Nigel Emmerson, head of the Newcastle office of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, talks about the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and what this means for local businesses.


The North East’s high streets are the backbone of our town and city centres. One of the biggest issues for UK high streets in the government’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is the ‘rental auction’ idea.

The plan to give local authorities the power to secure occupiers for high street units implies that the government thinks landlords are deliberately leaving properties empty. With the burden of the business rates liability, landlords with vacant units are generally desperate to find occupiers, particularly as they don’t get the reliefs operators receive.

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It’s no surprise that landlords with vacant units use ‘rate mitigation schemes’ to reduce business rate liability where they offer space free of charge (or even at a payment) to businesses, often charities who use the unit for storage or other purposes rather than traditional high street businesses.

The Bill might well be designed to stamp out use of those schemes because premises are treated as unoccupied (and therefore liable to be auctioned) if they don’t have a regular presence of people.

But it’s hard to see how rental auction is going to attract tenants to the high street which the landlord wouldn’t have already secured. Occupiers might also be surprised to hear they will be treated as landlords if their lease has more than a year to run and the property has been “vacant” for over a year.

It would be great to see initiatives to offer rates exemptions or loans to landlords who are investing a certain amount back into properties - therefore improving high street aesthetics and the chances of attracting a tenant. In the last ‘normal year’ business rates yielded £25bn, a quarter of which came from retail operators. We are already starting to see independent shops, restaurants and cafes being established in areas such as Heaton in Newcastle which is great to see.

Anything the government can do to encourage growth in the region’s high streets will be warmly welcomed.

However, many high streets and town centres across the country will be receiving less back in the grants that come through the government’s High Street Fund than are paid out in rates.

What if business rates could be reinvested in the area where they are most needed?

For North East high streets to truly flourish, focus must be put on the needs of local businesses, with robust and realistic solutions on the table.”