Exeter calls to ban ‘box shifting’ in empty shops as the ‘scam’ costs the council £150,000

Exeter is calling for a ban on ‘box shifting’ in its empty shops said to cost the council £150,000.

Unscrupulous traders using a notorious ‘empty box’ scam are costing councils across Devon millions of pounds every year, writes local democracy reporter Guy Henderson.

Exeter City Council alone is estimated to be losing £150,000. Now there are calls to close the lucrative loophole.

Companies use so-called ‘box-shifters’ to pile up cardboard boxes in empty shops as a way of pocketing business rates relief. Campaigners at a charity called Ban Box Shifting estimate that the practice costs councils across the country £250 million every year which it says could be spent on homes, hospitals and schools.

Landlords get the ‘shifters’ to put boxes in empty shops for six weeks to make it look as if the spaces are occupied. At the end of six weeks they are removed, leaving the shops empty and triggering a business rates-free period of three or six months.

When that period is over, the shifters put the boxes back to ‘occupy’ the space and the cycle begins again. Fish tanks and snail farms are often used as an alternative to cardboard boxes.

Last year 30 MPs put their names to a campaign to end the practice.

Exeter’s deputy lord mayor Cllr Tess Read (Green, St Davids) will ask her colleagues to back a motion against the practice at a meeting of the full council next week.

Her motion to the council says: “It is well known to this council that there are several businesses of this type operating in Exeter, working with multi-chain operating businesses to deprive this council of vital funds.

“An internal estimate is that Exeter City Council is losing out by around £150,000 a year because of this practice. Meanwhile premises stand empty, disfiguring our city centre and depriving charities and community art projects or similar of what could be useful community-centred space.”

Cllr Read wants the city to lobby its MPs and call on levelling-up secretary Michael Gove to extend the period of occupation which activates rates exemption from six weeks to six months, and give councils more power to decide when empty rates relief can legitimately be granted.

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