THE Scottish Government has been urged to do more to support struggling high streets as a major independent retailer highlighted the current gulf in business rates between its shops in Scotland and its store south of the Border.

Wilkies, a long-established clothing retailer which has 11 stores based mostly in Scotland, has an annual business rates bill of £10,000 for its outlet in North Berwick. But the annual rates bill for its store across the Border in Berwick-upon-Tweed is just £2,620 – despite the two stores each having a rateable value of £21,000.

The difference is down to the 75 per cent relief from business rates that is in effect for the current financial year in England and Wales.

Karen Forret, managing director of Wilkies, said the difference is  “huge” and declared help on business rates would make a massive difference to retailers in Scotland as they struggle with the cost-of-doing business crisis.

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“It’s huge. It’s a difference of about £95,000 in help which would go in some way to covering these extra costs until inflation settles,” Ms Forret said.

The total annual rates bill for the Wilkies chain dipped marginally from £167,000 in 2022/23 to £161,000 this year, following the most recent revaluation of business rates in November.

“But if we were trading down south, we would be seeing 75% relief. It is a massive difference,” Ms Forret said.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said: “These figures vividly show the gulf in rates relief available to stores in Scotland compared to their counterparts in Wales and England. Scotland’s retailers warmly welcomed the freeze to the headline business rate, albeit it remains onerous and at a 24-year high.

"However, the decision not to also match England and Wales with an enhanced rates relief for shops, hospitality, and leisure businesses over the coming year was very disappointing.

“We hope that as part of his proposed 'New Deal' with business the First Minister will make good on his promise to look again at business rates, including mirroring the rates relief offered elsewhere. This would aid smaller stores at a time when they are grappling with spiralling costs and an uncertain outlook as well as our hard-pressed retail destinations.”

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Although retailers such as Wilkies have been campaigning for similar relief from business rates in Scotland, Ms Forret said “there has been so much going on at the Scottish Government” that the amount of attention given to issue has been limited.

“There has not been enough focus on it,” she declared.

Ms Forret added: “Ultimately, they should be protecting the rates income that they have got, because if they don’t, then they will lose the income anyway if there are less of us. It is a big short-sighted to say, 'we need this money now', but are they protecting the income for the future?

"I think Westminster have looked at it and thought, 'let’s help these business now' because we are going to get that throughput back in the coming years.”

Ms Forret noted that support on business rates would help provincial Scottish towns deal with the steady exodus of major retailers from high streets to out-of-town retail parks. “There is not enough trade for retail parks and the high street,” Ms Forret said.

And she warned that it is extremely difficult for town centres to recover when too many shops are lost. “How do you come back from that? It is now this year and next year that are really important to help that," she said.

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While Ms Forret noted that there are signs of visitors returning to tourist towns such as Castle Douglas, Helensburgh, Peebles and Ballater following Covid, the “costs are so problematic”. And she said the challenge is more acute for high streets in provincial towns which are not typically magnets for tourists and have seen retailers leave in favour of out-of-town retail parks. “Those are really difficult,” Ms Forret said. “If you project five, 10 years ahead, what happens with them? I don’t know.

“Unless there is something radical done, I think it will be very hard for them to fill those units.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Having set out a strong non-domestic rates package in the 2023-24 Budget including a freeze to the poundage – the biggest ask of business – the Scottish Government has no plans to introduce new rates relief during the financial year.

“Our rates relief package is estimated to be worth £744 million in 2023-24 and ensures that around half of properties in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors in Scotland will pay no rates in 2023-24 due to the most generous small business relief in the UK. Properties in these sectors may also be eligible for the transitional relief schemes set out in the Budget.

“The Scottish Government recently launched a New Deal for Scottish business that will provide an opportunity to discuss how government can better support businesses using the limited policy levers available.”