Business exodus leads to rise in empty properties

The former Morrisons supermarket in Wigan town centre
The former Morrisons supermarket in Wigan town centre

The number of empty business properties in Wigan borough has rocketed by 10 per cent in the space of a year.

A report prepared for a Wigan Council committee states there are more than 1,600 vacant premises. It follows the withdrawal of several high profile retailers in the town, including BHS, Morrisons and Argos, but there are also plenty of unoccupied units on industrial estates too.

By 2020 the council won’t be funded through government grants and will rely on council tax and business rates. This is why it is essential to grow our economy and promote Wigan nationally as a place to invest.

Emma Barton, Wigan Council’s assistant director for economic development

The statistic was revealed in a report for the audit, governance and improvement review committee looking at business rates collection.

It reads: “The borough continues to see some businesses struggle and the incidence of companies becoming insolvent and winding up continues to be a prominent feature in the management of business rates bills.

“Significant income is lost when companies become insolvent as often bills go unpaid and become unrecoverable.

“This trend is not showing an improvement in the Wigan borough.”

A total of £84.6m is due to be paid in business rates in 2016-17, an increase of 2.3 per cent on the year before.

So far 80.7 per cent - £68.3m - has been paid, with the council expecting to achieve a 97 per cent collection rate for the financial year.

The collection of business rates will become even more important for the council in coming years, as it will keep all the money paid from 2020.

Authorities in Greater Manchester will trial this from April, but the report says the council is still waiting to find out more about it.

Efforts are being made to promote the borough to businesses and therefore increase the council’s income from business rates.

They include identifying and promoting existing accommodation to businesses looking to move, expand or downsize, and developing a digital business hub to support businesses.

Emma Barton, Wigan Council’s assistant director for economic development, said: “Wigan town centre is a very popular shopping destination with a wide range of major high street names as well as independent shops and popular markets.

“Over the coming year there is more than £22m of investment being ploughed into the town centre with major improvements for Market Place, a new Wigan bus station and improved access for pedestrians in the east and north of the town centre.

“This significant investment will improve the attractiveness and accessibility of the town centre for its thousands of visitors in the years to come and underlines our commitment to the future of the town centre as a prosperous and vibrant place to visit.

“We are also working on developing a town centre masterplan. This will incorporate the exciting plans for Wigan Pier Quarter as well as new ambitious uses for some areas of the centre as part of a wider town centre vision.”

“By 2020 the council won’t be funded through government grants and will rely on council tax and business rates. This is why it is essential to grow our economy and promote Wigan nationally as a place to invest.”

Wigan’s Conservative leader Coun Michael Winstanley is keen for the empty properties to be filled.

He said: “It does highlight a particular issue that we do have a number of empty business properties at the moment and we should be looking to maximise those before we start to commit to bigger projects over the next few years.

“I would like to see us doing what we can to fill those business properties and encourage more businesses to come to Wigan and start up businesses here.”

And he is concerned about more business premises being built, as the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework would see 24,895 homes and 661,500m sq of industrial space erected in Wigan, with 4.6 per cent of the borough’s green belt land released for development.

Coun Winstanley said: “I do have concerns about the spatial framework. It’s to do with taking green belt land to build big commercial units on them when we should be looking to utilise every other piece of land before we look at green belt.

“I am all for encouraging business but not at the expense of green belt.”

Although full business rates are usually payable three months after the premises becomes empty, the report says it is difficult to collect from landlords as there is no income.

And some owners deliberately try to avoid paying business rates.

The report says: “Nationally, as well as locally, empty rate avoidance tactics are becoming increasingly common and are proving incredibly difficult and expensive to challenge with many business property owners employing agents to deploy such tactics more determinedly than their efforts to re-let the premises.

“This makes some business rates bills impossible to legally enforce and income is lost.

“Our customer service team is currently working with AGMA authorities and with legal experts to combat tactics where possible.”

Enforcement action can be taken by the council, with 1,268 court summons issued so far this year, 590 liability orders obtained and 711 liability orders issued to enforcement agents.

A total of £653,000 has been collected through enforcement agent action.