Sunday 21 March 2010

Tourism Week

Last week was Tourism Week, and as part of that, I had an interesting day out with Pembrokeshire Tourism on Friday. During the day, we started with a presentation on their activities, and then they took myself, Henry Jones-Davies (Preseli-Pembrokeshire candidate), and Nerys Evans AM to see some examples of local visitor businesses of different scale and nature across the county. They've previously arranged similar sessions with other parties as well.

It's very encouraging to see the range of activity, and the willingness to invest and expand facilities which will both attract more visitors to the county and generate new jobs. Particularly encouraging was the way in which they're anticipating the move to 'low-carbon' tourism and trying to prepare for that.

On Friday night they organised an event for local politicians to answer questions from those involved in the promotion of the county and for businesses in the sector. This was the second time for the four candidates in the constituency to appear on a panel, although this time we were also joined by the MP for Preseli-Pembrokeshire and a Labour Regional AM. I think it's something we're going to be getting used to - I already have another five dates in the diary between now and the expected election date for similar panel discussions.

A good range of issues came up, but not unexpectedly one of the biggest for companies in the sector is the huge increase in business rates which some of them are facing.

It's a crazy system of business taxation in the first place. Raising taxes on the commercial rental level which businesses would have to pay for their premises bears no relation to either ability to pay, or to the use which the businesses make of local government services. And it is a direct disincentive to businesses to invest in improving their premises or facilities to improve the customer experience, because if they do so, thay're likely to get hit by a large tax hike.

The current system was introduced in something of a rush, of course, when the then Tory Government was forced to back down over the poll tax, but it is no credit to governments of either party that it has lasted as long as it has. And at a time of recession, the rates increases stemming from the revaluation exercise are a bit like rubbing salt in the wound.

Businesses need urgent action in the short term to mitigate the effect of the rise, but I think it's also time to take a step back and ask ourselves what a fair system of local taxation on businesses would look like. It's entirely fair that businesses do pay some sort of contribution towards the services provided by local government, because they do benefit from those services. It would be difficult though to ascertain how much use each business makes of the services.

For me that leaves only one fair and workable option - a tax based on ability to pay, reflecting the profitability of the businesses. It wouldn't be universally popular, of course. There would be winners and losers - some highly successful businesses would find that they would be paying even more under such a system. But that is surely prefereable to a system which is in danger of forcing otherwise viable enterprises out of business - a result from which there are no winners, only losers.

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