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.

Oxfam charity shop warehouse
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

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.