A review of business rates in autumn 2016 meant that many pubs and bars faced steep hikes in their bills, averaging 15 per cent for pubs and 23 per cent for restaurants and adding an extra £300 million to £500 million cost to the hospitality sector.
Paying this in one instalment meant investment plans would need to be shelved while, in some cases, businesses would be forced to close. Working with the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the industry trade body, agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn created a campaign with the objective of securing immediate rate relief, reforming the appeals process and prompting reform of the valuation process over the longer term. The UK Government considered that the reforms would have an overall neutral effect on business, because high rates in the South East and London would be countered elsewhere.
But chains would face increases across the UK. At the same time, the campaign needed to address the disparity that existed between business rates for bricks and mortar outlets against online retailers, who could trade profitably from smaller locations. The campaign focused on digital and social media tools to help politicians appreciate the ‘real life impact’ of the reforms on businesses in their individual constituencies.
A bespoke Polimapper tool was built to present this information in a simple and accessible way. While highlighting the UK wide figures, it also showed the number of outlets and the staff employed in specific constituencies. Consequently, the team could target selected politicians via Twitter bringing the numbers to life with infographics. It also engaged local politicians with data-led points.
These interactions coincided with a regional media relations programme that provided local snapshots for journalists to share. In the run up to the Autumn Statement 2016, the campaign mobilised chief executives of leading pub and restaurant chains, such as Wagamama, All Bar One and Greene King, to interact with politicians and the media to warn of the impact of higher business rates on investment and employment. A constant media campaign ensured the story remained on the national news agenda. The trade body mobilised its members to lobby politicians (two thirds – 150 companies – did so).
As back bench MPs started to air their concerns about the impact of business rates on their constituencies in Parliamentary Question Times on the eve of the Budget, the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid wrote a letter suggesting their figures were exaggerated. This prompted interventions by Prime Minister Theresa May, suggesting relief would be made available for those worst hit while Chancellor Philip Hammond said he was in ‘listening mode’. Such discord was aired in the media.
When the Budget was unveiled, the ALMR achieved its objectives. In the short term, pubs and restaurants were the only sector to receive rate relief. This totalled £24 million, with permission to apply for a general £300 million relief fund via local authorities. The Government also abandoned its ability to dismiss appeals on the basis of ‘reasonable professional judgment’, which would potentially have cost £95 million.
In February, the Scottish Executive announced that 8,500 hotels, pubs and restaurants would benefit from a 12.5 per cent cap on the first year bill increases.