Relief for rural shops, etc

Local Government Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 9th February 2017.

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Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 2:00 pm, 9th February 2017

I beg to move amendment 37, in clause 7, page 10, line 6, at end insert—

‘( ) In section 67 of that Act (interpretation: other provisions), in subsection (7), for “and (6)” (as inserted by paragraph 6A of Schedule 3) substitute “, (6) and (6B)”.’

Section 67(7) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 provides that certain provisions of that Act apply on a particular day if they apply immediately before the day ends. This amendment extends section 67(7) to cover section 43(6B) of that Act.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 38 to 41.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

The Government are committed to supporting small businesses across all areas of the country. In rural areas, that will help to ensure that key amenities continue to be available to local communities.

The system of rural rate relief provides 50% mandatory relief to the only village shop, post office, public house or petrol station within a rural settlement, subject to certain rateable value thresholds. In the autumn statement, the Government announced the doubling of rural rate relief to 100%, which increases support for rural businesses. The clause brings that change into effect by amending section 43 of the Local Government Finance Act 1998 so that those businesses that qualify for rural rate relief pay no business rates at all. That will bring the rural rate relief scheme into line with the small business rate relief scheme, which provides 100% relief for eligible businesses.

The Government’s intention is for the qualifying businesses to receive 100% rural rate relief from April 2017. For the 2017-18 financial year, before this legislation is in place, local authorities will be expected to use their discretionary powers under section 47 of the 1988 Act to provide 100% rural relief, and they will receive compensation through a grant from central Government. To ensure that all eligible rural businesses receive the relief, the clause provides that the 100% relief will become mandatory. The Government intend to bring the clause into force from 1 April 2018. This is an important amendment to legislation to protect and support valuable rural businesses.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 2:15 pm, 9th February 2017

In the interests of speed, I will take the opportunity to speak to the Government amendments now, rather than in a separate clause stand part debate.

If I understand correctly, a small business in a rural area might quality for 100% business rate relief under small business rate relief, but if it also qualifies for the 50% rural rate relief, it has to be given that 50% relief rather than the 100% relief, because of the hierarchy of rate reliefs that exists. As I understand it, the clause intends to deal with that loophole.

As the Minister hinted, a rural settlements list sets out the types of businesses that would benefit from small business rate relief. Those are a public house or petrol station that is the only such business in a rural settlement and has a rateable value of less than £12,500, a food store or general store that is the only one in the settlement, and post offices with a rateable value of less than £8,500. Local authorities have the discretion to top up the 50% rural rate relief to 100%, but not all do so, presumably because of the difficult financial situation that local authorities face at the moment, regardless of their political leadership, given the cuts to revenue support that the Government have been pushing through.

I intervene in this debate to ask the Minister a number of questions. Why does the rural rate relief scheme not cover a wider range of businesses? I ask that in the context of growing concern in the countryside that rural enterprises will be some of the biggest losers in the business rates revaluation that will come into force after April 2018. There have been real concerns that livery yards and riding schools, for example, will go to the wall because of the expected increase in business rates under the revaluation. There is concern that kennels and catteries, polo grounds, racecourses and racing stables will also be among the worst hit. That is of such concern that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has raised concerns. Similarly, Sarah Phillips, the director of participation at the British Horse Society, worried aloud—understandably—through The Times that increases in business rates after April would have a devastating impact on livery yards and riding schools. She went on to point out that rural businesses, which typically occupy more space, were being put at an unfair disadvantage by a bricks-and-mortar tax based on premises, not profitability. That prompts a question of Ministers as to why more rural businesses will not be able to benefit from the changes.

Indeed, the many businesses that want to install solar panels are also asking why rural business rate relief will not similarly help them. They also stand to suffer considerably from the business rates revaluation that will come into force after the next revaluation in April 2017. The problem is that, going forward, solar panels will be judged separately from business premises, and it appears that they will not all qualify for small business rates, which is the other potential opportunity for assistance. Given the solar industry’s potential to create good new jobs, why are Ministers not taking advantage of the extension of rural rate relief, perhaps to help out a number of other businesses?

When we debated clause 5, we talked about whether the retail prices index or the consumer prices index should be used. I know that you read Hansard diligently, Sir David, so you will remember that £78 billion will potentially be gained by businesses and lost by local authorities over the next 20 years as a result of the change. Perhaps if Ministers were to take advantage of the flexibility in clause 5 over whether CPI is used, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West noted, they might be able to find the resources to help more businesses in our countryside to survive.

Bricks-and-mortar businesses—in urban areas, too, but in this context particularly in rural areas—are under growing pressure from the rise in online businesses. One of the great successes of the previous Labour Government, and of Britain more generally, is that we are such a hub for online technology businesses, but those businesses tend to need less space and are therefore less likely to pay high business rates, whether they are in urban or rural areas. Many businesses are saying, “Hang on a second. We have to pay huge business rates every year, and these online businesses are not being taxed in the same way. Isn’t it time for a bit more equality between these two types of businesses?”

The challenges for businesses in rural areas are sometimes even more acute. In Threlkeld, a small village just outside Keswick in the Allerdale Borough Council area, which the hon. Member for North Swindon always likes to be reminded of, there is a new coffee shop run by the community—it is a social enterprise—and a pub. We know that the pub would qualify for 100% rural rate relief, but we do not know whether the coffee shop would. As the coffee shop is part of a community hall facility, it helps the community of Threlkeld to benefit from the existence of that premise, where lots of different community activities take place. Would it be eligible for 100% rural rate relief or not? It is not a post office, a pub or a petrol station. Perhaps Ministers might listen to the concerns of businesses in the countryside a little more and do more to help them.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

If that community centre were classified as a public toilet under clause 9, it might get some relief—as might its users.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The last time I visited that coffee shop, which has fantastic views of Blencathra and Skiddaw—two of the great English mountains—although there were toilets there, that was not what the bulk of the premises were being used for. It would be interesting to probe whether it has the potential to get at least some relief under clause 9, but let me not test Sir David’s patience by being diverted down that particular route.

I would like to ask Ministers why, in their view, rural rate relief is so limited and whether there might not be scope for providing more assistance to businesses in the countryside, more generally and also given the rise in online businesses, which do not require such large premises. In particular, it would be good to hear what the Government will do to help the nascent solar panel industry, particularly those businesses seeking to put up solar panels in rural areas.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

Thank you, Sir David, for allowing me the opportunity to respond to the shadow Minister. He mentioned rural rate relief. Clearly, there is a key criterion for eligibility. The idea of rural rate relief is to ensure that key amenities are available in rural areas. He seems to have conflated it—at some length—with the business rate revaluation. As he will know, the revaluation is not a process designed to raise any more or less money for the Exchequer; it is a fiscally neutral exercise meant to ensure that rateable values reflect property rents and changes in those rents over the revaluation period.

In the 2017 revaluation, nearly three quarters of ratepayers will see either no change or a reduction in their bill. The hon. Gentleman seems suddenly to have an interest in rural areas. Most people in rural areas think that the Labour party has generally neglected them when it has been in government, but he now seems to be taking a more significant interest, which perhaps we should welcome. Rural businesses, if their rates have increased, will also be eligible for part of the £3.6 billion transitional relief scheme that we are introducing at the same time. I hope to reassure him that, in its totality, the business rate revaluation will predominantly reduce rate bills in rural areas by an average of 4.4% and in significantly rural areas by an average of 6.4%.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I would gently point out that it was not the Labour Government who sought to close hospitals in rural areas, such as the one in Allerdale Council’s area that serves the community of Threlkeld, to which I referred. I suggest that the Minister is being rather complacent about the impact on some rural businesses as a result of the revaluation. Have Ministers considered extending rural rates relief so that other businesses in isolated communities can benefit?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

We keep taxes continually under review. As I said to the hon. Gentleman, we are not complacent. We have put in place a significant package of transitional relief in that regard. He has waxed lyrical about Allerdale. Having been up to that part of the country recently, I know how beautiful it is, but I also observed that the local economy is not just about tourism and related activities. It is also heavily based on the nuclear industry. There are many people in that area who depend on the nuclear industry for their livelihoods. I would say to the hon. Gentleman, very gently, that his party’s policy on nuclear is probably the biggest threat to that particular part of the country. [Interruption.]

Order. I would be grateful if the Minister would stick very closely to responding to the points that were made by Mr Thomas.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 2:30 pm, 9th February 2017

On a point of order, , Sir David. To clarify for the record, because the Minister has made an assertion that is completely inaccurate, Labour party policy is to support nuclear power, in particular Sellafield.

That was a very clever way of continuing the debate. I think it is best if we move on.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I am not sure that the hon. Member for Harrow West has spoken to his leader, but I will not go into any further depth on that. I think I had come to the end of responding to the hon. Gentleman’s point. What I would like to do—

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

On a point of order, Sir David. I wonder whether there is any way in which you might encourage the Minister to address the concern about the solar panel industry and the potential impact of rural rate relief.

That is obviously not a matter for the Chair. It is a matter for the Minister how he responds to the points that are made, but he heard the point made. It is entirely a matter for him whether or not he wishes to respond.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

Thank you, Sir David. There is a concern about whether the point made relates to rural rate relief. I would say to the hon. Member for Harrow West that solar panels quite often form part of a building that might be subject to business rates. There are some situations—I will not go into the details—where those solar panels will be subject to business rating because they are part of plant and equipment, and some occasions where they will not be. I would also say that because that equipment forms quite a small part of the hereditament in question, which would be subject to business rates alongside the solar panels, there are situations where business rate levels have reduced as part of the revaluation, even though the solar panels may be subject to business rates.

If you will allow me, Sir David, in the spirit of trying to move the Committee along, I would like to speak quickly to the amendments tabled to the clause. Amendments 37 and 41 are purely technical amendments, which concern a principle used in business rates known as the end-of-the-day rule. Hon. Members new to the technical details of the business rates system may believe that we are thinking about the end of the day—which could not come soon enough for many of us—but I am afraid this is slightly different. The liability of a ratepayer to business rates arises on a day-to-day basis. That means that business rates are calculated for each day based on the circumstances of the ratepayer and the property on that day. That then gives rise to the question at what point in the day those circumstances are to be taken from. If, for example, a ratepayer moved into the property at 12 noon, are they a ratepayer for half of that day, for the full day or not at all?

The relevant legislation does not leave that point to chance. Section 67 of the 1998 Act contains various provisions dealing with such circumstances. The provision adopted in section 67 is that the circumstances as they may exist before the day ends are taken to have applied for the day, and if conditions necessary to satisfy the requirements of, for example, a mandatory rate relief are met immediately before the day ends, they are taken to have applied for the day. If, for example, a charity started to use its property wholly or mainly for charitable purposes at 12 noon, it is assumed to have used the property for the whole day and is therefore eligible for mandatory relief.

The end-of-the-day principle is a familiar and accepted principle in the business rates system. The amendments will apply that principle to various measures that we are introducing in the Bill and they will clarify that the same principle applies to some existing reliefs.

Amendments 37 and, in part, 38 will ensure for the avoidance of doubt that the end-of-the-day principle is applied for rural relief and small business rate relief. In practice, those reliefs are already operating using the principle, but we want to put that beyond doubt. Amendments 38 and 39 will ensure that the end-of-the-day principle is adopted for the new relief for telecommunications infrastructure introduced under clause 8 and schedule 3. Amendment 40 ensures that the principle is adopted for charitable and empty property relief on the central rating list introduced under clause 10. Finally, amendment 41 will ensure that the end-of-the-day principle is adopted for the new administrative arrangements being introduced for the central rating list under clause 11.

Amendment 37 agreed to.

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8