News-eurocrisis

Lord Howe of Aberavon – former minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet – used a recent speech in the House of Lords to call for an end to the UK’s mixture of metric and imperial measures. He said the failure to remedy this in the year of the London Olympics was the most glaring omission from the Queen’s Speech. The UK was, he said, now split between ‘a metrically-literate elite and a bewildered majority, which increases costs, confuses shoppers…causes accidents and puts us all to shame’.

When the laughter died down someone reminded him of the rather more pressing issue of the Eurocrisis. Oh yes, and his 1979 abolition of the metrication board when Chancellor of the Exchequer. And his speech in 2000 when he pronounced ‘the UK must put itself into a single currency zone and enjoy the immense benefit of stability… in the European Union.’

One shouldn’t be too unkind – he did seem rather tired and confused and tried to exit the chamber via a cupboard. There are rumours he was put up to this by Chancellor George Osborne who is keen to ensure drivers cannot work out that 143p/litre for fuel actually represents £6.50/gallon of which £4.10 goes straight back to HM Treasury in fuel duty and Vat.

But maybe Lord Howe is right – thinking in Imperial can be bad for your health. £6.50/gallon seems a lot more expensive then 143p/litre. But on the other hand 100 miles seems a lot less distance to drive than 160 kilometres and 40 miles/gallon sounds a lot nicer than 8.8 miles/litre.

High running costs of an indoor Market Hall means ‘exclusive’ rents are the norm – Stallholders pay a service charge in addition to their rent.

It depends on Howe (sorry about the pun) you present the figures – a problem not uncommon to Market service charges. Most Open Markets charge an inclusive ‘all-in’ rent i.e. your £25/day or whatever includes the cost of staffing and waste removal. But the high running costs of an indoor Market Hall means ‘exclusive’ rents are the norm – Stallholders pay a service charge in addition to their rent.

Historically, many Council Landlords also shared the partial exemption from Vat which they enjoy. Pressure from HMRC has though made this increasingly rare and is often compounded by rating assessments on individual stalls. Add to this the expensive-to-run and overdue-for-replacement heating and refrigeration equipment seen in many Markets and there are plenty of reasons for high service charges.

Most service charge complaints are caused by poor presentation – they fail to explain why the charges are so high and what efforts have been made to reduce them.

Of course no-one likes paying bills but most do so, grudgingly if they can see there has been an effort to reduce them. Most service charge complaints are caused by poor presentation – they fail to explain why the charges are so high and what efforts have been made to reduce them. This is a hangover from far too many outdated Market leases which don’t make provision for a detailed service charge statement at the end of each year as a matter of course.

You wouldn’t get away with that in a Shopping Centres let to High Street multiples. But spare a kind thought for the many Market managers whose cost-cutting efforts are frustrated by lack of money to replace outdated equipment and charges of £110,000 a year from a City Engineer for a part-time cleaner and skip. From what I saw the cleaner wasn’t even very good at pushing a brush.

Delivering discretionary local services like Markets without financial support from Whitehall is the purpose of the Localism Bill – not driven by political aspiration but by economic necessity. The Bill now has Royal assent and the chaos in Euroland is piling even more pressure on Westminster to reduce financial support. The presumption in favour of ‘top-down’ delivery of services has been reversed in the Big Society agenda to relegate local government as an ‘enabler’, not necessarily a deliverer of discretionary services like Markets.

The loss of control does not sit comfortably within most Councils and maybe a service charge dispute will trigger someone to lodge a ‘right to challenge’ as embodied in the Act. But challenging the deliverer to relinquish control to you won’t work unless you can deliver an alternative source of development capital. That is, I’m afraid, commercial reality.

In the meantime the local elections are out of the way so there’s one less reason for a Council not to ‘actively target their own businesses rate discounts in the best way for local businesses’. If you’ve been lumbered with an assessment for business rates now’s the time to look at Small Business Rates Relief. You’re more than likely to be eligible for a 100% or at least partial waiver.

On a more cheerful note, Morrisons, the country’s fourth largest supermarket has sparked a minor petrol price war by cutting a couple of pence off a litre following a fall in crude oil prices. Their petrol director Mark Todd put a polished spin on it by announcing: ‘The continued bad news in financial markets is good news for motorists. After seeing continued reductions in the price of oil we are taking the opportunity to bring down prices at the petrol pump’. Nice one, Mark – but I still make it well over £6 / gallon. In response Tesco cut 5p off a litre ‘provided you spend £50 in store’.

I remember my Dad pompously announcing he would give up motoring when the price reached £1 per gallon. It seemed sensible enough at the time but now seems about as realistic as Lord Howe.

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