TORBAY Mayor Gordon Oliver has met with Local Government Minister Eric Pickles. It may have had a huge impact on the future of our town centres and could be the difference between life and death for some of our shops. Rates was up for discussion. Here's where some of you may switch off. Rates? Shops? Business? What has that to do with me?
Ultimately it will be you who will suffer.
Shop rates have always been a thorny subject for many traders in Torbay and there have been some success stories recently where businesses have successfully challenged and appealed against how much they pay.
The main problem is rates, which are linked to rents, were last reviewed by the Government in 2008. Business was booming at the time, rents were high and so, too were rates.
The market place is now a totally different beast. Trade has dipped to put it mildly and, in some cases, so have rent levels. But what shopkeepers have to pay every year with rate demands have not.
The business community was hoping to see some light at the end of the tunnel with a rates review planned for 2015. Now they have been hit by the bombshell news from the Government that the shake-up has been delayed until 2017. That for many will be the final nail in the coffin.
John Doherty has run his Dot's Pantry shop in Torquay for the past 18 months. He is also chairman of the Torquay Business Improvement District steering group and an expert and campaigner on the rates issue as well car parking and policies.
He was asked to furnish Mayor Oliver with some information to take to the meeting with Minister Pickles.
He cites Government figures which claim that 40 per cent of High Street sales have been lost to the internet.
It comes as retail giants Argos have announced a phased shutdown of some of their stores, supposedly in favour of on-line shopping. Where the Torquay store fits in with that is not yet known.
John says: "Because the High Street trade is bad the rent reviews are on a downward trend. If rents are going down so should the rates. The effect of this review delay will see the rateable values artificially high for another two years."
How rates are set is hugely complicated and that's part of the problem. They are linked to the rentable value of properties which in turn is determined by retail zones in shops which are given levies per square metre.
There are some huge — and apparently unfair — anomalies.
John, who has spent a lifetime in the retail trade, has carried out research which shows that large national chains, including out-of-town superstores, have lower rate per square metre values than small shops.
He has also discovered that Union Square in Torquay town centre has to pay rates on its car park. There doesn't appear to be rates payable on the car park at the Willows out-of-town car park. All very weird.
John, a manager with Tesco for 34 years, highlighted the issue in a special presentation to Torbay Council back in May and focused on one out-of-town superstore and what he believed to be their last Christmas Week takings. He told the council: "I believe that they will have turned around between £2.8million and £3million. They did £2.3million in 2010.
"That will enable them to pay their entire rateable value from the sales in that one week. To use the same formula, Dot's Pantry would need 8.6 Christmas weeks."
I am not going to embarrass John by detailing what he pays in rent and rates, save to say it is a lot of money.
He says: "I have a pension. I have not taken any wages. If I took wages I would not be here. But I went into this new business knowing that I had a pension."
He had expected to see a 50 per cent increase in trade over the first two years of his business. In fact, it will have dropped by around 16 per cent.
He says: "The car parking has had an effect. The bad weather and the Olympics have had an effect. We have also been hammered by VAT."
It appears a price war over something as simple as a cup of tea has also erupted.
But he doesn't want to make his a sob story and he emphasises: "We are staying. We are fighting and we are going to be here."
He says car parking and rates were the two of the main problem areas highlighted in the Mary Portas review of town centres, but the problems still exist and there has been no help from the Government.
He is quick to acknowledge some of the steps being taken in Torbay where a new pay-on-exit car park in the town centre has been agreed and the council has embarked on promotions to lure shoppers into the town.
But he says: "They blame the banks, but local and central government have taken far too much for far too long. Now there is nowhere to take it from."
All he and the local business fraternity is asking for is a level playing field, especially with the retail big boys. Basing rates on what an outlet actually sells would do the trick.
If that was the case his rates would go down to around £3,000 and the rates of that Christmas Week-mentioned superstore would go up to between £8million and £9million.
John has also suggested to Mayor Oliver that he encourages Minister Pickles to talk to 'Mr Argos' about his plans to quit the High Street.
It could just be the straw that breaks the camels back for all of us. Empty shops will mean less money for the government, less money for councils like Torbay, less money for services and more need for cuts and increases in council taxes.
Happy days all around.