Council revisits empty shop tax

FREMANTLE council is revisiting its failed plan to force landlords into paying extra rates if they leave shops empty for too long.

At last week’s council meeting city ward councillor Rachel Pemberton successfully moved a motion asking the CEO to look into applying a differential rate for the 2019/20 financial year for commercial properties that have been vacant for more than 12 months.

Back in 2013 the State Administrative Tribunal knocked out the council’s previous attempt at imposing a double-rate hit after it was appealed by then-local government minister Tony Simpson.

But with Labor now in power and advice from its lawyers that seriously gets stuck into the SAT decision, Freo’s councillors want to have another crack.

“The decision seems to fit the cliché of ‘form before substance’ and provides little guidance on what an appropriate application of section 6.33(1)(b) might be,” was the verdict on the SAT from Elisabeth Stevenson, a special counsel with the council’s lawyers McLeods.

Ms Stevenson also criticised SAT justice Jeremy Curthoys’ decision for rejecting arguments without explanation and placing an undue emphasis on “nomenclature”.

Cr Pemberton says empty shops can have a domino effect, hurting nearby businesses.

Top dollar

“Our community have been asking that the council does something to reduce rents, but our ability to influence rents is limited,” Cr Pemberton said.

“This initiative is targeting landlords who are holding out for top dollar rents that are no longer feasible in today’s market.”

The rate hit would only apply to ground floor areas and exclude properties being redeveloped.

Fremantle Chamber of Commerce CEO Olwyn Williams says vacant properties impact on the ambience of the precinct, but she’s not sure increasing rates will fix the problem.

“Many property owners try very hard to keep businesses in their properties. Others take rightful advantage of existing taxation laws,” Ms Williams said.

“Fremantle is not alone, this has caused tension for main streets all around Australia for a long time.

“The Fremantle Chamber of Commerce is certain that a fix will only come with local government, property owners, and other interested parties working it out.”

One landlord, who didn’t want to be named, said there was a fear that if they signed up a tenant in the lean years they’d miss out on better returns if the economy picked up.

But Ms Williams says the council’s 2013 double-rate attempt showed the city’s economic downturn was more than a one or two-year blip and landlords had great control over lease terms so could keep them short enough not to miss out.

by STEVE GRANT

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