Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to review business rates on empty premises amid industry claims that current policy is “running people into bankruptcy through no fault of their own”.
She addressed business leaders in Aberdeen two days before she stands for re-election as First Minister.
The SNP announced a review of rates in December, and Ms Sturgeon confirmed that will consider the balance between supporting struggling businesses and encouraging them to bring empty properties into use.
Ms Sturgeon said the downturn in the North Sea has presented an opportunity for start-ups to help big firms cuts costs, but she stressed she was “not trying to put a silver lining on the cloud of what is happening in the North Sea”.
Drue Bremner, operations director at Inverurie-based technology start-up Air Control Energy, warned some businesses cannot afford the tens of thousands of pounds a year they pay in rates on empty premises.
“You’re running people into bankruptcy, through no fault of their own, only because they can’t afford to pay rates on empty premises that are making no money,” he said.
Ms Sturgeon said: “On the one hand we don’t want premises to lie empty, which is why there are provisions in the business rates system to try to incentivise businesses to get premises into use.
“On the other hand, we know that during difficult economic times that can be easier said than done.
“So there is empty property rates relief which, over the longer term, is generally more generous than the equivalent system south of the border.
“But we recognise that it is a careful balance that has to be struck.”
She added: “We will do a review of the whole business rates system, not just this aspect.
“We recognise that any system needs to be reviewed periodically, and we need to make sure that the system supports the competitiveness of our economy overall, so that will be one of the aspects that that review considers.”
Mr Bremner said his company was “born out of the ashes of the recent downturn” after revenues in his previous venture dried up.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I’m not trying to put a silver lining on the cloud of what is happening in the North Sea sector just now, but I have spoken to many different companies in the north east who have started up or seen opportunities arising from the work that some of the bigger companies are doing to try to cut costs and become more efficient.”
The First Minister also pledged to change the perception that girls are bad at maths, suggesting she had to work at the subject at school as it was not one of her favourite classes.
One business leader asked Ms Sturgeon what the Scottish Government can do to improve maths teaching in schools, to help those like his daughter who struggle with maths.
Ms Sturgeon said: “If it’s maths you’re talking about… English was my favourite subject at school and I had to sort of discipline myself, I suppose, to do the subjects that I wasn’t as keen on in order to get the qualifications that I needed to go to university.
“There is a lot of evidence that girls are more likely to think that they can’t do maths, or they wouldn’t be good at maths, than boys.
“We have got to change that perception, because it is a perception – it’s not founded in any reality.”