An uncertain future for Britain's charity shops

The humble charity shop will be hit by further financial burdens thanks to the government's new business rates scheme.

We’ve all got a local charity shop. Like the bank, the post-office or the news agents, they’ve become a staple of the British high street ever since the first one was set-up by Oxfam in 1947. It’s easy to take these unassuming shops for granted. Quietly, they chug-along in the background, minding their own business, recycling and re-selling unwanted possessions; but unlike other high street institutions, these small establishments are exceptionally important to our communities.

Last year alone, charity shops raised over £220m for their parent charities, which funded a variety of vital projects, from medical research to local community care work. Staffed by over 160,000 volunteers nationwide, who benefit from social-interaction and retail training, charity shops also prevent a huge amount of rubbish entering the waste stream through encouraging re-using and recycling. But as of this month, charity shops will have a tougher time remaining on our high streets, thanks to the government’s new business rates retention scheme.

Designed to create a direct link between business rates growth and the amount of money available for councils to spend on local services, the business rates retention scheme will allow local authorities to retain 50 per cent of all business rates revenue from their area – an increase of 25 per cent.  The scheme’s focus on economic growth is a concern for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who warns that it will “potentially stunt the growth of local community action”, as councils withhold discretionary rate relief payments.

At present, organisations occupying a building solely for charitable purposes are entitled to 80 per cent mandatory rate relief, funded by central government. Local authorities can then choose to grant the remaining 20 per cent rate relief at their discretion. But once underway, the new scheme will require councils to fund 75 per cent of all discretionary relief payments. For local authorities, already feeling the effects of budget cuts, it would be self-defeating for them to grant discretionary rate relief which they must fund substantially from their own resources, especially when they have the chance to earn more revenue from businesses paying rates.

Councils have already begun to grant less discretionary rate relief because of pressures on budgets, according to Wendy Mitchell, head of policy and public affairs at the Charity Retail Association: “Rate relief to charity shops is important, as any reduction in relief impacts the amount of money that goes to the parent charity. So it’s important that relief is given in recognition of the social and philanthropic benefits to services – local hospices for example.”

Not only does this new legislation create further financial burdens for a sector already feeling the effects of the recession, but the government’s lack of consideration for charities contradicts their ‘localism’ ethos. Outlining their desire for a rejuvenated high street last July, communities secretary Eric Pickles, and former minister for high streets Grant Shapps, asserted: “Shared and public spaces are vital ingredients. Creative thinking is needed so these spaces can become the focal point for the social interaction that is the epitome of the high street experience – an area that is enjoyed by all members of the local community.”

Charity shops are exactly the kind of spaces where community interaction takes place; where volunteers meet with members of the public and where social interaction and community-cohesion is encouraged. It is totally counter-intuitive, therefore, to create a scheme which makes it tougher for charity shops to survive on our high streets. Although, as Wendy Mitchell asserts, the charitable sector “understands that local authorities are under a lot of economic pressure”, it is nonetheless important for the government to recognise the importance of relief payments to charity shops; and in turn, the importance of charity shops in creating a community-focused high street.

A dramatic example of what may happen to charity shops is being played out in Wales: proposals from an independent business review want to reduce the amount of mandatory rate relief for charities from 80 to 50 per cent, and restrict the premises charity shops are able to occupy. The plans have been vehemently opposed by the Charity Retail Association, who submitted a petition of 22,600 signatures to the Welsh government in January. “Charity shops are being looped in with chicken shops and betting shops, and their wider context is being forgotten,” says Mitchell. “Our petition shows that most people do use them, they are popular, and we need to make sure that that voice is heard. These shops raise money for a huge range of worthwhile causes.” According to Mitchell, if the changes are accepted it will force charity shops to close, creating more empty shops on Wales’ already abandoned high streets.

Though no decision has yet been made regarding cuts to mandatory rate relief in Wales, it provides a stark vision of what could happen if attitudes towards charity shops remain unchanged. Incentivising councils to focus on economic growth rather than charities, the business rates retention scheme ultimately puts at risk the very organisations that contribute most towards the government’s idyll of a community-focused high street. And, more dangerously, should these small but mighty fundraising establishments be forced out of our town centres, it will be the more vulnerable members of our communities who will suffer most.

Oxfam worker looks for clothes that have been sold via their online store at the Oxfam online hub warehouse in Portishead, England. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.