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Chancellor plans £1.5bn high street boost and overhaul of wedding rules

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Philip Hammond is to send some budget love to the high street by cutting business rates for small shops and allowing more hotels, pubs and restaurants to hold weddings.

Promising a £1.5bn boost for UK high streets, the chancellor will announce plans in the budget on Monday to cut business rate bills by a third for almost half a million small retailers.

At the same time, Mr Hammond will announce a review of marriage laws in England and Wales, simplifying rules dating back to 1836 and even allowing couples to tie the knot in the open air.

Mr Hammond’s high street rescue plan, aimed at halting the spiralling number of closures of shops and pubs, will include £900m of immediate business rates relief and relaxing town planning laws.

There will also be a new £650m fund to improve infrastructure and transport and to re-develop empty shops as homes and offices and restore and re-use old and historic properties.

The high street boost comes after Debenhams became the latest big-name retailer to announce closures, unveiling plans to axe up to 50 shops with 4,000 jobs at risk, after posting a near £500m loss.

The chancellor will also face claims that he is stealing another Labour policy, since help for the high street on business rates has been demanded by the shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey.

According to the Treasury, the changes would mean a pub in Sheffield with a rateable value of £37,750 will save £6,178 next year and a newsagent in Moseley, Birmingham with a rateable value of £14,250 will save £1,749.

The wedding venue review will look at how and where marriages can take place – including outdoor weddings, which are permitted in Scotland – and follows calls for reform from the Law Commission in 2015.

Currently, red tape for getting a licence to hold weddings includes needing to identify a specific room where the ceremony will take place, and ensuring the venue is part of a building rather than in the open air or under a marquee.

:: The 2018 budget: What to look out for

 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
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Philip Hammond intends to slash business rates

The present rules also state that a licence holder must make sure that no food or alcoholic drinks are sold or consumed in the specific area one hour before and during the proceedings.

The government claims this means many small business owners are put off trying to get a licence, which drives up the cost for couples and restricts choice.

Surveys show the average wedding costs between £20,000 and £30,000, which includes an average cost of around £4,500 for venue hire.

The government claims relaxing restrictions would make it cheaper and simpler for couples to get married, potentially supporting more people to get married.

Responding to the expected budget announcements, Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said: “It’s no secret that the UK’s high streets are under pressure, with boarded up shops all too frequent a sight in many parts of the country.

“This is down to a number of factors, but one of the main culprits is a clunky business rate system and so this relief for small enterprises will be welcomed by many.”

Hannah Essex of the British chambers of commerce, said: “We’re delighted that the chancellor has heeded our calls to abandon the up-rating of business rates for the high street for the next two years, and gone further by cutting bills for the vast majority of high street firms.

“Business rates are a heavy burden that throttle all firms with steep bills regardless of how well they’re doing or the economy is faring.”

But Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said the business rates announcements would not help the larger firms employing the majority of workers.

“While we hugely welcome the temporary support being given to small businesses, these measures alone are not sufficient to enable a successful reinvention of our high streets,” she said.

“The underlying issue remains that the business rates burden is simply too high and this unsustainable system needs less tinkering and more wholesale reform within the context of the wider taxation system.”

Mike Cherry, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “In the lead up to the budget, we’ve been urging the government to provide targeted support to struggling small firms on our high streets.

“This announcement shows the chancellor has listened and this relief is a welcome step in getting the urgent help that all small businesses need. This fund will help keep high streets at the heart of our communities.”

:: Watch the budget live on Sky News at 3.30pm on Monday

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