The Chancellor’s announcement in his Budget on Wednesday of a business rates suspension for companies with a rateable value of less than £51,000 will be particularly welcome news for retailors, restaurants, hotels and small businesses in our struggling towns and high streets spanning the length and breadth of this sceptered isle. Whilst Covid-19 will provide the impetus for changes already under way in society, few will be as timely as this announcement. However, this needs to be more than a sticking plaster and so the announcement that the business rates system as a whole would be reviewed, with the conclusions published in the autumn, will be just as welcome and the conclusions eagerly anticipated.

Much ink has already been spilled on the crippling impact of business rates on many businesses and the unfairness of the system, particularly in the age of the internet. However, I will share a few statistics which highlight the disparity and unfairness of the current system. The retail sector accounts for 5% of GDP and yet pays 25% of business rates. The hospitality sector accounts for 10% of the total business rates bill but represents 3% of economic activity. For many pubs, business rates accounts for 7 or 8% of turnover. At the other end of the spectrum, Amazon UK pays just 0.7%. In a sector where margins are already tight, high business rates can have a critical impact on business viability.

Whilst reform of business rates is therefore long overdue and necessary, ultimately systemic and structural issues need to be addressed in order to revitalise our towns and high streets. These announcements will hopefully provide the catalyst for a whole series of changes which are needed in this area. Ultimately, this will only happen on any scale when there is cross-sector backed, local authority supported initiatives which are funded by a combination of public and private investment. These need to invest for the long term in the public realm and provide for a diverse mix of businesses and use classes including, importantly, residential and leisure. For this reason, the Government’s £675 million Future High Streets Fund aimed at creating transformative and structural changes through investment in physical infrastructure, acquisition and assembly of land is also a positive step.

In a globalised twittering world, there is still value in creating and being part of connected, stimulating physical environments where people can meet and strengthen social networks face to face.

Our towns and high streets are, in many ways, our original social network and whilst they may be temporarily shut down in the age of the pandemic, they can still thrive in the age of the Instagram post.