Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill

Windrush – in the House of Commons at 5:54 pm on 23rd April 2018.

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[Relevant document: Sixth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Non-Domestic (Property in Common Occupation) Bill, HC 943.]

Second Reading

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:03 pm, 23rd April 2018

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

The Bill takes forward two important measures to promote fairness derived from the autumn Budget: fairness for hard-pressed businesses that face an unjustified tax hike because of the so-called staircase tax, and fairness for the families, young people and many others who see properties lying empty while they struggle to find somewhere to live. On the first issue, we are determined to support the occupiers of business premises in multiple occupation and to ensure that they do not face unfair penalties. For more than 50 years, businesses that operated in adjoining units or rooms accessed from a common corridor staircase received one rates bill. That applied, for example, if a business occupied three consecutive floors in an office block or if a business occupied two rooms separated, let us say, only by a wall.

The rule was widely understood and accepted among all ratepayers, rating professionals and the Valuation Office Agency. No one was looking to change that approach. However, as a consequence of a Supreme Court decision in 2015 concerning an office block occupied by the accountancy firm Mazars, the situation was put in some doubt. After considering the Supreme Court judgment, the Valuation Office Agency concluded that it had to change its long-standing practice. As a result, each unit of property accessed from common parts has to have its own rating assessment, regardless of whether the properties are adjoining or associated with the same business. So, for an office block housing more than one business, each floor will now typically need to have its own rating assessment, even if successive floors are occupied by the same business.

We are not criticising the Supreme Court for reaching that judgment or the Valuation Office Agency for changing its practice as a result, but we have monitored the impact of the changes and it is clear that they have had troubling and damaging implications for ratepayers. First, moving from rating assessments that cover several floors to individual floors has increased some rateable values and rates bills, even when there has been no change to the property or locality. That is because the rateable value per metre squared is sometimes lower for larger properties, reflecting the normal practice in the market whereby landlords will offer discounts on rents for occupiers willing to take more space. This left some ratepayers suddenly facing a backdated increase in their overall rates bill.

Secondly, some businesses have lost small business rate relief as a consequence of the changes. That is not what we wanted to see, given its role in supporting the small independent businesses that are vital contributors to local economies and communities. As hon. Members will be aware, small business rate relief is a generous measure providing relief for ratepayers of property up to £15,000 in rateable value, and as a result more than 600,000 small businesses, occupiers of a third of all properties, pay no business rates at all. It is targeted at ratepayers with only one property and one rates bill to ensure that it benefits small independent businesses, which are very much the lifeblood of our local economy.

As a result of the change in practice that has seen some single rating assessments split in two, some ratepayers who were previously eligible for small business rate relief have lost some or, in some instances, all, of that relief. We understand that the number of small businesses affected by the loss of relief is relatively low, fewer than 1,000, but that is still about 1,000 too many.

These businesses already pay their fair share. They deserve our support and this Bill will make sure that they get it. That is why we have decided to restore the previous practice of the Valuation Office Agency under clause 1. This will again see adjoining properties that are part of the same business receiving one rating assessment and paying one rates bill. We have decided to do this retrospectively. It is important that we get the process right, so we carried out a technical consultation on draft provisions over eight weeks after Christmas, supported by workshops held by my officials with the ratings sector. Indeed, there were meetings with expert valuation surveyors, too.

The Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), answered detailed questions from the Chair of the Select Committee. I am pleased to say that a good response to the consultation has helped us to improve some of the draft provisions. We published a summary of those responses and an explanation of the improvements on the Ministry’s website. I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation on behalf of my Department and the Valuation Office Agency for the help we received from the Rating Surveyors’ Association, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation in this work. It is probably worth saying that the Federation of Small Businesses supports the measure, too. As a result of this work, I am confident that the provisions we are introducing in clause 1 are technically sound and meet the Government’s aims, and that they will be welcomed not just by ratepayers but by everyone who wants to see British businesses thriving, especially small businesses and those on our precious high streets.

We are also determined to deliver a fairer deal for the many people who want and need decent, secure and affordable homes. We are straining every sinew to build more homes. Last year, we saw 217,000 new homes delivered, the highest number in all but one of the past 30 years.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I am a strong supporter of what the Minister is trying to do but, on the question of a more penal tax on empty properties, will he assure me that, if a property is empty pending permissions for subdivision or improvement to get it into a better state so that it can be enjoyed as a home, there will be some flexibility so that people are not being taxed while they are trying to do that work?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is precisely why we have a minimum period of two years, to ensure that we strike the right balance and encourage the use of existing resources in our housing stock without penalising those who want to get their housing stock on to the market but are taking a bit of time to do so, for whatever reason—perhaps because of renovations or the challenges of the local market.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I want to return to the issue of the staircase tax, which the Committee looked at when we examined the draft Bill. We were generally content with the objectives and policy goals, but we raised a particular issue to which we have not yet had a satisfactory answer. It relates to the Government’s commitment that local authorities would be compensated for any financial costs incurred by this measure. That was what the Government said they would do when they announced that they were bringing in this legislation but, since then, all we have had from them is, effectively, a nil. It seems that they are going to do nothing whatever about this, even though they accept that there could be an impact on individual authorities. We do not know what that impact will be because the Government have not given us their workings on this, but can the Minister at least give us an indication that he is prepared to look at this again and give us his assessment of the impact on individual authorities? Will he give us an indication that he is prepared to do something about this?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Chair of the Select Committee makes an important point. We clarified the situation for local authorities after the Budget and we have written to them. I do not think it would be right to compensate local authorities for what would effectively be an inadvertent windfall resulting from a judicial determination. From the point of view of Government policy, that was not something we wanted to see, and we have moved as swiftly and reasonably as we can to correct this.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

We accept that the legislation takes the position back to what people thought it was before the court decision. In the meantime, however, we have had the court decision and local authorities will have done their estimates based on that decision, so the Government are effectively changing local authorities’ financial positions from what they thought they would be a few months ago. Given that the Government initially said they were going to compensate local authorities, why have they gone back on that commitment?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

We did tell local authorities about this as soon as was reasonably possible and, as I mentioned in my previous answer to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think it is right for local authorities to gain from an inadvertent windfall at the expense of small businesses in our local communities.

I shall return to the second aspect of the Bill—namely, council tax on empty dwellings. We are straining every sinew to build the homes that this country needs but, at the same time, we must make the best use of our existing housing stock, and that is what the second clause of the Bill is designed to achieve. It sets out an adjustment to the council tax empty homes premium, which will help to deliver on that.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

In coalition, the Liberal Democrats allocated more than £200 million to the empty homes programmes. However, in 2015, under the Conservative Government, that funding was completely cut. Is it not important to reinstate that money in order to bring empty properties back into use as affordable homes?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Of course, that was a period of coalition government. In our judgment, that method does not provide the best value for money, which explains why we are taking the approach that we are taking in this Bill.

Doubling the council tax on empty dwellings is just part of a range of measures that we are taking to fix the housing market, but it is an important step. The average house price in England is currently almost eight times the average income, compared with four times the average income in 1999. Families in their early thirties are half as likely as their parents to own their own home, and the same challenge faces private renters, whose housing costs now typically account for just over a third of their spending. This Government are committed to turning that around by taking action on all fronts. Fundamentally, that must mean making more homes available by building and delivering more homes, but we are also committed to making better use of the stock that we already have, including supporting local authorities to use their stock efficiently and ensuring that they are doing all they can to bring homes that have remained empty for an extended period back into use.

Councils already have some powers and incentives in this area. In 2010, we inherited a situation in which council tax discounts were applied to all empty homes. That was not right because 300,000 properties were left empty while many hard-working families were struggling to find homes. Owners of long-term empty homes should be incentivised to bring them back into use and that is why in 2013 we enabled councils to charge the full rate of council tax on empty properties. We have also put in place powers for local authorities to charge a council tax premium of up to 50% on homes that have been vacant for two years or more.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

In Walsall, we have seen a 40% reduction in the number of long-term empty properties since 2010. Does my hon. Friend anticipate the measures in the Bill helping us to tackle that still further?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The progress that has been made in my hon. Friend’s constituency is hugely welcome. If we look at the behavioural change across the board as a result of previous measures, we can see that 90% of councils have taken up the powers to apply the premium and that all but three of those councils are charging it at the maximum level of 50%. This has resulted in a 9% fall in the number of properties subject to a premium in those areas using the premium every year since the power was introduced.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

In Northern Ireland, measures have been taken in relation to accommodation above shops that is not being used for commercial purposes. The Minister has referred to rates relief for shops, and there is also a way of doing that in relation to the space above the shops in order to provide accommodation. Has he given any consideration to that possibility?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am not quite sure what means the hon. Gentleman has in mind for achieving that, but perhaps we can thrash that out in more detail in Committee. Of course we will always remain open to adopting the smartest ways of doing things to ensure that we get the right balance.

Photo of Sarah Wollaston Sarah Wollaston Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons)

I welcome the Bill and the measures to give councils the tools they need to ensure that we drive down the number of empty properties. Will the Minister also use this opportunity to ensure that those who own second homes are contributing their fair share through council tax, and that they are not able to sidestep that by opting to pay business rates and then claiming eligibility for small business rate relief? If we are to achieve our goals on decent, affordable homes, it is important that everybody should pay their fair share.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The situation to which she refers is slightly different from that of vacant homes, but I would say that we need to balance the economic impact of any measures in that area with the underlying public policy imperative that she has rightly referred to. We have also made changes on holiday homes in the context of council tax and stamp duty. We will keep the point she raises under due consideration and I have also discussed it with the Minister for Local Government.

In addition, our new homes bonus scheme provides a financial reward for councils that bring empty homes back into use, so this involves a carrot as well as a stick. This has generated £7 billion in new homes bonus payments to local authorities since 2011. Since these measures took effect, the number of properties left empty in England for six months or longer has fallen by a third since 2010, from 300,000 to just over 200,000. So these measures can work and they can deliver changes in behaviour.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

I wholeheartedly support these announcements. Only this weekend, I was talking to some very angry residents who have had to live for decades next door to empty properties owned by one individual who does not wish to bring his houses back on to the market. This is blighting residents’ housing in those neighbourhoods and there are even rats escaping from the abandoned houses. I wholeheartedly support any measure to protect the existing residents.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I suspect that that situation is reflected much more broadly, both regionally and nationally.

Based on our experience as of today, we will go further in the Bill by doubling the premium’s maximum level to 100% and by allowing councils to charge double the rate of council tax on homes standing empty for two years or more. We are trying to strike the right balance between respecting the legitimate interests of those who own property with the overriding imperative in my Ministry to make the best use of existing housing stock, to ensure that we provide the homes that people in this country need.

Of course, given the demand for housing, we cannot just leave properties lying empty for years and the Bill will provide a positive incentive to avoid that. If vacant homes lay empty for too long, not only is that a waste of a much-needed resource, but they can become a blight on the local community, as my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson said, whether through squatters, vandalism or other forms of antisocial behaviour. Different areas will have different housing needs and different numbers of long-term empty homes, and the legislation will respect the fact that local authorities know their communities and their areas best, which is why we will keep the premium as a discretionary discount, allowing councils to decide whether it is appropriate for their communities and enabling them to set the level of premium that should be charged.

We understand that local authorities will want to reflect carefully on the local housing market in deciding whether to issue a determination when, for example, a homeowner is struggling to rent out or sell a property in a challenging market, which was a point made by my right hon. Friend John Redwood earlier. For that reason, we published guidance in 2013 to remind local authorities to consider the reasons why a property may lie empty in particular circumstances. The guidance makes it clear that the premium should not be used to penalise owners of homes that are genuinely on the market for rent or sale. I should also say that the Bill will not bring any extra properties within the scope of a premium; it simply applies to those properties that would already have been potentially affected by a higher premium.

In taking these measures to help to secure homes and to lift an unreasonable burden on business, the Government are delivering on our commitments to support the enterprise economy and to build a fairer society, backing small businesses and backing working families who dream of getting on to the housing ladder. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 6:21 pm, 23rd April 2018

Happy St George’s day to you and to the rest of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) for meeting me last week to go through some of the Bill’s more technical aspects, which will save other Members the headache of hearing some of them today.

The Opposition broadly welcome both of the changes in the Bill. Clause 1 seeks to address the Supreme Court’s decision on the staircase tax, relating to how unconnected units occupied by the same business are treated. The measure will put businesses in no worse position than they would have been before the court ruling. Clause 2 will give local authorities the power to increase council tax on homes that are deemed to be long-term empty.

While the Opposition support clauses 1 and 2, we need assurances from the Government that they will not cause detriment to local authority finances. That is particularly the case with clause 1, which will reinstate features of business rates valuation practice that applied prior to the Supreme Court case. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has been clear that the effects of the provision on individual local authorities ought to be quantified and supported. The Government have not been clear about how individual local authorities will be affected or about those that will be picking up the tab as a result of the reforms. It has therefore been difficult to give the measures adequate scrutiny at this stage, so we hope to explore some of them in Committee.

Some wider issues also need consideration. The Federation of Small Businesses has illustrated the problems facing smaller firms that necessarily operate in large premises but do not qualify for small business rate relief. For example, childcare providers require space by the nature of their activity, but that takes them above the small business rate relief threshold. Far more also needs to be done to protect the high street and town and city centres. Business rates are a significant cost and can be the difference between surviving or failing. We recognise that a taxation system cannot sit in isolation and must support the Government’s broader policy objectives, and we have seen some of the largest corporations get away without paying their fair share of tax while premises—the property-based businesses that are the lifeblood or foundation of many of our communities and are essential for town centres to thrive—are taxed through business rates before they earn a single penny.

Turning to clause 2, we welcome the move to bring long-term empty properties back into use by incentivising the owners of such homes to act, but we are also keen to tackle the shortage of available housing in some areas. It has been Labour policy for some time now—the Government’s policy falls short of this—to see 300% council tax charged in the measures that are being put forward today. There are currently 200,000 empty properties in England, and we have seen homelessness increase steadily over the past eight years. As we speak, 120,000 children have nowhere to call home. They are staying with friends and family, and many of them do not have a bedroom of their own. Meanwhile, the evidence of rough sleeping and homelessness is plain to see in towns and cities up and down the land. Councils, particularly in London, which has the highest concentration of empty properties, are battling to meet their statutory obligations and housing duties due to increasing demand, rising unaffordability and the effects of eight years of Government cuts to local authority revenues. It is absolutely right that owners of empty properties pay a premium if their property is suitable to let but they fail to do so. However, any move must form part of a wider strategy to bring empty homes back into use, including positive, proactive support to get homes back on the market.

We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement of some of the faults in the system and their move towards adopting Labour’s policy on empty homes, but they could of course have gone further. Housing is one of the most pressing issues facing this country, and eight in 10 people think the Government ought to do more to address the housing crisis. We know that, which is why my right hon. Friend John Healey has launched a Green Paper on affordable housing—a framework to change the country’s approach to affordable housing—as part of a new national mission to solve the country’s housing crisis. From planning to funding right through to delivery, we need a comprehensive, joined-up strategy to tackle the housing crisis.

The Conservative-chaired Local Government Association —I declare an interest as one of its vice-presidents—agrees that there is more to be done. It would like the Government to go further and give councils greater power to borrow, to build and to deliver the homes that we need—not on a case-by-case basis, but by trusting local authorities to understand their areas and to get homes built quickly.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

Like me, my hon. Friend has experience of local government, and he will know that if the Government are serious about dealing with this country’s housing crisis, they would free local government to build social housing on a major scale. That would determine the Government’s level of commitment. So far, however, they have not shown that commitment. There are families in my constituency in Coventry who cannot get accommodation, which is a terrible situation for people to find themselves in.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Absolutely. In some areas, the housing crisis was a significant factor in why people voted to leave the European Union. People do not feel confident about this country’s future, and housing is a vital part of that. If people do not have the security of a home or a secure tenure, they will rightly be nervous about what the future may bring, so the Government need to do much, much more. However, the idea that they can command and control from Whitehall and expect every community to benefit has been disproven time after time. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we should empower local government to get on. Councils know their areas. They have the local partnerships and know the sites. They have planning departments that need greater support. If they were given the resources, they could do far more, but this must be about giving them independence and freedom, not making them wait for the Government to offer crumbs from the table, which is how many councils feel.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

I agree with much of that principle, but that is what local plans are for, and we have cross-party support in my patch of Swindon. This Government are empowering local communities to shape future development if they choose to engage with the opportunities.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I accept that point, but we also need to accept that local plans are limited in that, by and large—of course they do more than this—they are about land supply to support the number of housing units that will be built. They do not discuss the mixture of tenure or go into detail about the funding plan that will support the proposals. A local authority could identify, based on its population and demographics, that it needs a certain proportion of affordable or social housing, for example, but there will be no funding plan to deliver on that. A local plan could sit on a shelf for 10 years, but if the council’s ability to borrow is curtailed, it cannot lay the bricks to build social housing. Like the hon. Gentleman, I know my local area and the council knows the area too, but it is constantly under the cosh of funding cuts. It does not have the capacity and it needs it to be freed up.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

My hon. Friend is generous in allowing me to intervene again. If the Government really believe in local democracy and want to encourage a property-owning democracy, they should do what used to be done. Local authorities used to give out mortgages and build houses for sale, and they used to build social housing. That is how to do it if the Government really mean to tackle the problem, and that is what they are not doing.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

That is a fair point and, bringing it back to the Bill, we will see the rigour that local authorities apply to understanding what clause 1 means for their base funding requirements and what clause 2 means for how much money can be generated to support bringing more rental homes back into use. We know local government will deliver because, time after time, it has really stepped up and done what is asked of it.

Finally, the Bill feeds into the wider debate about the viability of local government finance. Issues such as the staircase tax have raised important points, but we need to move away from the uncertainty and the reliance on favourable Government decisions to fund local services. Any new responsibilities must be backed up with the resources to guarantee that councils can meet their statutory duties.

By the end of the decade, local government will be facing a funding gap of £5 billion which, time after time, the Chancellor seems to be wilfully ignoring. I understand that Ministers have been trying to get an audience with him, but they have failed. The consequence is that our councils often face financial uncertainty.

As my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne, my boss, says, you cannot empower local government if you impoverish it.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 6:31 pm, 23rd April 2018

It is a pleasure to follow Jim McMahon. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

As I said last week, it is a pleasure to see the Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, Mr Betts, back in his place for this debate. During his absence, the Committee has had to deal with many of the issues we are discussing tonight. I thank my hon. Friends on the Front Bench for coming before the Committee to update us on the Government’s proposals and to give us a chance to comment before the Bill came before the House.

In many ways, that is something from which all Departments could learn. Using Select Committees to do pre-legislative scrutiny is a good way of making sure we get legislation as close to correct as possible before it is presented to the House, rather than requiring the House to develop it further. My Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 went through the same process, so it is clear that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is leading the way in government, and we should congratulate it on doing so. However, I will outline some criticisms of the proposals, because there are some concerns.

The staircase tax came as a bolt out of the blue to some 30,000 small businesses in this country. We cannot criticise Supreme Court rulings, but this ruling was a massive shock to small businesses across the country that have paid their business rates for many years—there was a settled position. The Supreme Court ruling ended that, and I will pay particular attention to what has happened across the country in the past couple of years as a direct result.

My constituent Anthony Broza is the chief executive of Wienerworld, the UK’s leading independent music publisher and distributor. Given that his company is competing against Amazon and other such companies, the staircase tax has a direct impact on his business. He is my constituent—he lives in my constituency—but he runs his business out of an office just across the border in the London Borough of Brent, and therefore the levying authority is Brent Council.

Mr Broza owns an office block that I think is on four floors. He uses the ground floor for distribution and to allow the public to come to see his goods and services, and he uses the fourth floor for administration purposes. He quickly realised that he would not need the other floors so, rather than keeping them empty, he not unreasonably rented them out to other businesses. The floors are connected by a common staircase, hence the staircase tax.

Mr Broza runs a small business and, because he was getting small business rates relief, his rates were effectively zero. Suddenly, after returning from a good holiday, he received a 22-page document from the Valuation Office Agency and no less than nine rates bills from the London Borough of Brent demanding payment within five months. As might be imagined, it came as a bit of a shock to put it mildly. The sole reason for the shock is that the offices are split over different levels, and they have been that way for many years.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

Does my hon. Friend agree that such shocks can deter the very entrepreneurial spirit we need to ensure that the small business economy thrives under this Government?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Mr Broza’s view is that he might have to close his business as a direct result of this completely unreasonable demand and, as I have said, his is one of 30,000 businesses in that position.

Obviously, the various different charges levied on Mr Broza covered a number of years going back to 2015-16 and 2016-17. The 2017-18 rates bill was even more aggressive, because it took account of an increase in rateable value and the loss of transitional relief and business rates relief. He was placed in a position in which he was suddenly presented with a bill for £8,344.59 in one go, to be paid within the year, when he had previously been paying the princely rates of about £370 a month on one property and only £50 a month on the other. He was clearly encountering a draconian position.

When Mr Broza came to see me, I was shocked that he was being placed in that dreadful position. Clearly, overall, the Government were going to gain from this Supreme Court decision. Whether it is local government or national Government, overall the taxpayer was going to gain some £3,040.95 in one hit that was completely unbudgeted for.

Worse still for Mr Broza, he had budgeted that his business rates bill for the 2017-18 tax year would be zero. Of course, he was then told that he would have to pay £5,365.07 within five months of receiving the bill. I took up this case with the Chancellor, and I am pleased to say that the Chancellor saw the right way to proceed: small businesses in such a situation that have acted in a perfectly reasonable and lawful way should not be penalised by suddenly being hit with a dreadful windfall tax.

However, we have a number of problems still to resolve. I welcome the Bill, under which businesses such as Wienerworld will be returned to their previous position. However, the current position is that the London Borough of Brent, and other councils across the country, are still levying these punitive tax rates and demanding payment. So businesses are having either to find money out of their revenue to pay local authorities—to keep paying the business rates as they are—or to borrow the money in the hope and expectation that it will be returned to them. Either way, this seems unsatisfactory, given that the Government have made it clear they are going to correct the position for those businesses.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of his constituent. Does he agree that quite a lot of these things illuminate the disconnect between decision making and policy making, and an understanding of how the business world, particularly the small, local business world, works? If there was better knowledge and understanding of that, some of these cases, to which he has rightly been drawing the House’s attention, would not arise.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Clearly, Government policy should always be driven in an evidence-based way and be sympathetic, particularly to small businesses, which are the lifeblood of our economy. However, we are dealing with a Supreme Court ruling here, as opposed to Government policy. I am pleased that the Government are trying to put it right, which is how this should work. The advice being given by officials from the Department is less than helpful in its current guise, because the correspondence we have had from the Department says that it cannot do anything until the law is corrected. That means these businesses are still being charged these business rates while the law is being changed. One thing the Government need to look at is finding a way of ensuring that people are not having to pay huge sums only for the valuations to be redone and for them to claim the money back, together with interest—there is also the bureaucracy to consider. Businesses just want to get on with their business, rather than sorting out the mess that has been created with their business rates.

The attitude of the London Borough of Brent to Wienerworld—I suspect this is shared by all local authorities across this country—is, “This is the decision. You are due to pay this money. You must pay it or else we will distrain against you to get that money off you.” That means small businesses in this country will go under as a result, and that is the concern. Obviously, the Government are moving as fast as they can to correct this position, but guidance needs to be given by the Department to local authorities on businesses that are suffering financial hardship as a direct result of a decision that was nothing to do with them, is not Government policy and needs to be corrected.

This is a problem in many parts of London, and it has been drawn to my attention that one area that will suffer heavily is Tower Hamlets, which has a number of businesses in respect of which the staircase tax is operational. This is one area where I have criticisms on this issue. Once the Bill becomes an Act and the law is corrected, the businesses will apply for revaluation. As I understand it, their revaluation will go back to 2010 if they so wish—it will probably go back at least to 2015. They will then get a revised bill, and probably a return of money and of interest, which is going to come from the local authority. I noted the Minister’s comment in reply to the Chair of the Select Committee that the position would be that local authorities have experienced a windfall. They have, but many local authorities are now going to have to repay that money once the law is changed back again and they have used that money. It is not money that they were not expecting, because they have had a judgment, and they have used this money in their budget. If the Government now say, “You’ve got to repay the money but we are not going to compensate you for that repayment”, that is a windfall to the Government—

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Chair, High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

I apologise for not being here for the whole debate, Madam Deputy Speaker—I have been chairing a Bill Committee. What my hon. Friend is saying is worrying me, because a problem of this nature may arise in Southend and we are running a fine budget. Has he quantified, by area, how much money is involved? Finances are already troublesome in terms of local councils trying to deliver the best services locally.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

All local authorities across the country which have had to issue these revised bills over a three-year period on business rates will be looking right now at what the bottom line is for them. The worrying factor about the way the Bill is being introduced is that the repayment is not automatic; each business that may have been affected will have to apply for revaluation. They will then be revalued and finally a bill will be decided, for potentially a three-year period, together with interest. Some businesses may not gain anything, but some will gain a substantial amount of money, with interest, and the local authorities will have to repay that. The current position, as I understand it—we need to press our Front Benchers on this issue—is that local authorities repaying that money would not have had this money if this judgment had not been made. However, they have applied that money to their budgets and they will have to find the money from within their budgets as one-off, windfall damage to their bottom line. That is unfair on the local authorities concerned. They have not taken the decision—this was not a decision any local authority took—so they should not be financially penalised as a result of this. I hope we can move to a position whereby the Department will agree to compensate all local authorities that are out of pocket as a direct result of these decisions, once we have got to a conclusion.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he did in scrutinising this legislation in my absence, and I agree with the point he is making now. Would it not be a lot more convincing from the Government when they say we are not going to compensate because the likely effect is small overall if they were to release to us their detailed calculations, which presumably they have done, about the impact on individual authorities?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for raising that issue. We are talking about 30,000 businesses, many of which will be concentrated in particular areas. We know that there will be a hit for some local authorities, which could be considerable. Hon. Members from across the House will not necessarily be aware of the potential hit for local authorities as a result.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

My hon. Friend will know—if he does not, I will tell him—that I spent seven years doing the finance portfolio on a district council. When a local authority suffers from a flood, there is a Department-run fund they can make a bid to in order to cover the costs they have incurred due to those exceptional circumstances. Might that be an avenue for those local authorities? Might they be able to make such a bid in order to fill this black hole created in their local finances, which was not of their fault and which was unable to be predicted in their budgeting process?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Clearly, the Government and the Department have figures they can use to evaluate which local authorities are most affected in this way. It may well be that a threshold should be imposed, whereby if only a relatively small amount of money is involved a local authority could not claim it back. However, if a substantial sum is involved, as could happen in many of these cases, we should get to a position where the local authority is returned to where it should have been in terms of the expectation in its budget. My hon. Friend may know that I was in charge of the London Borough of Brent’s finances for many years, so I know the way the finances of that local authority work extremely well. The reality is that this will create a hole in Brent council’s budget, and I do not see why Brent should suffer as a result.

Let me turn to the empty homes premium. My hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson asked in an intervention how we can ensure that local authorities can encourage empty homes to come back into operation, but without unfairly penalising those homeowners who are refurbishing their homes or converting them for other purposes, thereby making them temporarily empty for an extended period. We do not want those people to suffer any damage or be charged any financial premiums, but at the same time we do not want unscrupulous homeowners or landlords to keep a property empty, only to do some work when the local authority investigates, just to demonstrate that they are doing something, but still keeping the property empty for longer.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why the two-year period is a fair benchmark and why the 2013 guidelines on assessing why a home is empty are important in protecting people?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Clearly, different local authorities have interpreted the rules in different ways. One of the concerns is that owners should not be penalised for refurbishing properties and bringing them back into use, but it must be genuine refurbishment, rather than people artificially refurbishing properties and keeping them empty. That is a very difficult test, and it must be left to local discretion, rather than trying to formulate a detailed law that will not necessarily provide the answer, but will allow learned lawyers to gain from trying to interpret it.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I see my hon. Friend twitching.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Chair, High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

My hon. Friend anticipates me, because at one stage he said there was perhaps no requirement to change the law, and I was about to leap to my feet. The reason I hesitated was that I was going to support him in any amendment he might table to look at not only existing residential property during that period, but shops above flats. In Southend High Street there are many properties that many years ago—more than two years ago—used to be residential properties, and it is not in the interests of the freeholders or lease- holders on the ground floor to open up those spaces. In Southend that is blocking 800 to 1,000 units, yet it was always the intention of the Victorian architects that they should be occupied. If my hon. Friend tables any amendments, I would be more than happy to add my name if they extend the Bill to cover those important points.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I hesitate to get into a battle about tabling amendments to the Bill, because we want the Government to reflect on tonight’s debate. We want incentives to bring forward housing and ensure that it is not kept unoccupied unnecessarily for an unreasonable length of time. Flats above shops are an example of the many properties that we can bring back into use. Many are disused or used for storage. Often, they were intended for the owner of the shop to have a residence and to run his or her retail outlet down below, but they moved away from that type of operation many years ago.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Has my hon. Friend seen examples, as I have in my constituency, of accommodation above shops being left empty for a considerable period, thereby lowering the tone of the area and leading to antisocial behaviour and an unfortunate downward spiral in the general feeling of the community?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Clearly, we want our town centres and shopping areas to be revitalised through people living in them and going to them. If people live in the flats above shops, that brings life to the area 24 hours a day, rather than for maybe 12 hours a day, and that must be to our advantage.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Further to the point made by our hon. Friend Eddie Hughes about empty shops, I am aware of a house in Huddersfield, where I grew up, that was empty for literally decades on end. It was not just a waste of space and precious land; it was a huge eyesore that dragged down property prices all around. It was deeply ugly and people wanted shot of it. Does my hon. Friend agree that bringing those kinds of properties back into use is the first place we should go to, rather than necessarily building on greenfield sites?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I am sure that colleagues across the House could come up with example after example of empty homes that could have been brought back into use many years ago. Some should possibly have been demolished and replaced—I have those in my constituency —but the sad reality is that we still have far too many empty homes that should be brought back into use. Those that are derelict and have not been used for literally decades are the first that we should penalise and look to bring back into operation.

Let me end by asking those on our Front Bench to look sympathetically at how we can compensate local authorities for the loss of revenue—we have suggested a means by which that could be done—how we can get guidance to local authorities so that they do not penalise small businesses because we are correcting the law in the interim, and how we can get to a position whereby some sensible decisions can be taken as quickly as possible and small businesses that face difficulties meeting their finances are given help and advice, rather than being closed down by banks and other operations that may wish to penalise them in that way. If we can do those things, this will be a good Bill.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

My hon. Friend is being characteristically generous with his time. Does he agree that as all of us, as parliamentarians across the House, work with our local authorities to seek imaginative ways to address the shortage of housing, we need to be absolutely certain that those buildings that could readily be converted from retail to residential use, or in which the residential element could be extended, are not saddled with debts, burdens, judgments or whatever, which could preclude the successful delivery of that opportunity to increase the housing stock in sustainable locations in our town and city centres?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

My hon. Friend draws the House’s attention to another unintended consequence of the decision to implement the staircase tax, which could preclude people who may wish to bring a retail unit into operation as a housing unit, which is something we should all welcome. That demonstrates that we have an opportunity across the House for improvement in both these areas.

Finally, I hope that we can look sympathetically at introducing the empty homes premium in a way that does not penalise those who are improving properties, but does penalise those who are deliberately keeping them empty for no good reason, so that we bring homes back into use and they are used properly, as we would all like.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North 6:58 pm, 23rd April 2018

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Bob Blackman. It is obviously a particularly great pleasure to speak on St George’s day and as we in this House celebrate the birth of a new member of the royal family, so today’s speech will certainly be memorable for me. And boy have we got some exciting stuff to discuss today!

If I remember correctly, clause 2 amends section 11 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. It is perhaps not particularly sexy, but I hope that it will be effective—and boy does it need to be effective. At the moment, we have approximately 200,000 empty properties. In fact, if I remember correctly from the briefing, it is 205,593 empty properties. I do not know who comes up with these statistics, but I think that they should be slightly vaguer, unless they put a time stamp on them. Anyway, there are approximately 200,000 properties in this country that have been empty for a substantial period of time.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

My hon. Friend will be aware that the number of empty homes—more than 200,000 of them—is down from nearly 300,000 in 2010, so there has been a huge improvement. We have 100,000 more homes for families as a result of the changes that we have already made, which has avoided 100,000 extra homes being built. Many people in green-belt areas will welcome that change. Does he agree that the progress that we have already made on empty homes will be further boosted by the measures that we are discussing today?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

I agree entirely. When we talk, as we frequently do, about the housing crisis in this country, we can see that there are many elements to it. Of course, it is incredibly laudable that this Government have an ambition, which I am sure they will achieve, to build 300,000 houses per year, but it is also incredibly important that we make the best use of our existing housing stock.

Photo of David Linden David Linden SNP Whip

The hon. Gentleman talks about the housing crisis in this country, but does he agree that we would better solve the housing crisis if we abolished the right to buy?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful intervention given the fact that yesterday, only 24 hours ago, he ran 26.2 miles, and look at the man we see before us this evening—not a break of sweat on him. Clearly, he is not just an incredible athlete, but a gifted intellectual, and I acknowledge what he says, but completely disagree with him.

As I was saying, we have moved from 300,000 empty properties down to 200,000 empty properties, and that is, in no small part, owing to the fact that we previously introduced this council tax premium.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

I am aware that the issues in Walsall North might not be the same as those in Cornwall, but I do appreciate and share the view that we have a mutual interest in making sure that these vacant properties are brought back into use. Does my hon. Friend think that his local authority, like mine, will appreciate these changes?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, not least because this Government, being the free-thinking Government they are, are not imposing this duty on councils, but giving them the opportunity to apply this measure should they choose to do so, so they will have the opportunity to increase the premium from 50% to 100%. No doubt, Madam Deputy Speaker, you are thinking, “What might they do with that extra money?” I personally suggest that they use that extra money for services for their local constituents in order to drive down bills, increase efficiency and make sure that they either optimise their use of council tax, or possibly decrease their council tax in order to ensure that hard-working families benefit from the change to the law.

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that as many councils, including my own, are reviewing and updating their local plans to make sure that we have the housing that we need for the future, this would be a good opportunity to analyse and evaluate whether the council tax premium could be used, accelerated and deployed efficaciously to ensure that we have the right housing in local areas such as mine?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

My hon. Friend makes an important point, not least because he uses the word “efficaciously” so skilfully. I hope that Walsall adopts that very approach, because, since 2010, we have seen a 40% decrease in the number of empty properties, owing in no small part to the actions of this Government.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for his eloquent and wide-ranging speech. Does he agree about what is at the heart of this matter? He talks about Walsall, but in my constituency, in Cheadle and Cheadle Hulme and the surrounding districts, we also want to see some regeneration of our centres. We want to see people going into the centres, living there, and opening up businesses that can thrive. We want the district centres to look appealing and attractive and have people living and shopping there and utilising them.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

I am simply amazed. My hon. Friend is blessed either with psychic ability or intuition. That is the very point that I was about to move on to. In Beechdale, one of the wards in my constituency

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

My hon. Friend seems to be saying something very nice and flattering to anybody who intervenes on him. As I have not had anything nice and flattering said to me today, I just thought that I would give him the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

All I can say is that I have been in the House for less than a year and I hope that, over the passage of time, I will develop the insight and eloquence of my hon. Friend. Unfortunately for the moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, you have to put up with this stuttering Brummie trying to work his way through his speech, and taking yet another intervention.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I am not in search of flattery. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as bringing empty residential properties back into use, it is strategically important to bring into use buildings that are not currently registered as residential properties? Is he aware that the number of conversions and change-of-use properties has increased from 17,000 in 2010 to 43,000 last year—from 12% of all new supply to 20%? As well as turning old houses back into homes that people are occupying, it is also important, as part of the same strategy, that we go further and liberalise change of use.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Were it not for the fact that I am speaking totally extemporaneously, I would have thought that my hon. Friends had read my speech, but, as I have already pointed out, in order to do so they would have had to read my mind. I will indeed be coming on to that very point subsequently, in talking about the excellent period that I spent working for YMCA Birmingham.

For the moment, Members will no doubt remember that I was about to talk about Beechdale, and we should return there immediately. Beechdale housing area, which was built in the ’50s and ’60s in my constituency, has Stephenson Square, a row of shops, and, above the shops, 10 flats that had remained unoccupied for 10 years. Beechdale Community Housing group took the opportunity to refurbish those flats, creating nine self-contained properties that could then be let to members of the local community. However, one flat has been retained for the use of the House to Home project, facilitated by the amazing Jemma Betts, who works for Beechdale Community Housing. Her role is to ensure that, when people move into those newly refurbished, previously vacant properties, they can be helped to sustain their tenancies. Of course it is our objective to bring empty homes back into use, but they must be used by people who can maintain the tenancy for a protracted period. It is difficult for some people who have had previously chaotic lives to develop the skills to enable them to sustain that tenancy. Jemma’s work is to help them understand how they can, for a reasonable price, furnish that property, access rent statements online and therefore maintain that tenancy.

What is also important about this particular area is the fact that there are shops beneath the flats that have been brought back into use. I am thinking particularly of Rob Mullett Butchers, which I thoroughly recommend that you visit, Madam Deputy Speaker, if ever you are in Beechdale, or W.E. Whitty’s grocery, which has been run by—[Interruption.] I am embarrassed. It has been run by Jane and Phil for a number of years. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, Phil recently said to me, “When you bring properties back into use, particularly those properties that are above shops, you regenerate the entire area. People are living there 24 hours a day and they are making use of the shops.” This has caused a general lowering in the incidence of antisocial behaviour in the area. But it is not just that. Jemma has also taken the opportunity to create a community garden to the rear of the flats now that they have been brought back into use, having been vacant for 10 years. This facility allows children the opportunity to learn how to grow vegetables.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I am lucky to represent Market Harborough, which has seen the fastest growth in the number of new shops anywhere in the east midlands, but many retail centres are suffering from the growth of the internet. In future, this country will probably have more retail space with potential homes above than it needs. Does my hon. Friend agree that local government must play a strong role in helping to consolidate those retail centres into housing, so that they can become vibrant places where people want to hang around?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

I agree entirely. We are seeing a shift in the profile of our town centres. Of course, many people are keen to shop online these days, so there are some empty properties. Unfortunately, there is a particular example of empty shop units in Walsall, where the Labour-led council has decided to spend £13 million buying a shopping centre with empty units and a leaking roof. I hope that the vociferous campaigning of local Conservatives will ensure that we take back control of the council.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Empty shopping units are not really covered by the Bill. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that the legislation is about residential properties and he will be coming to that.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was merely responding to my hon. Friend Neil O’Brien, who suggested that there might be a change-of-use opportunity for empty commercial properties. Hon. Members will no doubt remember that when the Government provided £100 million of funding through their empty homes programme, they were not only targeting empty residential properties, but allowing organisations to have the facility for a change of use from commercial to residential. I was just about to come to an example of that.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not know whether you have ever been to watch Aston Villa play football in Birmingham. I would suggest that you do not come at the moment; we are hoping for promotion, but it can be a bit hit and miss. Anyway, YMCA Birmingham took the opportunity of taking over Harry Watton House in Aston, which was previously a social care building that had been used for residential purposes occasionally, but was left empty for a considerable time. YMCA Birmingham took the opportunity of approximately £450,000 of Government funding to convert that building back into use as 33 self-contained flats. YMCA Birmingham has been in existence since 1849 and currently offers 300 units of accommodation for young, previously homeless people; bringing empty properties back into use has to be the best use of Government money.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I thank my hon. Friend for his patience. There are currently around 400 empty properties in the Harborough district, and there are also occasionally homeless people in the district. All my constituents would want those homes brought back into use so that we can tackle the problem of homelessness that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, although there are occasional cases where people who appear to be homeless are not open to the good will and hospitality of neighbouring organisations. YMCA Birmingham was given £1 million to create new residential accommodation at its Erdington site, which was only about 20 or 30 metres away from a Tesco store. Some people used to turn up and beg outside that store, which was very bad for the credibility of the YMCA as an organisation seeking to home homeless people. Despite our best efforts, they would never be removed and come into our accommodation.

Let me return to the matter of how empty homes can be brought back into use. There is a block of flats on Henrietta Street in Birmingham that was owned by somebody who failed to develop it over a sustained period of time, but thanks to money through the empty homes programme—YMCA Birmingham was allocated a total of £890,000—we were able to bring those flats back into use. The block is now excellent accommodation for young people in Birmingham, on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter, which is quite a prestigious address these days. The units of accommodation are relatively small at approximately 25 to 30 square metres, so they are perhaps not palatial.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of empty properties—commercial and residential —exists not just in certain parts of the country, but all over the country? It is a particular problem in my constituency, which is actually quite rural.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

As I mentioned previously, there were 300,000 empty properties, so they were clearly spread broadly across the country.

Madam Deputy Speaker, if you will forgive me a small indulgence, I just want to mention some research. I would not normally refer to Lib Dem research but, according to a Guardian article in January this year, 11,000 properties in this country have been vacant for more than 10 years. Incredible! I can see the look on your face, Madam Deputy Speaker. Another 23,000 properties have been empty for five years. What are we doing as a society? How can we talk about this housing crisis when we have 11,000 properties that have been vacant for more than 10 years?

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman is making a very entertaining speech. Does he agree that there are so many thousands of empty homes because councils do not have the funds to bring these empty properties back into use? We need funds for councils to make that happen, but the money that was allocated under the coalition Government has been cut.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

I am not sure that the hon. Lady has been paying attention to the entirety of my speech. I have mentioned many millions of pounds that this Government have given to address the issue of empty homes.

Photo of David Warburton David Warburton Conservative, Somerton and Frome

Surely one of the huge benefits of the empty homes premium is that it will mean that councils have more money, thereby reducing the burden on hard-pressed council taxpayers. I also want to stress that one hon. Member for North Dorset is more than this House can take, never mind another, so I caution my hon. Friend about wanting to emulate certain people in this House too much.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important to remember that the Bill will give councils the flexibility to apply that council tax premium, which is currently at 50% and can be increased up to 100%. But I would imagine that some constituents might want to challenge councils that do not take the opportunity to apply the full 100% because, as he said, it will give them the opportunity to bring in more income. As Wera Hobhouse said, councils will then have money that may facilitate them bringing those 11,000 empty properties back into use.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

The bulk of empty properties are actually privately owned. A key reason behind that is that people are trying to increase the monetary value of the home by sitting on it, and avoiding the hassle and potential pitfalls that could happen if they rented it out. It is that issue, not council-owned properties, that we are trying to target with this Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

My hon. Friend brings me to a point that I had neglected to cover so far: the flexibility that is allowed because we absolutely do not want to penalise people who have genuine reasons for a having a property empty for an extended period. Those people should fear nothing from this Bill. My understanding—I may be incorrect; if so, I am sure that hon. Members will correct me—is that the Bill would not apply, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you were serving in our armed forces overseas and your property was therefore left empty for an extended period. Similarly, should you unfortunately need to go into hospital or respite care, leaving your property vacant for a two-year period, there would be the flexibility to ensure that this measure was not applied.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does my hon. Friend agree, though, that quite a few of these empty homes are owned by the public sector, which may not respond to this incentive? If only my council had lots of empty homes, it would be much easier, but it does not, and we are under enormous pressure. Does he agree that where that is the case, we need something else as well in order to end the scandal of empty public-owned housing?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

This is dangerously close to becoming a debate with great interaction. I look forward to more comments from my right hon. Friend, because my understanding is that there was previously a tool that allowed compulsory purchase of properties that had been left empty for an extended period. Some might think that this Government would not apply such rules, which perhaps seem draconian.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Independent, Dover

The hon. Gentleman is making an impassioned, powerful and thoughtful speech. In October 2010, there were about 300,000 homes that had been empty for a long time. That number has come down to about 200,000. That is good progress, but does he agree that more needs to be done?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

I think that there are stats available for everybody in the Chamber. Perhaps they could celebrate, as I have, not only St George’s day, and not only the birth of a new member of the royal family, but a 40% decrease in the number of empty properties in Walsall. Those are, I suggest, three very good reasons for a party, or possibly another bank holiday—for St George’s Day, I mean. I am not for one minute suggesting that we have a bank holiday just because the people of Walsall have reduced the number of empty homes by 40%.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Much of the debate about empty homes assumes that the greater part of the problem is in the capital. While we must of course use measures like those in this Bill to bring more homes back into use in the capital, is my hon. Friend aware that the greatest proportions of empty homes are actually in the north, particularly the north-east? About 0.5% of homes in London are empty, whereas about 1.5% are empty in the north-east, where, I must say, we have largely Labour councils.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

One of the difficulties that I had when I first came to the House was recalibrating with regard to the intellectual ability of those with whom I spend time. My hon. Friend was, I believe, a policy adviser at No. 10, and he appears to know everything. I defer entirely to his encyclopaedic knowledge of housing issues, and I agree entirely with his point. When I sit in meetings, I have found that because so many people are focused on housing problems in London and the south-east, they sometimes fail to see that there could be any empty properties outside London. To be honest, I am not entirely sure they care about the rest of the country. It is a pleasure to be joined in the new 2017 intake by somebody of the gifts and abilities of my hon. Friend. As I say, he made a very important point.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am greatly enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. I can confirm that in my area we are struggling with properties that are empty. It causes a problem all over our country. One of the most positive aspects of this Bill is that a consequence of bringing properties back into use would be less pressure on developing our open spaces. People in Harrogate and Knaresborough are perfectly comfortable with the idea that we need to build more properties, but they are also concerned about the loss of open space. Having higher-density use of existing property goes some way towards protecting the green spaces that we all seek to protect.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point.

Let me borrow a slightly amended phrase from Shelter, which said, “The housing crisis isn’t about homes—it’s about people.” I agree with that principle completely. When people see that there is an increase in demand for property and know that properties in their neighbourhood have been left vacant for a long time, they are probably scratching their heads and thinking, “This Government are so progressive and so able in so many areas—why are they not tackling this issue?” Well, today they are.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

My hon. Friend talks about the individual. The property of an individual who fell on hard times might become run-down because they had run out of money. Does he think that at a later stage the Government might consider investing money to bring back into use vacant properties that have fallen into disrepair?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

My hon. Friend has suggested an innovative solution to some elements of the housing crisis. However, we should bear it in mind that there is flexibility with regard to the application of the enhanced rate. Whereas councils can currently apply a premium of 50%, clause 2, which amends section 11 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, introduces the flexibility for them to apply a premium of between 50% and 100%. That flexibility with regard to the interpretation and application of this law will allow some scope to cover the sorts of cases that he mentioned.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

Does my hon. Friend agree that it also offers councils the flexibility not to charge any premium at all? Because this is done on a case-by-case basis, if there is a particular circumstance where somebody has fallen on hard times, is struggling to renovate their property and has just cause to vacate it, then the council can assess that. That is why it is so important that local councils can make these decisions and that this Government are supporting localism.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

That is the brilliance of the drafting of this Bill. Clearly, whoever was associated with that in any way, shape or form was insightful, intuitive and gifted. I am hoping that the Minister was involved in some way with the drafting of the Bill and will remember the praise that I have heaped on the people who were involved.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

While I share the passion of everyone in this House who is keen to see empty properties brought back into use, does my hon. Friend agree that this measure, which is effectively a tax and incentives-based measure, takes the right approach, as opposed to a more dirigiste one? Although the empty homes development orders brought in by the Labour Government were a good thing, they led to only about 40 homes in England being taken into possession. Does he agree that we need a tax and incentives-based approach rather than trying to take people’s property off them?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

I am not sure whether you noticed, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think that my hon. Friend might have tried to sneak in a French word, or possibly a Latin one, just to prove how clever he is and to completely wrong-foot me. But I am having none of it: I am going to ignore that part and just agree with the point that he made. Clearly, whatever legislation we introduce, it is important that it is efficacious. I think we heard that word earlier; it is not one I use frequently.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

If there were a prize for modesty, my hon. Friend would be declared the victor ludorum.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

See, Madam Deputy Speaker, I told you—I have had to totally recalibrate with regard to the intellectual approach of other Members. We certainly do not use much Latin around the table in my house. It may not have been Latin; who knows? It is probably important that I return to the Bill.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the need to deal with empty homes in rural areas? I refer particularly to my constituency, of which two thirds is in the Lake District national park. Empty homes are a blight on our society. They have a negative impact on rural schools and businesses, which is why it is so important to see empty homes being put to good use and filled with people in rural villages.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

It is fascinating how much we can learn in this Chamber. I have been walking in my hon. Friend’s constituency and have often thought how beautiful the properties and the scenery are. I cannot imagine that anybody would want to leave a property there vacant for any period, let alone an extended period of more than two years, such that it would cause elements of the Bill to be triggered. When we come to the Chamber, we get the opportunity to hear from Members representing constituencies across the country, and that is what makes this institution so great.

I can obviously only speak on behalf of and with regard to the good people of Walsall North, Willenhall and Bloxwich, so it is great to hear stories from around the country. The point is that if people are prepared to leave properties vacant in beautiful constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, this is clearly a problem that the Government need to tackle, and I believe the Bill goes a long way to tackling it.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham 7:31 pm, 23rd April 2018

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, who gave an informed and energised speech. I cannot elaborate enough on how much we all enjoyed it. I reiterate his point about St George’s day and congratulate the royal family on the birth of another child.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Bill, which is pro-business and therefore will support job creation and which seeks to help to increase our housing stock. Those are two issues that my constituents regularly raise with me in my surgeries and when I am at events.

The staircase tax has been the top issue raised with me by a number of local businesses, including at events I have attended, such as at Corsham chamber of commerce, local Inspire events and other networking events around the constituency. I am delighted that the Bill seeks to rectify the bizarre situation that we have found ourselves in. Although we must not criticise the Supreme Court, I welcome the Government’s initiative to right a wrong today and to honour the commitment made in the autumn Budget. The Bill will mean that all ratepayers who lost small business rate relief directly as a result of the judgment will have their relief reinstated to their bills retrospectively.

As we all know, the staircase tax means that business rates in England and Wales are being set depending on how many rooms are being used and how they are linked. That really is arbitrary. Companies with offices linked by a communal lift, corridors or stairs are being charged. In fact, some of those businesses would have been eligible for 100% rate relief were the case different. That has led to an increase in bills, which concerns a number of businesses. Some have faced charges being backdated to 2010. If you owned your own business, Madam Deputy Speaker, can you imagine the shock and the horror of getting a massive bill that you had not budgeted or planned for and that could stifle your small business? That is what has happened in businesses in my constituency and up and down the country.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

While talking with the Market Harborough chamber of commerce just last Friday, I met a business owner in my constituency who runs a small fishmonger and has a whole set of offices connected by a staircase in a tall building in the most expensive part of the town. Were this ruling to have affected her, she would have been completely clobbered. In fact, even in the current business rates environment, because it is a rather archaic tax, she is already paying a lot, and without measures such as this, she could have been paying an awful lot more.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I thank my hon. Friend for his very valid point and I completely agree. We all have sympathy with the case he outlines and have heard many similar examples throughout our constituencies. This is not just about existing businesses; it is also about people who are looking to get into business—the entrepreneurs and business owners of tomorrow, who will look at this tax and think the risk is too high.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

I appreciate that my hon. Friend represents a rural constituency similar to mine that is made up of small businesses, which are the lifeblood of our rural constituencies. She is laying out a futuristic vision of businesses cobbling together under the same roof. If this part of the Bill were not implemented, all those businesses would be charged retrospectively under a different format. The Bill is supporting our rural economy.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree. It is true that the Bill will particularly help new models of business. It is also important that the Bill will have retrospective effect. Businesses that have been affected can have the amount owed to them recalculated and backdated.

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Valuation Office Agency’s commitment to prioritise and fast-track reviews and recalculations, particularly for small businesses, if the Bill is passed, as I hope it will be? Will she also join me in urging the Minister to ensure that that happens, to help our small businesses across the country, including in my constituency?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

Yes. I completely agree. The point was made earlier that it is so important for these businesses to get back the money they are owed as soon as possible, so that they can continue to flourish. These changes will also reinstate small business rate relief for ratepayers who no longer met the conditions for the relief as a direct result of the VOA’s change in practice, and they can apply for that themselves. What will be really important in how successful the Bill proves to be is how much we spread the message out to the local business community about their option to ask for a recalculation and get this money back.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

My hon. Friend is making such an important point, and it goes to the heart of what these small businesses are doing in our high streets and district centres. We want to support high street shops, which face such tough competition at the moment, and do anything we can do to help them, give them the reassurance they need and enable them to keep more of their hard-earned cash, because we know that, without those shops being successful, we will not have the bubbling and vivacious high streets that we need.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree. My constituency has four market towns and our high streets have suffered. The Bill sends a message out to local high street business owners and all small businesses that this Government are behind them, supporting them, and recognise that they are the backbone of our economy.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a good example of the Government addressing some of the most egregious problems with the business rates system, and that it is a further improvement following the revaluation, which has seen 5% cuts in the business rate bills of shops in the east midlands?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree. As I said before, the Bill is righting a few wrongs.

Last Friday in my constituency, I met the regional director for the south-west of the Federation of Small Businesses, who estimates that, while the staircase tax has affected around 30,000 businesses, it has actually impacted around 80,000 properties. Sometimes we think too much about the number of businesses and do not think about the number of properties affected. These properties and businesses have been unfairly and illogically punished for sharing facilities such as communal staircases, corridors or even car parking with another business. In fact, Mike Cherry, the chairman of the FSB, said last September that some small business owners were knocking holes in their walls or trying to put staircases on the outside of their premises to try to get around these rules. That is a bizarre and ludicrous situation that we cannot tolerate any longer, so I am delighted that the Bill will rectify it and that we are sorting out a sensible solution.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend has made some valuable points about how the Bill will improve the business environment for entrepreneurs. She particularly highlighted start-up businesses. Does she agree that a positive group that will benefit is those who are seeking to scale up their businesses through extra space to cope with their expansion and business growth? They will now be more energised and empowered to seek that extra space and grow their businesses.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree. The Bill is also about providing more business confidence and more confidence for entrepreneurs who want to grow their business and develop it, rather than the opposite. It is important to reiterate that small business is the lifeblood of our economy.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Harborough is a place of small businesses and does not have one dominant employer. There is a lot of demand for large buildings, which are broken up into much smaller office spaces. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be much more difficult if we did not address the problems with the staircase tax that we are addressing and the absurdities that she has pointed out?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree and I thank my hon. Friend for another interesting and to-the-point intervention.

My constituency, as I have said, has four market towns—Chippenham, Corsham, Melksham and Bradford on Avon—and the staircase tax has affected each one of them, as well as our villages. It has impacted on high streets. It is important to remember that there are office spaces above shops and that members of staff go out for lunch in the high street. If they are impacted, there are job losses and there is no extra recruitment round, those people will not be out for their lunch in the high street. The tax has also affected some of our shops. Our high streets are suffering up and down the country, so we should do everything we possibly can to promote and support them to avoid having dormitory towns.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. I share her concern on that point. I think Members on both sides of the House are worried about the future of retail in the high street. The key point is that, on every aspect where such taxes are unfair—business rates in many ways are arbitrary and levied on companies without necessarily a reference to their profitability—we have to show that we are listening and making the system fairer.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree and this is one example showing that the Government are listening and that there is a dialogue with businesses and business groups, which have been instrumental in discussing with the Government the formulation of the Bill. That is essential and we need to foster business confidence, especially with Brexit. Only the other week, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury pointed out that we have the highest internet penetration of the retail market in Europe, so this is a particular problem for the UK.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Does my hon. Friend agree that this will be of particular interest and support to start-up businesses, which often initially occupy a small part of a building as an embryonic enterprise, but as they grow the measure will support them too?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

That is an excellent point, which has been a bit neglected in this debate. Start-ups and micro businesses will benefit in particular from the Bill.

Clause 2 is another measure the Government are implementing to right a wrong. It is about helping to increase our housing stock. As we all know, we have a severe housing shortage in this country, yet thousands of homes are left empty, which is ludicrous.

The Bill will give local authorities the power to charge a 100% council tax premium on empty properties, rather than just the existing 50%. The charge is for homes that have been unoccupied and substantially unfurnished for two years or more. The number of homes that have been vacant for over six months in Chippenham has fallen by 12% since 2010, so one might ask whether the measure is necessary. It is, because we still have 1.16 million households on the social housing list and there is a housing problem, so it is important that we take measures such as this today. Further increasing the premium will, I strongly believe, incentivise owners to sell or rent their properties. I strongly believe that.

I also stress that this is only one action. We must not be under any illusion that the Bill will, in any circumstances, fix our broken housing market—it will not—but the solution has multiple parts and this is one of those answers and one of the measures that the Government are taking.

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—she is being very generous. Some of the funds raised by the premium could be used to reduce the council tax imposed on hard-pressed council tax payers, or could be invested in new social housing to help people who do not have a home. Does she agree that those are just two ways that the funds raised could be used to help to correct imbalances in our housing market, both in the south-east, where I am from, and in the midlands, where she is from?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I agree. It is a two-point strategy: it is about the money that is raised and incentivising people to stop leaving those homes empty.

The point about exemptions has been made by other Members, but it is important to labour it, because I do not want my Chippenham constituents to be unduly concerned or worried that they might be penalised by the policy. They will not because it has exemptions for people in the military, for carers and for people who are going into hospital which are designed to help them. If a home is left empty because of probate, the people concerned will be protected. This is not an arbitrary measure—it is smart and fair.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

My hon. Friend is listing some sensible exemptions. Does she agree that it is important that we remain localists and do not impose the measure on every council? We should give them the power to make the decision for themselves.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree and I will come on to deal with that point.

I want to reiterate the point that empty homes attract squatters, which can result in vandalism and antisocial behaviour. That helps to bring down areas and can be upsetting for local residents. Residents often come to my surgery asking, “Why is that property still empty and what can we do about it?” Today, we have an example of what we can do about it, with a measure to incentivise people to use those empty homes.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

I am interested in the point that my hon. Friend Alan Mak made about local authorities ring-fencing some of the money for better use. We have a big problem in the south-west with affordability. Does my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan agree that local authorities could consider ring-fencing some of this money so that we can deliver affordable houses for people who live and work in her constituency and in mine?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree. The housing crisis is one of the biggest challenges that we face in this country, so it is right that local authorities would look to ring-fence funds. I am sure that a number of them appreciate the fact that this is a key issue for their residents and will prioritise this. They are best placed to understand their residents and to make decisions based on the local area, because every area is different.

I want to stress the point that locally people are sitting on properties, waiting for their value to go up. They do not want to rent them out because of the hassle, inconvenience or stress that that can cause. That is a problem because, if they are not selling them, those properties are left empty while people are waiting to get a property. That situation cannot continue. However, I think that the two-year period is fair.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

It is simply not fair for homeowners living next door to these properties, whose houses have been affected by damp and other problems resulting from those properties not being properly maintained. That devalues their homes, on which they have spent time and money. They have renovated them, but their pride and joy is being damaged by empty properties next door.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree. I have said that these properties are more susceptible to vandalism and there is antisocial behaviour around them. It is uncomfortable for neighbours and people in those communities.

The two-year period is fair. It allows homeowners sufficient opportunity to sell the property, rent it out or complete major renovations that might be required. The Bill is an example of the Government supporting localism because local authorities, as has been mentioned by many hon. Members, will still make the decision on whether to apply the premium and the exact rate that is to be charged. They can review the empty housing stock and the housing supply and demand locally, and make an informed decision. That is an example of this Government trusting local authorities.

I am confident that the majority will continue to use that power. In fact, 2017-18 figures show that 291 of the 326 local authorities chose to apply the empty homes premium. In addition, there is scope for them to assess on a case-by-case basis—for example, where a homeowner is struggling to rent out or sell a property or to do the repairs. This is not a punitive measure, but a fair and measured one. The 2013 guidance will still stand, reminding local authorities to take into account the reasons a property is empty. As I have said, this is about protecting rather than penalising owners of homes. This Government do not want to stop or discourage people from getting into the property market and on to the housing ladder; it wants to encourage and facilitate them. That is the very nature and essence of this Bill.

I agree with my hon. Friend Bob Blackman that we must be careful that this is not abused. We do not want people to find a loophole whereby they tinker with the property as they approach the two-year marker. I would like to hear the Minister explain how we will address that because it is very difficult to protect those homeowners who are doing the right thing, as opposed to those who are trying to avoid the rules. We need to seriously tackle our housing crisis.

My only ask of the Minister is to review the impact of the increase and to later look at increasing it again. I believe that, to truly incentivise homeowners to rent out or to sell their property, the cost must be quite high, especially in areas of London or other places where the housing market is very high, because people will sit on those houses and their value will go up considerably, month after month, and they can then write off the increase in the empty homes premium if it is not high enough. There is an argument to review it and increase it times five. If someone is doing the right thing and renting the property out, selling it or doing it up in a timely fashion, they will not be punished at all. There is an argument for looking at whether we have gone far enough today and whether in the future we could go further and build on this.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

My hon. Friend is making her case with great passion on an issue about which so many people care. Will she join me in congratulating the campaign groups that have worked so hard to put it in on the agenda, in particular The Big Issue and its “Fill ’Em Up” campaign and Empty Homes?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to recognise the work done by campaign groups and all bodies with a vested interest in the issue. It is not just about urban areas. In fact, Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, a body representing 143 rural local authorities in England, has said:

“Anything that enables councils to bring empty properties back into use is welcome.”

It is also interesting to discuss this Bill in relation to homelessness. We have an odd situation whereby there are thousands of empty homes in the country but also a dreadful and rising problem of homelessness, although the Government are tackling it. As the chief executive of Shelter has pointed out, addressing the situation is not as simple as swapping or flipping those two elements around, because often homes are in different areas from those with the core homelessness problem.

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant

Given that my hon. Friend has mentioned homelessness, it is only right that the whole House commends my hon. Friend Bob Blackman for promoting the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Does my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan agree that that Act’s powers could be used together with the powers in this Bill to tackle homelessness from many directions?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend Alan Mak, I also congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Blackman. We really need to concentrate on the value that we can put into this market, which can be filled by this Bill, and ensure that people who need those homes are given them in a way that suits them and fulfils their aspirations. The Government have announced £28 million of funding for the Housing First project, some of which will go to a pilot scheme in Manchester. Does my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan agree that it will be interesting to see how the Mayor of Manchester approaches the issue and whether he will use that to fill those homes and to get homeless people into them?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree that it will be very interesting to watch the actions of the Mayor of Manchester and the impact of his work, and to look at other cities around the country.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the mismatch between empty properties and the homeless, but does she agree with me and the estimate by The Big Issue that in some parts of the country there are 10 empty properties per every homeless family, so surely the Bill can play an important role, along with other measures such as Housing First, in addressing the problem of homelessness?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

Yes, it will have an impact. It is one of a number of ingredients in a recipe for tackling homelessness, an issue on which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East has led considerably and on which I worked with him on the Homelessness Reduction Act. We also have the homelessness taskforce and Housing First. All of those together will help to tackle homelessness.

I want to air caution, however, because Opposition Members have talked frequently in the past about seizing empty properties and giving them to the homeless. That is not a solution. The answer is about incentivising the owners of those empty properties and encouraging them to put them into the housing stock, not seizing them. We are not a Government who want to downgrade or derail property rights; we are a Government who want to promote and protect property rights and also ensure that we can get that housing stock up and tackle the housing crisis.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

On incentivisation, does my hon. Friend agree that, when it comes to unoccupied properties in central London, some investment companies from overseas could just pay an extra amount? Does she think that the time is right to start looking at prohibiting foreign companies from purchasing investment in this country? Perhaps that is a radical step for me as a Conservative, but one wonders whether the time has come at least to have that conversation.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I am a fan of localism and such decision making could be done on a local level, but I am not sure that I would be as radical as my hon. Friend. I think that the answer lies in increasing the premium rate to a point that makes it unaffordable not to sell the property or to rent it out. I would be interested to hear whether the Government will be commissioning any reviews or studies of the implementation of the measure and looking at potentially raising it further in the future, and whether this is the first step.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the issues is the starting point at which any multiples would apply? Obviously, property prices in London would start at £1 million-plus, so multiples of that sum, as premiums, would be extremely penal and would therefore lead to people thinking twice about leaving a property unoccupied.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I completely agree. That is exactly what we need people to do: we need them to think twice about whether it is a sensible decision for their pocket, and then the issue can be resolved for our country.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend Huw Merriman about the role that corporately owned empty properties might be playing in the problem, does my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan agree that the situation might be more severe than we think, given that previous measures against it, such as the annual tax on enveloped dwellings, brought in by this Government, have raised far more than we expected because there were more of them than we thought?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

My hon. Friend makes yet another very interesting point. He has made several interesting points and is very informed and articulate. I thank him for his contribution.

In conclusion, this Bill will be welcomed by my constituents in the Chippenham area, because it seeks to right two ludicrous wrongs. It seeks to support local businesses and to boost our housing stock. It will help our job creators and help to tackle our broken housing market. I urge the Minister to explore further the opportunity of increasing the empty housing premium in the future and I hope that this will act as a first step. I look forward to supporting the Bill tonight.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Co-National Campaign Coordinator, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 8:00 pm, 23rd April 2018

I wish you a happy St George’s day, Madam Deputy Speaker, on England’s national day. To my dad, if he is listening, I say happy birthday.

So riveting and compelling were the opening speeches from both Front Benches on this three-clause Bill—one of which is the short title—that the Benches filled and the interventions flowed. I thank Bob Blackman who has been right in his approach to the measures in the Bill, especially on the financial penalties for local authorities and the need for due compensation. We can examine that in more detail in Committee. As for the hon. Members for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), all I can say is that their oratorical skills are so fine-tuned that they were able to use more words in their speeches than the Bill itself contains. I congratulate them on their contributions.

Notwithstanding the issues raised in detail by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Jim McMahon—including supporting the high street, tackling empty homes and seeking assurances on the baseline funding in the future—Labour will support the Bill tonight as it tries to iron out the current faults in the system. As my hon. Friend said, there is much more to be done. We would like to see councils have more powers in both business support and tackling the housing crisis, but in the very narrow terms of the Bill, the Opposition will not seek to divide the House on Second Reading.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 8:02 pm, 23rd April 2018

I thank the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for their constructive comments on the Bill, and I will address some of their specific points shortly. We have had an incredibly interesting and entertaining debate, and one of the more succinct that I have heard in my time at the Dispatch Box. It has been extremely helpful to hear Members’ views today, ahead of further scrutiny of the Bill in Committee. It was great to hear some thoughts on what we can do to make progress on this issue.

The Bill will take forward two specific, short and important measures to promote fairness. It will provide fairness for hard-pressed businesses facing an unjustified tax hike, backdated where necessary. Those businesses have already paid their fair share, and deserve our support rather than being burdened by sudden and unreasonable demands. The Bill will deliver the Government’s goal of supporting those businesses, by restoring accepted and understood practice in the business rates system.

The Bill will also help those seeking a place to call home. It cannot be right that so many in our society are struggling to find somewhere to live while properties lie empty across the country.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

My hon. Friend is aware of the challenges that we face in rural areas, especially in Cornwall, where we welcome the vacant homes premium, but how will local authorities be able to differentiate holiday homes and vacant properties? Some holiday lets are not let for a long period of the year.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and the issue of housing in rural areas was also raised by my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison. He is right to highlight the issue. Legislation makes a distinction between long-term empty homes, which have been unfurnished and unoccupied for two years—which the Bill seeks to address—and homes that are considered to be second homes, which are at least partially furnished and occupied on occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall will know that the coalition Government ended the presumption of a council tax discount for such second homes and levied a stamp duty surcharge on them. I will return to those measures when I respond to some of the other points raised.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing deserves enormous credit for the energy with which he has approached his new portfolio to make good on the Government’s commitment to fix our broken housing market, and the Bill is a small part of the process of doing that. Since 2010, we have introduced measures, including the £7 billion new homes bonus scheme, that have reduced the number of properties empty in England for six months or longer by a third, as we have heard tonight. But there is more to do, and the Bill will allow councils to levy an additional 50% premium on long-term empty homes, leaving the discretion on that decision with local authorities for all the reasons hon. Members have mentioned.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, who has incredible experience of local government and brings it to bear on these matters. I join him in paying tribute to Mr Betts, who we were all happy to see back in his place tonight. My hon. Friend raised the issue of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and I am grateful for his comments. I also put on record my thanks for the work of the Communities and Local Government Committee in engaging extensively me with and my officials on the various technical issues raised. In particular, the Committee was right to pick up on the issue of voids and whether the Bill would capture the definition accurately. As my hon. Friend will have seen, the Bill takes into account the question that the Committee raised and we have worked with experts in the sector to tweak the definition. I think that will address the Committee’s concerns.

My hon. Friend rightly highlighted the issue of small businesses and cash flow, and urged us to press on as fast as we can. That is what we are trying to do. In response to letters from the Committee questioning the timing of the pre-legislative scrutiny, I said—and I repeat to the House tonight—that that is why we moved as quickly as we did. Instead of the normal process of 12 weeks, we had a slightly shorter process of eight weeks for that scrutiny, so that we could get the Bill on to the statute book as soon as possible and bring some relief to the small businesses facing cash-flow issues.

I turn to the oratorical tour de force from my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes. He said that the Bill is not sexy, but on the contrary these are the matters that keep local government Ministers, and the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton, up at night. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are focused on the detail. He was right to highlight to all hon. Members the particular delights of Beechdale, which they will all want to join me in visiting at the earliest opportunity, not least to shop the delights of Rob Mullett Butchers and the grocery store run by Jane and Phil. My hon. Friend also made a broader point about the importance of regenerating our urban centres, which was picked up by my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) and for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). I can assure my hon. Friends that the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Jake Berry, who has responsibility for high streets, will have listened carefully to everything they said and will use their remarks as he develops policy to benefit our high streets around the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North asked specifically about exemptions. I am pleased to tell him that council tax exemptions are already in place for people living in service accommodation or for those in the armed forces who are serving elsewhere and whose homes are therefore empty. Indeed, there are specific statutory exemptions for properties left empty for a purpose, for example when a person goes into care. There are also discretionary discounts for houses that are empty because of special circumstances such as hardship, fire or flooding, and I hope that addresses Members’ concerns on that point. My hon. Friend also kindly paid tribute to the drafting of the Bill, for which I cannot take enormous credit—I pay tribute to the officials, the ratings agencies and other experts who helped to draft the legislation to make it ready for today.

My hon. Friend Michelle Donelan outlined yet again why she is a strong champion of small business in her constituency and around the country. She talked about entrepreneurship, and it is exactly right that our tax system and our policy supports the entrepreneurs not just of today, but of tomorrow. Supported by my hon. Friend Alan Mak, she, as ever, made a compelling case for why this Government and this measure will continue to support entrepreneurship across our nation.

I turn to some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton. He asked specifically about the amount of money that will be raised from this measure. The stats are that 60,898 properties were subject to the measure in the last year, and 291 of 326 local authorities—90%—levied the premium. All but three of those levied the full 50%. That raised about £38.7 million, so an additional 50% would obviously double that. Just so that he has the full picture, if all local authorities used the full premium, that would equate to about £42 million and therefore, in total, £84 million.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Does the Minister agree that the true test of this policy will be if council tax amounts actually go down? That will mean that individuals are not behaving in the manner that we just described and will be paying less, thus freeing up the property for those who need it.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point: that should be the long-term test of this policy. It is there to provide an incentive for individuals to bring those homes back into use and indeed, that is what we have seen. Empty properties overall have fallen in the last few years from 300,000 to 200,000, but in areas that are specifically subject to this levy, we have seen a 9% reduction in long-term empty homes since the measure was introduced. Hopefully, we will keep seeing that rate of reduction increase to eliminate as many empty homes as possible. My hon. Friend also raised the topic of foreign ownership. I am pleased to tell him that the Minister for Housing heard what he said and is aware of the issues. In his new portfolio, he is looking into that matter.

My hon. Friend Andrew Jones, who is not in his place, touched on the importance of open spaces. Indeed, the new national planning framework particularly encourages increasing density where possible so that we can do exactly that and preserve our wonderful open spaces. My hon. Friend Neil O’Brien made so many excellent and insightful points that I do not have time to review them all, but I join him in paying tribute to the campaign groups that have brought the Bill about.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

My hon. Friend is giving good answers to many of the questions, but there is one outstanding question on the staircase tax. Because individual businesses are going to have to apply for a revaluation, there is a risk that they may end up paying more money if they make an application for revaluation and that the rateable value increases. Will he look sympathetically at a view that people should not suffer as a result of applying for the revaluation? Otherwise, businesses may choose to say, “This will be too dangerous and risky to our cash flow.”

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am pleased to tell him that when businesses that have their valuation changed on the historical 2010 list come to appeal that decision, they will have the choice of seeing whether to take that appeal forward, once the Valuation Office Agency engages with them. If, for whatever reason, it decided that there were some other measure that it needed to change that caused an increase in the valuation, they could then choose not to pursue that matter, so they would not suffer from any increased rating. Of course, the current rating list is dynamic, as he will know. Changes good and bad will be relevant for the life of that list, as is the normal course of business.

Lastly, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton raised the issue of the Government’s broader support for business rates and for business across this country. He will know that the Government stand on the side of small business. The combination of measures announced in the last Budget and subsequently to the tune of £10 billion to help businesses up and down the country facing the revaluation included bringing forward the indexation to CPI; extending the £1,000 pubs discount, which I know many hon. Members across the House welcomed; doubling small business rate relief; and providing a £300 million discretionary fund for local authorities to apply in cases where there was particularly difficulty.

In conclusion, this important Bill will deliver widely supported measures to tackle an unfair and unintended rates increase for certain businesses and support the Government’s efforts to bring empty homes back into use. I appreciate all the comments from hon. Members this evening—no doubt we will return to some of them in Committee—but I am glad that we can all agree that the overall aims of the Bill and the positive impact that it will have for businesses and families seeking to call a place home should be welcomed. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.