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.