Could a two tier VAT system save the high street?

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The high street’s troubles are well documented at this point. Stores have closed, jobs have been lost and businesses have gone bust, the decline seems terminal. But according to one group, a two-tier tax system could stop the bleeding.

Colliers International, one of the UK's largest property consultancies wants a two tier VAT system. Under the proposal, shoppers would pay tax at 15% in a brick-and-mortar store and 22.5 % for online purchases.

The suggestion isn’t entirely from left field. The chancellor Philip Hammond recently told Sky News he’s considering a special retail tax - dubbed an ‘Amazon tax’ - on online retailers.

"We want to ensure that taxation is fair between businesses doing business the traditional way and those doing business online," he said in the Sky News interview. "That requires us to renegotiate international tax treaties because many of the big online businesses are international companies.”

Adapting the VAT system could be a powerful vehicle to achieve this, according to Paul Souber, Colliers’ head of London retail. It would present a strong incentive for shoppers to return to the high street and online retailers to lease physical stores.

But Souber and Colliers’ plan isn’t as simple as it sounds, according to David Wilson and Andrew Hubbard of RSM. “Artificial distinctions to address a particular policy agenda generally don’t work,” they wrote.

“The very ethos of VAT is that it is charged on the ‘value added’ at each stage of the production and distribution process, including retail sale, and affords businesses in the supply chain the right to deduct the VAT paid at an earlier stage of that process from the VAT payable on the onward supply.”

VAT is structured, ultimately, to be paid by the end consumer. “If a higher VAT rate applies to online retail sales than to sales by high street retailers then, rather than levelling the playing field between the two, the additional VAT burden would result in increased costs for the consumer.

“As VAT would not appear to be either a legally competent or administratively practicable means of levelling the playing field between the high street and online retailers, and as it's highly unlikely that the Chancellor will interfere with the business rates regime, the focus will once again fall on taxing the value generated by online businesses.

“Whether that will take the form of an online sales tax should become clear on Budget day.”

As we’ve covered on AccountingWEB before, simply blaming online retail for the high street’s woes is simplistic. Inertia and a failure to address the drag of legacy real estate has created its share of the trouble, too. To paraphrase, the retail analyst Richard Hyman: an ‘Amazon Tax’ might dull the pain - but will it create better retailers?

About Francois Badenhorst

Francois

I'm AccountingWEB's business editor. Feel free to get in touch with comments, tips, scoops or irreverent banter. 

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13th Sep 2018 09:06

It would complicated things and I support the death of the high street anyway and the properties used for housing (as shopping is a pretty awful experience and on line shopping is wondeful!)

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13th Sep 2018 09:52

That a dumb idea

The main reason its expensive on the high street is business rates and rents.

One assumes the "property consultants" are fully aware of that and trying to avoid the plain truth as it affects their client and so their commissions.

If "the powers that be" seem for reasons I personally cant fathom that town centre retail = a good thing (I hate it myself) then they need to force down rents and reduce business rates that would make a lot more busineses viable.

But fundamentally I don't really see the attraction myself of shopping on the high street. Its a very old fashioned view of prosperity, for for us involves a 20 drive drive, and expensive car park, a park and ride bus (also expensive), all to buy the same stuff I could have bought at home in a few minutes. I do a once a year (at most) clothes shop, and that's it.

The world has moved on, you don't need tax to prop it up for the sake of some old fogies who will probably be in a care home inside of 10 years.

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13th Sep 2018 10:17

In my view high street problems as they are are becuase shops and shopkeppers have not changed. Is an internet based business does not it soon fails but we dont see it like a closed shop.

When one sees stores such as Primark Sports Direct and many others prospering it cant be all bad news.

A fair chunk of any blame is to be laid at local council doors and this has nothing to do with vat or business rates -its to do with looking forward inc not hitting shoppers with increasing the cost of parking, making it difficult to drive to centre of town and making public transfort effective.

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13th Sep 2018 10:35

A 2 tier vat system will not work (we had it once with "luxury" goods) and anyway that is not what is killing the High Street (high rent and rates, no parking, fines for unloading, traffic wardens, to name but a few).
There are many people that like to shop off line. High Street or shopping Mall.
The reason why the likes of Amazon can sell cheaply is that they don't have the overheads nor heavy tax bills.
The problem is that our tax system has, since the Gordon Brown days, been destroying the small business (I shudder to think how many MTD will destroy). You can compare it with house prices. As house prices go up and lenders want everything to be squeaky clean, the ordinary person makes way for the large business. So there is a point to be made about bulldozing the High Street and creating affordable housing in its place. Perhaps the answer is to experiment with a place that is really run down and go from there.

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By Tornado
13th Sep 2018 11:02

I don't think this would work, but the significance of the suggestion should not be overlooked which is that once we leave the EU, we will have the power to do what we like with VAT to suit our own purposes, and not be restricted by the one-size-fits-all policy of the EU.

Perhaps this idea may not work, but at least we have the opportunity to explore others that might work well for this country.

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to Tornado
13th Sep 2018 12:12

What on earth does the EU have to do with any of this?

The EU does not set our VAT rates.

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13th Sep 2018 11:18

With the greatest of respect, I believe the other commenters are talking utter nonsense.

There are major structural problems with online shopping that are almost at tipping-point. Take customer returns, for instance. A combination of competitive forces, EU and UK regulations and laws has created a "ticking time bomb" around returns, especially in areas such as apparel.

Environmental regulations could be the final nail in the coffin.

In online apparel, returns rates (due in no small part to the lack of changing-rooms in the virtual world) are hitting 30-40% if not higher. Meanwhile with margins so tight, those returned items (in many cases) end up not back on the shelves for re-sale (too expensive, too risky), but instead in landfill.

Landfill? Yes, because the market for second-hand (even if in essence unused) clothing has collapsed. Whereas £350 / tonne was achievable in times past, no more.

Electrical goods are even worse - there is almost no market for those customer returns beyond landfill.

As regards the High Street, I struggle to see where the social and community cohesion that many of us would like to see can be achieved without vibrant town centres. We are an ever-more urbanised nation.

If you take a look at our European cousins, you will see retail sectors that continue to do well.

Property prices are the tail that wags the dog in the UK. Not just in terms of High Street rents, but in terms of overblown housing costs (and attendant debt) that has squeezed disposable incomes.

When the median family is dependent upon state benefits in order to pay rent or mortgage, one can see to what degree the system is "propped up."

What to do? Some of the things I favour right now are pretty radical. Legislate away upwards-only rent reviews. Legislate away LTV-based penalties from lenders. Legislate away foreign residential property ownership. Grant a right to buy for commercial tenants. Mandate registration of all leases. Replace business rates with a straightforward uplift in the VAT rate to 22% (coupled with the reduction in collection costs, that could completely replace business rates). Scrap any permitted developments to allow conversion of A1 premises to other uses. Post-Brexit (assuming it happens) mandate that all online sales into the UK are charged UK VAT.

That would be a start. There would be pain, for sure, but there will be pain in any case - at least this way we get to control when and where and how and decide how we would like to mitigate it.

Or we can watch a death spiral unfold, because this crisis is not of the High Street per se but of a retail (and a wider economy) presided-over by people who seem entirely focused on maintaining paper property values at all costs and are prepared to sacrifice the next 30 years' economic prosperity upon that altar.

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to skwdenyer
13th Sep 2018 12:22

The problem is you seem to see "the high street" as some sort of barometer for that community.

That is a very old fashioned way of looking at things and why local councils try and fail to do anything about the huge structural changes in shopping that the internet is finally bringing about, 20 years after it got going.

Its going from a place primarily to shop to a place to eat and drink and be entertained, with a bit of retail clinging on at the sides. I think a lot of the 60's+ people who run councils dont go out at night and don't see many town centres are might be empty at 3pm on a saturday, but packed by 9pm.

Retail is hugely over catered for, and needs to be more than halved in most areas and concentrated in accessible areas, rather than spread out over vast outdated areas which their target audience (pre-internet people) struggle to hobble around.

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to skwdenyer
13th Sep 2018 12:32

Great respect and utter nonsense is a contradiction just like the rest of your post.
More people in work now so less dependant on state benefits (admitted the poor are getting poorer that's mainly because [***] and booze have gone up (I'm not talking about pensioners)).
Return rates will always be high (just ask Littlewoods and the like) but going to landfill when there is money to be made - yer right.

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to johnjenkins
13th Sep 2018 16:52

johnjenkins wrote:

Great respect and utter nonsense is a contradiction just like the rest of your post.

I'm fairly comfortable respecting another's right to hold an opinion whilst considering it nonsensical.

johnjenkins wrote:
More people in work now so less dependant on state benefits (admitted the poor are getting poorer that's mainly because [***] and booze have gone up (I'm not talking about pensioners)).

Err, wow. The median family is dependent upon tax credits and other benefits in order to balance the family budget. Effectively all direct personal taxation goes to pay benefits.

Housing costs have far outstripped earnings growth. The only thing propping it all up are benefits (tax credits are benefits).

It is fashionable to think of benefits being something that are given only to "the poor" but "the poor" (by your definition) now includes "Mr & Mrs Average"...

johnjenkins wrote:
Return rates will always be high (just ask Littlewoods and the like)

Returns rates for distance selling will always be high, yes. In the past, that was only a percentage of all retail sales.

Have you looked at Littlewoods' (well Shop Direct Ltd's) accounts? On the face of it, they only seem to have made money on giving credit to customers - recalling the sage comment once made about Ford Motor Co as "a bank who happen to sell cars." Returns rates are ok if you're making money on the finance. But that doesn't apply to most online retailers.

johnjenkins wrote:
but going to landfill when there is money to be made - yer right.

If you'd like to take this further, I'm sure we can find some examples of the cost of processing returns, the cost of checking items for compliance, repackaging, restocking and so on. In large sections of retail it simple doesn't happen. Who is going to PAT test a returned Kettle? Who is going to launder and re-process a returned shirt?

There *used* to be a little money in returns (selling pallets of mixed returned electrical to eBay sellers, or mixed clothing by the tonne to recyclers), but those markets have become much harder to deal with. Again, there's a great deal of discussion about this issue elsewhere.

Anyhow, on the rest of my points I'm sure we can just agreed to differ - like I say, I can respect somebody's *right* to hold a different opinion, even if I don't agree with it.

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to skwdenyer
14th Sep 2018 09:15

Whether you're comfortable or not it's still a contradiction.
I said less people are on benefits. The fact that benefits have gone up is irrelevant.
The main reason for catalogue (now online) selling was that people could pay weekly. (I bought my first suite from Littlewoods). These days you pay upfront (most people have more disposable income).
I have a client who buys from online retailers and sells on as secondhand, so landfill, definitely a nono.
Respecting a "right" to hold an opinion is meaningless.

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By DJKL
to skwdenyer
14th Sep 2018 23:25

Your quotes in inverted commas as not good at line by line quoting on here.

skwdenyer wrote:

"What to do? Some of the things I favour right now are pretty radical."

" Legislate away upwards-only rent reviews."

Why? Whilst for some properties it may be an issue for a lot of secondary/tertiary it is a red herring, there is no rent review because lease terms are these days more likely to be 3-5 years with no rent reviews. Also RPI leases re larger properties are far more common these days than previously.

"Legislate away LTV-based penalties from lenders. "

Whilst I should love this it would be the kiss of death re lending on commercial property (we already have had the likes of Nationwide close their commercial property lending division) The lenders will just lend to other sectors.

"Legislate away foreign residential property ownership."

No comment

" Grant a right to buy for commercial tenants. "

Great, so the biggest site we own which is an old factory building we converted into multiple use (workshops, retail, offices, studios) with circa 50 different tenants, gets its ownership carved up, with all the tricky bits re common access stairs, services, repairs spread out post event and it is then pretty much incapable of being further changed to meet market need as ownership is so wide nothing ever gets agreed without a CPO.

"Mandate registration of all leases. "

A lot of small leases we do as licences, my lowest annual commercial property licence is £600 p.a (a small room). If I need to register this all the small craft business entities we support with very small premises are just not getting space from us, there would not be an economic value having to register one year licences at low rental levels. Whilst we write licences in house we would need to pay for each lease. This is space that was a 7,000 sq ft single office another 4,000 sq ft office and a 2,000 sq ft office that we converted down to various size small units to meet market demand.

"Replace business rates with a straightforward uplift in the VAT rate to 22% (coupled with the reduction in collection costs, that could completely replace business rates)."

And the small traders who get 100% business rates relief, what about them, I have at least four vat registered retailer clients who currently pay no rates, you just squeezed their margins with the extra vat.

"Scrap any permitted developments to allow conversion of A1 premises to other uses. "

Why not let the market decide, if rents drop / property becomes hard to lease premises do change use, I have over my career dealt with planning for well over 250 residential units, all involved brownfield development/conversion from a bottling plant, whisky bonds and an old print works. We currently have another 2-3 properties that at some time, when their current economic use is spent, will likely go the same way, whether by my hand or my eventual successors.

This happens all the time, the old B & Q site at Warriston, Edinburgh, is becoming this;

https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/business/approval-for-180-ne...

Groundworks started earlier this year

"Or we can watch a death spiral unfold, because this crisis is not of the High Street per se but of a retail (and a wider economy) presided-over by people who seem entirely focused on maintaining paper property values at all costs and are prepared to sacrifice the next 30 years' economic prosperity upon that altar"

There are issues but throwing out the baby with the bath water is not the approach, we need to keep some business activities in cities or we will develop further transport issues re those needing to get to work to the outer city ring where all the business premises will remain as the centre becomes flats, bars , hotels etc; everybody who works in other activities will need to travel to work.

Luckily for the UK my daughter has just started her Msc in Town Planning, given she is a natural at Sim City in ten years or so I will have given the UK its next planning Czar, and it will be a great environmentally friendly UK as her first degree was Sustainable Development.

I work for a property company that operates in Edinburgh in the secondary/tertiary part of the market, if you just let us get on with what we know how to do you will, by the invisible hand of the market, get solutions (Subject to some overarching planning frameworks)

.

"
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to skwdenyer
25th Sep 2018 23:33

Someone who actually talks sense.
I live in a rural town and it makes me laugh to see a large number of Ferraris, Lamborghini's and other high end vehicles drive up and down the high street.
Our high street has 16 charity shops, our high street accomodates 80 shops. 25% of our high street pay no business rates yet whenever a business closes down our local commercial agent makes it impossible for new businesses to dip their toes in the water unless they sign a 5-10 year lease with either no get out clause or a 5 year get out clause.
I see this happening in town after town.
The system is broken, and the burden then falls upon those businesses that are struggling to keep their heads above water.

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to skwdenyer
25th Sep 2018 23:33

Someone who actually talks sense.
I live in a rural town and it makes me laugh to see a large number of Ferraris, Lamborghini's and other high end vehicles drive up and down the high street.
Our high street has 16 charity shops, our high street accomodates 80 shops. 25% of our high street pay no business rates yet whenever a business closes down our local commercial agent makes it impossible for new businesses to dip their toes in the water unless they sign a 5-10 year lease with either no get out clause or a 5 year get out clause.
I see this happening in town after town.
The system is broken, and the burden then falls upon those businesses that are struggling to keep their heads above water.

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By Zigurds
13th Sep 2018 12:47

I agree that using VAT is entirely the wrong answer. In any case, it would (still) require amendments to the EU VAT Directive.

Yes, many high-street retailers need to refresh and update their offering, but the elephant in the room is business rates. This is a tax that is now wholly unfit for purpose. It should be replaced by a land value tax and/or a turnover-based retail sales tax.

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to Zigurds
13th Sep 2018 14:24

Let's just take a small hairdresser that employs say 2 people. They are taxed out of existence.
Rent, Rates (and they have to pay extra for waste disposal), VAT, ERS NIC, Unpaid Tax Collector and the associated paperwork, RTI, AE, and wait for it the piece de resistance (don't know where the accents are) MTD.

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By DJKL
to johnjenkins
14th Sep 2018 23:30

Small business rates relief may have them pay no rates currently, well certainly in Scotland, no idea what schemes you have down south.

https://www.mygov.scot/business-rates-relief/small-business-bonus-scheme/

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to johnjenkins
25th Sep 2018 23:57

Adding on to the extra financial burdens of said small businesses like hairdressers and the pitfalls of payroll and auto enrolment, so as an accountant we all know that (for example hairdressers) do not always have readily flowing cash flow, their employees are paid daily, weekly,fortnightly and monthly and then have a commission based payment based on product sales which can fall on any day after payday within a three month period.
RTI dictates we advise HMRC either before or on the day that a payment happens. Now how do we conform to said legislation if said client after getting home from their business has dinner, talks about their day to respective spouses relaxes for 30mins to an hour and then starts their daily paperwork, inputting daily sales and expenses, works out the payments owed to subbies, writes a few cheques based on their assumed cashflow. Look at bank statements down 3 glasses of wine because merchant service company have not fulfilled their 3 day arrangement, seen commission from their product supplier has been received and worked out who is owed what and made the relevant payments recorded the commission and sent at 23:49 on Friday night.
You open e-mail on Monday and do the RTI and AE returns just to find out your client has received another £100 fine for late submission, that is 52 this year.
You keep telling your client but they never listen.
This is obviously a what if situation but it is not far wrong from the truth.
AE also are bombarding fines on businesses that can not afford to pay extra into a pension or have staff that do not meet the AE rule and can not afford the set up fee for said pension even though no staff are enrolled.
The government are killing businesses.

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to lildanfen1
26th Sep 2018 11:48

Your last sentence says it all and it is my view that's exactly what they want (small business).

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13th Sep 2018 16:41

Retail is moving out of town and online. Successful retailers have recognised this and changed their business accordingly. If the High Street can't compete it should close.
Can anyone think of any problem to which increasing tax complexity is the answer?

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By DJKL
to Knight Rider
14th Sep 2018 23:40

Fine if other business entities occupy the space providing alternative employment, but if all city centres become housing congestion re this workforce flowing out to large business parks in the outer city and returning home every evening will make road congestion even worse.

There is a finite limit to how many coffee shop, bars etc we need in our cities.

Could have them all become offices, I would quite fancy an office in Princes Street with the views of the Castle, but generally happy communities have a mix.

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to DJKL
26th Sep 2018 00:01

Have you ever been to Slough? Office block after office block empty, me thinks someone took a bung to turn said land into brownland to turn into residential for a hefty profit

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20th Sep 2018 11:00

DJKL - As a previous poster has said the high street has to change. What was good when I was a boy does not work today. One can blame Amazon or anyone else but the decline started before Amazon came on the scene.

The major problem is that shops only prosper if they have sufficient trade. That means people using the shops Monday-Saturday all day. In our local town like many others offices moved out and thus there is insufficient thru put of customers to support shops.

As I said earlier you need to look at what local councils have achieved. Double yellow lines, expensive or very little parking and shutting of roads. All contribute to offices etc moving out of town. Business Rates are blamed as is the internet but there are many sucessful stores on the high street so there is a collection of things that are causing the high street to fail.

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26th Sep 2018 12:51

There are many comments saying "let the market decide." The problem - the fallacy - is that there is a free market. There isn't; there is a strongly-regulated market. Every regulation causes "market forces" to re-balance to compensate / take advantage.

Some of those are subtle; some of those are not government-led. For instance, portfolio LTV covenants, where "V" is determined by a multiple of rent. So premises are empty waiting for tenants, because an empty property (ironically) is not let at a lower rent (but is simply between tenants), hence "V" has not (yet) dropped. In that case, it is appropriate for government to add more regulation to remove the power of the covenant to dictate land use.

Or is it? Pension schemes own a lot of commercial property. They've been royally rogered by Gordon Brown's money grab, so they need to cling on to all the returns they can get - they're not going to give a damn about the wider interests of society any longer, because they've got to squeeze double-digit returns out of "safe" assets.

There is talk of town planning. Are you all aware of how little influence planners have these days? So much of policy is led by central government. "Zoning" (in the US parlance) is simply not possible in many places and, besides, "zoning" simply put creates Telford. Planing for many years actively prevented siting offices or factories close to housing (or vice versa).

A much freer market is what created the urban landscapes we're losing. Lack of personal and public transport meant that people had to live and work in relatively close proximity. That created thriving communities with lots of people around, supporting shops and pubs and so on. But can we turn back that clock? Should we?

Meanwhile the elephant in the room? Far more women work. A society in which (sweeping generalisation) men worked and women handled other family matters supported a high street in which women accessed retail stores during "working hours." Even as late as the 1980s, where I grew up, it was common for shops to be open Mon-Sat 9-5, closed for lunch, and taking a half-day off on a Thursday. Where were the customers? Clearly they were non-working women. That ship has long-since sailed.

Interestingly when I was in France recently, many shops still followed this old pattern. And yet, the French high streets I saw were doing rather well.

How might the market adapt to all of this? Well, out-of-town shopping was "the answer." But markets are not always sage; often they're stupid sheep. Just because one out-of-town shopping destination did well, does not mean that the next one (whose catchment area now overlaps the first) will do well - in fact, it creates a race to the bottom.

Planning might save us from that. But who wants to be told they can't have yet another Tesco by a planner?

So which should it be? More planning? Less planning? More free market? Less free market? What is the objective? What is desirable?

That's the crux of the matter. Nobody can identify what the end game should look like. Our "market" is such an entangled mess of regulation and conflicting interests that it is hard to see what is cause and what effect. And as others have pointed out, we've hardly scratched the surface - pensions and other regulation are a big issue too (what was wrong with bringing back SERPS by the way...?).

It is highly likely that - like the NHS as another example - the whole thing is so complex as to be classically "chaotic" and hence incapable of understanding or modelling.

So we just have to take a punt. And this is where 2 schools of thought emerge - to leave alone or to make some bigger changes.

I'm in the bigger changes camp. I think that markets work best when things change a lot quite quickly and they are forced to adapt to keep up. That drives innovation and thought. Hence some of my suggestions above are quite broad-brush "big" things - like scrapping business rates, putting 2% on VAT, or what have you. And, yes, I absolutely believe that bursting the property bubble is in the country's best interests - it is not government's job to try to keep it afloat by pumping every spare penny into measures designed merely to support it.

I'm well aware that my ideas - if implemented - would not please everyone. Many people get comfortable with "how life is" and don't like change. But now is the time for change.

We had a once-in-a-generation political "get out of jail free card" for letting the property bubble burst in 2008 ish, but we didn't take it. With Brexit (whatever we all think) we have another unusual inflection point, an opportunity to make some changes as a part of the inevitable re-balancing that will happen post-Brexit. I think we should take it, that we should be radical.

And I get that others disagree with me!

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By DJKL
to skwdenyer
26th Sep 2018 18:05

The secret is forget retail in isolation and look at the blended package re retail, office, workshops, dwellings.

What we see in Edinburgh is larger employers moving to outskirts (Gyle etc) and more city centre changes where what were offices in the likes of Melville Street, Manor Place, Drumsheugh etc, these are slowly morphing back into housing; my late father's office in Heriot Row now back as a town house.

And the secondary office space that was previously bigger offices etc ,outwith the prime centre, they are changing, the 5,000 sq ft office is now ten 400 sq ft offices/studios , occupied by start up business entities/craft business entities that have outgrown the spare room and need a workspace. Small is good re these and they seem to bring in sandwich shops , cafes, with them ( all these people need lunch etc) and a buzz.

The secret is not to be prescriptive re zoning, let it all flow a little, forget the daft "this development must have all ground floor retail" per planning strictures and let these units be more pick and mix re their use.(not chip shops/hot food etc below residential, but non invasive commercial use)

The market is not perfect, and it can be slow, but gradually it tends to get things sort of right if politicians and planners employ a light touch and do not interfere.

Re pricking the property bubble, not sure it is needed across the entire market, what re commercial property per sq ft rates do you think is expensive re leases?

We have workshops rented out at £4-£7 a sf ft, offices at £9-15, what is unfair re these rates given the build costs re the occupied units, and this is secondary/tertiary property in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, per capita a pretty affluent place.

Who even does 5-10 year leases these days? At best these days I get 5 year leases with tenant break at year 2 or 3, most of my studio leases are 12 months. Maybe main city centre high streets are clinging to long leases, but even there this is less and less, imho leave it alone and it will cure itself.

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03rd Oct 2018 14:10

My only comment to DKL is that asking politians local or national to use a hands off policy, that is letting the market determine sadly will never happen because most politians want power.

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03rd Oct 2018 14:10

My only comment to DKL is that asking politians local or national to use a hands off policy, that is letting the market determine sadly will never happen because most politians want power.

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