £6,000 and £12,000 lose their relief on a sliding scale.

Business rates are expensive for all businesses, of course, but for small and medium-sized enterprises, they account for a much more significant proportion of outgoings – in many cases, they're the third biggest bill paid by an SME each year.

Moreover, Britain collects more money from taxes on business premises than almost any other Western country – roughly three times as much as Germany, for example.

Indeed, businesses are still reeling from the swingeing increase in rates introduced in April, when the Government raised bills by 5.6 per cent. Their bills will go up again in April 2013, by another 2.6 per cent, assuming the Government links the increase to the rate of RPI inflation in the previous September.

Some of the damage will be mitigated by corporation tax cuts, but these are small beer in comparison to the business rate rises that SMEs have been paying. In one poll earlier this year, 52 per cent of SMEs said they'd rather lose their corporation tax increase than pay the April business rate hike.

Other tax incentives aimed at SMEs are also outweighed by the effect of business rate increases. The result is that the growth the Chancellor hopes to achieve with such incentives, particularly in employment, is unlikely to be achieved.

To make matters worse, many SMEs feel that business rates are unfair and becoming more so. They're not calculated according to ability to pay – they penalise businesses that need larger premises to operate from, so manufacturers and retailers tend to get hit with especially large bills. And while it's quite right that businesses make a contribution towards the cost of the services provided by the local authorities where they operate, which is what business rates are for, they share the burden with council taxpayers. And council tax bills have been frozen – not least for political reasons – so businesses' share of the bill has been rising.

Had the Chancellor really wanted to help SMEs in the Autumn Statement, business rates should have been a much bigger priority – starting with a sizeable increase in the cap on the rateable value of premises that qualify for relief.

Electronic receipts could end till rolls

Coming soon to a supermarket near you: electronic receipts that will do away with the need for all those till rolls. Paperless Receipts, set up by last year with backing from investors including former Tesco boss Lord MacLaurin, has raised another £1.2m of funding and reckons it will be rolling out its technology in the new year. The idea is that shops would issue electronic receipts at the check-out, with customers getting their paperwork via online accounts stored in a secure cloud-based system.

Hiking gear maker is on the move

The Alternative Investment Market continues to prove popular with developing economy countries looking to tap international finance. Camkids, a Chinese manufacturer of outdoor clothing, footwear and equipment, will today announce its IPO on Aim – the company is raising around £6m from investors and expects to have a market capitalisation of £65m.

Camkids specifically targets the children's market in China, with products aimed at the outdoor pursuits market – hiking, mountain biking and camping, for example – rather than sports sectors such as football or basketball. It's the second largest player in this market in China (behind Nike), which analysts are expecting to grow at 17 per cent a year over the next five years.

Unlike some Aim flotations, Camkids also comes to market with a record of trading profitably and paying dividends. In 2011, the business made a post-tax profit of £16m on sales of £74m.

Small Business Man of the Week: Antony Ceravolo, founder, ECNlive

We provide digital displays in offices across London – and now France and Germany too – that enable companies to communicate with their employees and people coming into the building. We basically replace the sort of roll-up banners many companies have installed in their foyers, or those TVs you see with the sound turned down.

"It sounds quite mundane, but this can be a really powerful platform. It can be used to communicate something as simple as fire drill instructions or much more interesting things like charity appeals. We're going to be working with social media groups too and we already have advertisers such as British Airways and IBM using the system to target special offers at office workers.

"I've got an investment banking background and I've spent some time working in online media and retail – I was one of the founders of LoveFilm – and during some travelling in Asia I saw a lot of Chinese businesses with systems like this. On my return to London in 2009, I founded ECN and we began talking to property companies. It took a while to get them to see the benefits, but now we're in 150 offices, including Canary Wharf and the Gherkin.