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.