Amendment 1

Part of Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No. 2) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 1st March 2021.

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Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 3:15 pm, 1st March 2021

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 1 April this year, as set out in this Bill, surely it makes sense in the current circumstances to make that the date from which the payment amount is calculated. That would not be immediate cash in hand, of course, but it could be a vital, bankable credit for a struggling business and give retailers the incentive and the means to keep going through this crisis until the valuation is actually published. Will the Minister undertake to explore this with the Chancellor as one of the ways of closing the chasm between the end of the Treasury scheme and the coming into force of this Bill?

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.