Meet the Capital’s Entrepreneurs Deeply Concerned by a Quarterly Hike in Tax Returns

Porterlight Bicycles’ office-come-workshop, tucked away inside a warehouse on an industrial estate in Seven Sisters, has all the space of a garden shed. Between Lawrence Brand – the founder of Porterlight Bicycles – myself, and a baby blue bicycle frame, there is little room to manoeuvre. Hunched over a workbench, we are sandwiching a small blackboard.

Chalked on the board is a motivational message: ‘Time to Build’. Brand believes the Chancellor has failed to send out the same message to London’s growing number of entrepreneurs.

George Osborne proposed a requirement for businesses, the self-employed and landlords to fill out tax returns “at least quarterly” instead of once annually in the small print of his Autumn Statement. Small businesses and the self-employed say they are “deeply concerned” by the policy due to be implemented by 2020.

HMRC claim this will reduce the burden and cost to businesses of keeping their tax affairs up-to-date and make it easier to spot mistakes.

“It will act as another barrier to entry for small businesses” says Brand. He goes on to describe the proposed change as “brutal” for small businesses paying an accountant to assist them with their tax return forms.

Brand, despite opening up a lucrative supply deal with Deliveroo – the popular takeaway delivery service – after they expressed an interest in using his bespoke cargo bikes for deliveries, says he cannot afford accountancy fees under the current annual return system.

However, Brand is fortunate enough to feel confident in filling out the “intimidating” tax return forms himself, having learnt about regulation on the job at a tech start-up he worked with before packing it all in to take his first prototype cargo bike on a 5000km journey across eight countries.

Mathew James Carver is not quite as sure of himself. Since returning from a trip across the United States – where the food culture inspired him to convert an old ice cream van into a grilled cheese sandwich truck, currently selling its wares at Southwark’s Maltby Street Market – Carver “has landed in a bit of trouble” with HMRC over an unintentional administrative error.

Carver now hires an accountant to avoid receiving further hefty fines in the future, but he recognises that this is not an option for everyone. “A lot of small businesses don’t have an accountant because it costs so much,” he says.

“I struggle to see the benefit of quarterly tax returns. For a small business it’s more money and accountancy fees.” Carver continues to predict that the policy will put people off starting businesses in the Capital – which saw a 16 per cent increase in businesses between 2013 and 2015 – for fear of learning the hard way which he suggests “they cannot afford”.

The Federation of Small Businesses – a lobbying group that represent roughly 8,000 of the Capital’s self-employed and small business owners – worries that its members will find it difficult to cope with the quarterly tax return policy.

John Allan, the chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses, expressed the views of his “deeply concerned” members, saying that more reporting appears out of step with a wider Government attempt to reduce the amount of red tape.

Allan went on to suggest the policy presented a financial concern to his members, who already spend £3,600 on average completing their tax returns.

Allan added that the UK’s self-employed can expect to “particularly struggle with the change” despite efforts to streamline tax arrangements through HMRC’s digital transformation.

HM Revenue & Customs has responded to criticism of the policy: “We are focused on creating a tax system that is more effective, more efficient and easier for taxpayers and we will work closely with stakeholders to address any concerns.

“Quarterly updates will largely be a matter of checking data generated from record keeping software or apps and clicking send. Suggestions that this means quarterly tax returns are simply wrong.

“The new digital accounts simply integrate the different information businesses already provide to HMRC into a simple, streamlined system.”

Siona Davis, a Digital Film Production student at Ravensbourne University, believes the Government are underestimating the affect their tax return change might have on people like herself. Davis, a 20-year-old heralding from Belfast, will soon be entering self-employment as a freelance filmmaker, having already produced a short film in co-ordination with the British Film Institute.

She warns that the proposed change could get people into a lot of trouble unintentionally because “young freelancers are not equipped to fill out complicated tax forms”. She believes that increasing red tape will also stop people from choosing certain lines of work because they won’t understand what’s expected from them.

She points across the pond to her ideal alternative: “If you look at Silicon Valley, there are a lot of young people looking to create their own apps and companies … [low regulation is] what makes America so interesting to people. In Silicon Valley and New York there is a huge encouragement.”

Her vision of London is far bleaker: “Arts funding has been cut, the tax returns are being increased – it’s all the little policies like that which are sending out a huge message that the Government don’t want people to think outside the box or to progress.”

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