Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark
1: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—“Annual Rates Revaluation Reporting(1) Within three months of the passing of this Act, and every twelve months thereafter, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the timing of business rates revaluations and lay it before both Houses of Parliament.(2) Each report must contain an assessment of the impact of the timing of business rates revaluations on—(a) the prosperity of towns and high streets,(b) the prosperity of small businesses,(c) the ability of high street businesses to compete with online businesses,(d) local authority finances, and(e) business rates appeal waiting lists.(3) Each report must contain a statement detailing how the Valuation Office Agency and local authorities have been consulted in relation to the timing of business rates revaluations.(4) Each report must make a recommendation as to whether action from the Government needs to be taken to prevent adverse impacts arising from the timing of the rates revaluation.”
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of the Heart of Medway Housing Association and as non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd.
Amendment 1 seeks to place a new clause in the Bill whose purpose is to require the Secretary of State to publish a report on the timing of business rate revaluations and to lay that report before the House. The report must address the issues I have laid out in proposed new paragraphs (a) to (e) of my amendment. Each point needs careful attention.
Our high streets were in crisis before the pandemic, and the position has been made even worse over the last year. Hardly a week goes by when we do not hear of struggling high streets and well-known businesses leaving the high street for good, or questions being raised as to their future viability. Sir John Timpson, chairman of the wonderful Timpson Group, addressed this very point this morning on Radio 4, reflecting on the work he did looking at our high streets for the Government before the pandemic. The Bill does not address that fact, but merely moves the date of the revaluation so that it better reflects the effects of the pandemic. While that is welcome, it falls a long way short, and the Government have missed an opportunity here to do more to save our high streets.
I do not think one can disagree with the points set out in my amendment. If the noble Lord is going to resist the amendment, can he set out what he and his department are doing to support the prosperity of our towns and high streets? That must go much further than the towns fund, or other small schemes with limited funding. What must happen is fundamental help for all our towns and high streets. Small shops and small businesses on our high streets deserve support as they will be a crucial to our economic revival, including the much loved British pub, which is at the heart of local communities. I also draw the attention of the House to my being vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group. I very much support its work, and the part that pubs play in our community lives.
We must also address the completely unfair situation that exists between high street businesses and online businesses, which we have discussed many times in your Lordships’ House. There is a much wider debate to be had about business rates as a method of raising finance, but if business rates are levied there must be fairness in the system. There are too many examples today that highlight an unfairness between the high street and online businesses which must be addressed, and this amendment seeks to give the Government the tools to do just that. Business rates raise money for local government and are a key part of its finances. We recently debated a pilot scheme that the Government have under way to increase the funds raised for local authorities through business rates, and again this needs to be looked at, as does the question of appeal.
If the Government do not take the opportunity that the amendment gives them today, I hope they will go back and reflect on these issues. If not, there is no doubt that we will be here year after year, trying to address the serious problem facing our high streets, which the pandemic has accelerated. I hope the Government will take this matter seriously. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 1, just moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. It is a real pleasure to follow him and his very measured and careful support for the need to tackle the issues on which I too will comment.
I am disappointed that the Government and the Minister have not thought fit to take on board the range of sensible improvements put to your Lordships’ House in Committee. A wide range of noble Lords spelled out the difficulties that an unamended Bill will impose, particularly on the hard-hit retail sector, where the devastation of Covid-19 lockdowns on top of a decade-long decline in high street sales has wiped out a long string of household names, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, rightly rehearsed
The Chancellor’s emergency business rates relief has certainly been a life saver. The Association of Convenience Stores says that four out of 10 of its members would have gone out of business without that support in the past year. It is no wonder that many Conservative MPs are calling on the Chancellor to extend that scheme, and to provide some continuing support to the high street, at least until Covid restrictions are fully lifted. I hope he will do that but, as we discussed in Committee, that could all be in vain if those retailers are then left waiting for years for the revaluation, which this Bill will trigger, to come into effect. The big risk is that the cavalry will arrive too late—in time to count the dead, but too late to bring success to the high street.
Today’s amendment is in default of any response so far by the Government to these issues. It requires an annual audit of the heavy burdens borne by some, especially high street retailers, alongside the unearned tax holidays given to others, particularly distribution centres and the gigantic out-of-town warehouses of the online retailers. Those businesses are booming and occupy property that is virtually untaxed under the present regime, compared to the high street trader.
The amendment refers to the impact of the timing of rates revaluation, and that is what I want to focus on. I want the Minister to respond to this specific point when he winds up: does he acknowledge that unless the Chancellor’s rate relief scheme is extended, or the effective date of implementation of the revaluation in this Bill is brought forward, there will be a hiatus, when many small shops will face ruin? They will be forced to pay wholly disproportionate property taxes, which are now completely out of kilter with current rental and property values. If he does acknowledge the reality of the hiatus, will he undertake to work with the Treasury to bridge it? That could be by extending the existing scheme set out by the Chancellor, or by bringing forward the effective implementation date of this Bill, or both.
Further to that, it is noteworthy that the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill has a retrospective implementation date of 2020. I presume that that means that the Government accept the principle that the benefit of a reduction in rateable value can be backdated. If it can be done for public lavatories, surely it should be done for high street shops as well. If the antecedent valuation date is taken as
If the Government are serious in saying that we have to build back better, surely this is exactly the time for some joined-up thinking across government departments. Is this not exactly the simple bridging measure that would help stop the disruption of our high streets? We all know that thriving local communities everywhere need ready access to diverse public and commercial services that serve everyone, and that a healthy and diverse local retail sector is an essential part of that. This is not at all about keeping alive an outdated business model that is able to limp along only with tax cuts and subsidies; it is about putting right a taxation injustice that is now beyond dispute, so that high streets can do what they do best: provide local communities with a focal point for the things they need. I support Amendment 1 and I look forward very much to hearing that the Minister does too.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for tabling Amendment 1, which I wish to speak to, and it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I am a non-domestic ratepayer in Scotland, although I know this Bill does not include affairs in Scotland.
The Bill is all about timing; it is not about fairness, fitness for purpose, the impact on business, sorting out the appeals system or any other aspect of what has become, I fear, a broken system. The Bill ignores the most critical timing issue, which is simply that of dealing with the appeals backlog—ratepayers paying the requested sum until an appeal is settled. In the current circumstances, that is critical. We cannot expect the Covid-related rates holiday to last for ever. We have seen a collapse in retail rental values over the past 12 months, and as both the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Stunell, have pointed out, it was a crisis long before this. Some tenants are to pay double the appropriate rates bills. This amendment brings the plight of the high street retailer into high relief. The annual report it proposes would focus specifically on small businesses, as set out in subsection (2)(b). I am pleased that it also addresses the elephant on the table of all non-domestic rates discussions in the retail sector: the killer impact of the online assault on the high street, as we have heard from both the previous speakers.
Online retail is not a bad thing and it is clearly the future for a huge percentage of domestic spending. The bad thing is the Government’s inability—after years of notice, for online is not a new phenomenon—to recognise the twin neglects of taxing the profits of online and of fairness in the spread of rates between the high street and that sector. Subsection (2)(d) of the amendment requires that the report address the impact of the revaluation timing on local authority finances. Rates are a critical ingredient in local authority finance, but unfortunately the funding gap that the next revaluation will create will lead to a difficult political challenge: how to replace the fall in rates funding—another reason to delay the reform so desperately needed.
Subsection (2)(e) addresses the subject of waiting lists for appeals, which I mentioned earlier. This has become critical. Waiting list delays are themselves enough to put many out of business—a good example of shooting ourselves in the foot of local authority funding. The end result will be worse.
I must refer also to the fundamental review—a story of delay. It is most disappointing, in that the most vulnerable ratepayers can hardly speak for themselves. This delay will be the death of many small, innovative and hardworking businesses, the very ones the Government claim to champion. Should the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, press for a Division on this amendment, I will certainly support it. But my greatest concern is that the valuation date for the revised NDR lists has been chosen at a point in the market cycle that provides no evidence. In my 40-odd years in this profession, I have seen highs and lows in the rental value market cycle, but I have never seen paralysis. Paralysis is what we now have in the rental market from which the rate levels are derived. It will probably lead, as I explained in Committee, to a huge mass of rating appeals. I ask the Minister to take these comments back to the Government, but I fear that it is too late.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, on his composite amendment which neatly brings all the issues that have been debated previously into one. During those debates, all the relevant arguments were made, and I speak today in favour of Amendment 1.
It is important that there be annual rate revaluation reporting. Business rates reviews cannot be left to drift from year to year, especially as so many businesses are struggling. Keeping a careful watch on how revaluations are affecting businesses is vital to ensuring a healthy economic recovery. Towns and high streets are being decimated by the lockdown, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said. Some three-quarters of retail outlets are closed and many have been boarded up. Only essential outlets are open: supermarkets, pharmacies, opticians and some DIY stores. As lockdown is gradually released, many shops will, hopefully, reopen, but the effect of business rates may be the last straw. This must be monitored to prevent the total decimation of the high street shopping experience.
The Association of Convenience Stores has welcomed the Bill and the revaluation date being moved to
The whole issue of NDR is a balancing act between the need of funding local authorities and the economic viability of businesses. Local authority finances are stretched to the limit. Government grants have been radically reduced over the years and many councils now only deliver statutory services and these to the minimum standards permitted. It is not that councils do not wish to provide those vital services which communities rely on, such as grants, improved play areas, adequate and dignified social care, after-school clubs et cetera; it is the sad, realistic fact that they no longer have the finance to do this.
The understandable increased cost of social care for the elderly, children looked after, and those with learning and physically disabilities has taken every spare pound councils might have had to provide extra provision for speciality services. Without access to business rates, many local authorities will not even be able to provide the statutory minimum level of service in many areas.
Potholes—a constant running problem on the many rural C roads—are becoming deeper and wider. How are local authorities meant to balance the needs for decent roads against the needs of children looked after and adults with learning disabilities? I do not expect the Minister to provide the answer today, but the question will need to be addressed by central and local government working together.
In Committee, I spoke about business rate appeal waiting lists and times and will not repeat my arguments today, but the length of waiting lists should be kept under constant review. The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, referred to the impact of delayed appeals. An appeal left waiting for years, is a properly elected council waiting years for its legitimate funding. This makes budgeting all but impossible. The ACS suggests reforming the appeals system by shortening the statutory timeframes for the VOA to respond to checks and challenges and improving the transparency of data used to inform valuations. Has the Minister considered this?
Lastly, I want to speak about the ability of the high street to compete with online businesses. Currently, that is an inability. The online business fraternity, previously in most cases, offered free delivery, but the purchaser had to pay the cost of returning unsuitable goods. Nowadays, if you purchase online you are more likely to be offered free returns but be charged for the initial delivery. This encourages purchasers to buy, as they can clearly see the delivery charge, whereas returning a bulky item could be expensive, if free returns were not offered. This has altered the playing field.
With high street retail outlets closed in lockdown and many businesses going under altogether, online is the only way in which to access the goods and services we have been used to. It is extremely frustrating, to put it mildly, for those paying business rates, to see vast profits accumulated online without the need to pay business rates. This has led to a total distortion of the marketplace.
The Minister will have heard these arguments many times, so he and his colleagues in Government have had plenty of time to come up with an answer. What are the Government going to do to ensure that online businesses are treated in the same way as those on the high street, in shopping centres and in business parks around the country? The ACS recommends introducing an online sales levy or an alternative rating methodology for online distribution warehouses and using the revenue raised to reduce bills for retail stores to support the viability of high streets and local services. Have the Government considered this? It is essential this element is addressed for the sake of all businesses concerned and for the funding of local authorities. I fully support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and look forward to what I hope will be a positive response from the Minister.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my relevant interests as vice-president of the Local Government Association and a member of Kirklees Council. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has tabled a comprehensive amendment, which addresses issues of concern that were raised and debated in Committee. The Minister was unable to provide sufficient reassurances at that stage, hence today’s amendment, which has the support of the Liberal Democrats, as already clearly stated by my noble friends Lord Stunell and Lady Bakewell.
The Bill as it stands simply changes the date of the assessment of the revaluation to
First, I will take the effect on local government finance. During Committee, the Minister sought to provide assurances about the financial impact on council income, and I thank him for that. However, there is a wider point of the double whammy on town centre businesses of the impact of Covid lockdowns and the competitive advantages enjoyed by online business. This is likely to mean that town centres will have several empty shops, which will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on the remaining businesses.
The Government have some support for town centres, but much is limited and scattered around the country. It does not provide sustained help. Part of the answer lies with the radical reform of the whole business rate system. Will the Minister provide the House with a draft timetable for the introduction of a reformed approach, which, as several noble Lords have stated, has been promised for several years.
My noble friend Lady Bakewell has spoken from her experience of the impact of long appeal waiting lists on businesses and council services. As the Minister will know, councils have to set aside considerable sums for the refund of any possible successful appeal. Will he tell the House the total amount set aside by local authorities for this purpose? If he is not able to do so today, will he agree to set out the information in a letter to those taking part in today’s debate? Is the Minister able to consider an alternative to setting aside large sums for potential refunds that clearly make an impact on the day to day services—as described by my noble friend Lady Bakewell—that a council is able to provide?
The current system of business rating is failing, in that it considerably disadvantages those who have a physical presence as opposed to those purely providing an online retail offer. I am not opposed to online shopping but urge the Government to appreciate the value to communities of physical shopping. As the various lockdowns have shown us, there is an intrinsic value to individuals of physical shopping. One simple benefit is that of meeting another person, in the shop or serving at the till. For too many people living on their own, this may be the one chance in the day that they have to speak to someone.
There is also the benefit to communities as a whole. Local high streets provide a sense of belonging to a place. The importance of place-based services has shone through during the pandemic. Local shops and services are part of that sense of place and play a significant role in supporting well-being. We lose it at our peril.
That leads me to repeat the example I gave in Committee of a small shop in the town centre of Cleckheaton, which pays at the rate of £250 per square metre on its 30 square metres of shopping space. In contrast, a large online-only retailer, with an out-of-town warehouse occupying 40,000 square metres, also in Yorkshire, pays just £45 per square metre. If that online retailer were to pay at the same rate as the small town-centre shop, it would be paying a rates bill of £5 million. That would solve a lot of local government finance issues. The retail playing field is hugely skewed to the benefit of online retailers. The Government must act with urgency to address this imbalance and demonstrate that they really do support prosperous local high streets.
The further problem for the Government and Valuation Office Agency is the timing of the valuation assessment. My noble friend Lord Stunell said today that the changes that the Bill will bring may be too late to save more retailers from closing their high street shops. He suggested bringing forward the implementation date to put it in line with the proposals of Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill, which was discussed last week.
The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, drew attention in Committee and today to the timing of valuations, when so much of the high street has been closed for several months. Equally, it is not of benefit to town-centre retailers that the current valuation will be that on which their rates bills will be based for the next two challenging years. The Government should address this issue with urgency, but there is no evidence that they are doing so. I look forward to the Minister’s responses on a number of these issues and hope that they are more positive than those we received in Committee.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for tabling this amendment, which allows us to return to the important matter of how the revaluation will impact on various parts of our economy. I entirely understand that the House wants to consider the impact of the next revaluation on sectors such as the high street and small business. I point out to the noble Lord that the £1 billion future high streets fund is not insubstantial and forms part of the £3.6 billion towns fund. It is an important part of helping our high streets to bounce back. Also, as has been mentioned by noble Lords, there has been the business rates relief scheme throughout the Covid pandemic, which has cost in the region of £10 billion. It is for the Chancellor to signal how that will continue in his Budget later this week.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referenced the shift over many years, even before the pandemic, towards online and away from place-based shopping on our high streets. It is a matter for the Chancellor, who is carrying out a fundamental review of business rates, to consider how to address that. The interim report is due on
Businesses have been calling for frequent revaluations and we had planned for the next one to take effect this year. It would have been based on rental values as at
As we heard in Committee, some noble Lords are concerned that rental values and the market at
Moving back the valuation date would take several months out of an already tight timetable and require the VOA to, once again, go back to the businesses and ask them for market evidence as of a new date. I am confident in the valuation exercise that is already under way, and the Government have no plans to change the valuation date.
The amendment brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asks for a report on the impact of the revaluation to be published three months after the passing of the Act and every 12 months thereafter. In fact, the new valuations will not be completed until the autumn of 2022, and we will not know the multiplier and transitional relief scheme—the other vital parts of business rate bills—until the fiscal event of that autumn. So we will not know the impact of the revaluation on towns, high streets or small business within three months of the passing of this Act or, indeed, within 15 months. This Government—any Government—could not prepare such a report on that timetable.
However, when the revaluation is completed, and the multiplier and transitional relief set, businesses and stakeholders will not need a government report to tell them how the revaluation will impact upon them. Every individual rateable value will be published with the multiplier and transitional relief scheme, and those businesses will be able to see precisely how they will be impacted. These rateable values will remain public and, as is the case with the current 2017 rating list, the VOA will publish regular statistical analyses of the new rating list.
I understand that the House and businesses would like to know what is going to happen at the revaluation, but we must wait until the results of the VOA’s work—work done independently of Ministers, by experts, and based on evidence. The Bill will ensure that the revaluation will better reflect the impact of the pandemic. The revaluation will also reflect trends in the rental market over the last six years, resulting from economic shifts including the growth of online businesses. We may well see these trends reflected in the rental values of, for example, modern distribution warehouses and traditional high streets but, rather than speculate on these rental market shifts, we should wait for the VOA to complete its exercise and look at the actual results.
As with every revaluation, there will be winners and losers. Some ratepayers will see their rates bills fall and others will see theirs rise. I assure the House that, as with previous revaluations, we will introduce a transitional relief scheme to protect those facing large increases at the revaluation. As I have said, we intend to publish details of that scheme and how it will be funded at the time of the autumn 2022 fiscal event, so that ratepayers have plenty of time to plan for changes to their rates bills.
I should again like to reassure the House on how the revaluation will impact on the funding of local government, as raised by noble Lords. In Committee, I had the opportunity to explain in a little more detail how the revaluation could change the amount of business rates paid in individual local authority areas. As I set out then, we will make adjustments to the business rates retention scheme to ensure, as far as is practicable, that the business rates income retained by individual local authorities is unaffected by the revaluation. I am happy to give the House that assurance again today, and to confirm that we will continue to work closely with the VOA and local government on this and all matters related to business rates.
Finally, let me respond to the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, on the appeals backlog. The Treasury continues to provide the VOA with the resources required to successfully deliver the valuations and property advice needed to support taxation and benefits. The Treasury works closely with the VOA and its sponsor department, HMRC, to understand the VOA’s resource requirements. The funding requirements to deliver the appeals case load and the next revaluation will be considered as part of those ongoing discussions. I hope that gives some confidence that there will be no issue around resources for the VOA to work through the backlog. On this basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, rightly highlighted the support the Government have given, which is very welcome. I am very happy to acknowledge that. It has been vital to ensure that businesses have survived through this.
The fundamental question is the unfairness of the present system of business rates. If that is not sorted out, we are going to see the demise of the high street accelerate, and we have to address that at some point. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, for his support. As he said, we must address the elephant in the room. As the noble Lord highlighted, it is the twin problem of taxing fairly online retailers—and I wish all online retailers success—to raise revenue from them and the amount of revenue raised from businesses on the high street so that they are taxed fairly as well. Getting that balance right is the issue and that can no longer be ignored.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, for indicating that he would support me if I divided the House. I am often very happy to divide the House, but I have decided that, this time, it is probably not the best thing to do, so I shall not do so—I know the Minister will be very disappointed by that.
The Government must reflect on this. Although it is disappointing that these proposals will not be taken forward, I think that the Government are going to have to do every single thing in my amendment. If they do not do that, they cannot arm themselves with the information they need to take decisions in future Bills and policy, and the crisis will become a complete nightmare on our high streets.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, also highlighted the unfairness between online and the high street, and she is right. The risk is that when we return to anything like a normal situation it will not be normal because it will have gone too far and people will not return in numbers to our high streets. I have always supported local shops where I live. I am looking forward to
I am very happy to acknowledge the support the Government have given; I mentioned that earlier. It was very welcome and has kept many businesses afloat. It is just a shame that we are not going to address these issues here. I have said before that all the points I have raised will have to be addressed by government because we are going to have to look at the bigger, wider points about what we want from our high streets and how we raise revenue from our high streets and from online so that we can pay for the services we all want. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.