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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.