Power of mayoral combined authorities to impose business rate supplements

Local Government Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 10:00 am, 21st February 2017

I beg to move amendment 19, in clause 38, page 28, line 38, after “2009”, insert—

“(f) any other billing authority.”

This amendment would add any billing authority to the list of levying authorities with a power to impose business rate supplements.

I hope not to detain the Committee too long on this amendment, although I do have a series of questions for the Minister.

Amendment 19 seeks to put right the rather odd exclusion of non-mayoral combined authorities from the power to levy business rate supplements. It will be interesting to hear why Ministers think that the existence of a Mayor is the only thing that should be pivotal to whether an area should be allowed to raise money for investment in infrastructure. One would have thought that the principle of localism would allow local authority areas to come forward and decide whether they needed a Mayor, and that Ministers would respect the decisions of the people of England in that regard.

In the particular case of business rate supplements, we should remember that a ballot of non-domestic ratepayers is required. A series of checks and balances is therefore built in to the levying of business rate supplements already. Given that, it seems even more unfair that non-mayoral combined authorities should have not the power to levy business rate supplements, if they have identified with their business community a significant need to raise money for investment in infrastructure. That smacks of the nanny state—a mentality that “Whitehall knows best” and should be able to dictate what happens in Swindon, Cornwall, Totnes or Northamptonshire. We believe that the people of England should be trusted to make a decision in their particular areas about whether they have a Mayor. Denying them the chance to work with their business community to raise money for much-needed investment in infrastructure seems to be particularly unfair.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton 10:15 am, 21st February 2017

The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points. Has he run these plans by any business organisations, such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the CBI, or the chambers of commerce, to see whether they would be in favour?

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

The Federation of Small Businesses raised a particular concern with me about the potential for both business rate supplements and property owner levies in terms of BIDs to be covered. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, that issue probably works best as part of a clause 38 stand part debate. I want simply to equalise what Ministers are giving to mayoral combined authorities with those combined authorities that do not have a Mayor. It is called fairness. I appreciate that that is a concept that Conservative MPs sometimes struggle to come to terms with, but I hope that our efforts in the last two weeks have been helpful, particularly to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton.

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

The Business Rate Supplements Act 2009 was, indeed, brought through Parliament during the period of a Labour Government. That was done off the back of the review by Michael Lyons, who recommended not to include district councils in regard to business rate supplements. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore believe that the legislation made by his Government in 2009 was flawed?

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

I think that times have moved on and people have seen the success of business rate supplements as they have worked, particularly in London. Now is the time to make a sensible change. I certainly do not think it was the intention of the last Labour Government to say that if an area does not have a Mayor it must for ever be denied the chance to have investment in infrastructure.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

A few moments ago the hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to see fairness for non-mayoral—or non-elected Mayor-led—combined authorities, but his amendment states “any other billing authority”, not any other combined authority, in other words deleting the requirement for an elected Mayor. Therefore he is not seeking fairness for areas without a Mayor: he seeks to include a range of things, which could mean that some places end up paying two of these supplements.

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

I used the example of the non-mayoral combined authorities to make a crucial point. This is a probing amendment and I am interested in hearing why Ministers want to exclude non-mayoral combined authorities. I say that in the context of my huge support for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who is doing an excellent job. I am conscious, though, that many council leaders and councillors have strong relationships with their local business community. I gently suggest that we should trust both business owners and local people who have elected councils to look at the merits of a particular proposal on infrastructure, rather than dictating from Whitehall whether they have to have a Mayor in order to levy a business rate supplement.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an absolute obsession with directly elected Mayors full stop? The Government use an example of a combined authority with a Mayor not even having to consult on the referendum result on business rate introduction. However, a city Mayor directly elected by the population has to have a vote in the same way as a Mayor of a combined authority.

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

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Now is the time to embrace the spirit of localism, which Ministers have previously professed to support, with investment in infrastructure and to trust local businesses. They will be able to smell perfectly easily whether a proposal for a business rate supplement is a sensible suggestion or not.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

I do not think the hon. Gentleman has addressed my earlier point. My point was simply that he is proposing a significant change to the legislation and he has not said whether he has consulted anybody about it—the Federation of Small Businesses, for example. Has he done that? Does he not think it is right that we have those conversations prior to introducing legislation in this House?

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

We have had consultations with a whole series of organisations which wanted reform to the Bill because of the poor way in which it has been drafted and brought forward by the Minister. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to have patience, as I hope to raise the question of double charging for investment under clause 38. He is not normally excitable, so I encourage him to be patient. I look forward with interest to hearing from the Minister why he thinks we should discriminate against those areas and people of England who do not have a Mayor.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his explanation of amendment 19. The amendment would add to clause 38 any billing authority to the list of authorities set out in section 2 of the Business Rate Supplements Act 2009 that would be able to use powers under the Act to introduce a business rate supplement.

Hon. Members will understand that we cannot support this amendment for several reasons. Many of these will be familiar from the debate on amendment 29, which proposed adding billing authorities to the list of authorities which could levy an infrastructure supplement. However, I think it might be informative to look back at the report that I alluded to earlier that originally suggested the introduction of a business rate supplement.

Sir Michael Lyons in his 2007 report set out the benefits that he felt could be delivered through a new flexibility on business rates. In doing so, he had reservations about providing the power to a wider range of authorities, particularly with business concerns about the scope for complexity if the settlement applied across all authorities. That was a legitimate point about complexity that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West made earlier.

Sir Michael Lyons recommended, therefore, that the power should be available to upper-tier authorities and unitary authorities. However, importantly, he highlighted the scope for engagement and development of joint plans between both tiers of local government in two-tier areas which could assess how the revenues raised could be utilised to benefit the wider area.

As the Bill that became the Business Rate Supplements Act progressed through Parliament, there was a wide-ranging debate about which authorities should have the power to take forward the supplement. Following those well-informed debates, Parliament came to the conclusion that the supplement should be available in England to the GLA and to county and unitary authorities. The Bill we are now considering includes a clause to add mayoral combined authorities to the list of authorities able to levy a business rate supplement, but essentially recognises that such bodies did not exist at the time of the 2009 Act. However, I do not believe that the circumstances have changed between 2009 and now to warrant extending the power to all billing authorities—that would add further complexity for business, as Sir Michael warned against at the time. Instead, I believe the billing authorities that are not unitaries should engage proactively in partnership with their upper-tier authorities to develop imaginative proposals for a business rate supplement that can deliver benefits for all local businesses. That does not require a supplement at billing authority level.

The hon. Member for Harrow West said that it is a probing amendment and I hope that in that spirit, and having reflected on the points I have made, he will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

Briefly, I want to raise a concern that the Federation of Small Businesses put to me. It relates to the intervention by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. The FSB’s concern is that the Bill already allows for two levies to be levied on small or medium, as well as large, businesses—the business rates supplement and the property owner-led business improvement districts. The FSB is concerned that that would potentially see another 4% on top of existing business rates as a result of the Bill as it is currently drafted. Its concern is that that would make business rate bills even higher. In particular, in some areas in London and, notably, the south-east—although not exclusively those areas—that would send business rate bills even higher. Given the FSB’s considerable concern about the size of business rate bills following revaluation, it would be good to hear the Minister’s view about the potential for an extra 4% on top of existing business rates.

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

Clause 38 is relatively straightforward and makes a number of linked amendments to the Business Rate Supplements Act 2009. The rationale for the amendments is to recognise that at the time that the Business Rate Supplements Act gained Royal Assent, mayoral combined authorities did not exist and therefore could not have been considered for inclusion within the types of authority that were given the power to raise a business rate supplement. The 2009 Act provides that power to the GLA and to upper-tier and unitary authorities. The Government are moving forward with arrangements for establishing directly elected Mayors in combined authority areas, and elections will take place in six areas in May.

We have already discussed the particular functions and roles of mayoral combined authorities that merit the use by such authorities and the GLA of the infrastructure supplements set out in part 3 of the Bill. Clause 38 closes the gap that exists in the 2009 Act and adds mayoral combined authorities to section 2 of it as a levying authority for the purposes of that Act. It also clarifies that the functions of a mayoral combined authority are exercisable only by the Mayor acting on behalf of the authority, providing the focal point for accountability for the supplement. Subsections (3) and (4) of clause 38 make consequential amendments to sections 3 and 5 of the 2009 Act to reflect the addition of mayoral combined authorities to the list of levying authorities for the purposes of the business rate supplement. As I said, the clause effectively tidies up the gap in the 2009 Act that could not have been foreseen at the time.

The hon. Member for Harrow West mentioned adding to the burdens on business, and that is a very important point. In theory, it is certainly possible that businesses could be liable for a number of different settlements. However, the purpose of each of these would be to deliver directly benefits to the businesses, which would also have the opportunity to frame the nature of those improvements, either through ballot or extensive engagement and consultation, so we believe there are significant safeguards. On that basis, the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West 10:30 am, 21st February 2017

I have reservations about this clause, which will not surprise the Minister. Building on what I referred to when we discussed clause 37 and schedule 5, I understand that a business could face a business improvement district levy, a business rates supplement, a BRS bid, the combined authority levy in clause 38, as well as the infrastructure levy that we discussed in part 3 of the Bill in clauses 15 through 36.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West has said, there is a risk, which has been raised by me with the Federation of Small Businesses, of a cumulative effect of a proliferation of tax measures on businesses, including medium-sized ones, if there is a common floor of £50,000. That proliferation, without a cap that would prevent repeated additions, is unhelpful to the growth of businesses in our country. I urge the Minister to look again at the proposals and to provide cohesion so that there is no cumulative overspill with five different local measures.

When Professor Sir Michael Lyons was Mick Lyons and barely out of short trousers in the early 1980s, he was chief executive of Wolverhampton Metropolitan Borough Council, as it then was, and he was already well known and obviously going places. Clause 38 would further a system about which I and some colleagues—I do not know about my Front-Bench colleagues—are deeply uneasy.

There are two factors. The first is taxation by referendum, which has bedevilled places such as California where there can be opposing referendums. One referendum might say, “We want the Government to spend less money,” but another says, “We want the Government to spend more money on education.” Opposing referendums would not happen here, but it is a slippery slope if we introduce taxation by referendum.

The second factor marks a step change in the way in which we do things and I am surprised that this Government have proposed it. It was started under the previous Labour Government, but has been much furthered through this Bill, including in clause 38. Effectively, it is hypothecation. There is hypothecation with the business improvement district, the business rates supplement and the infrastructure levy under part 3 of the Bill. Now, under clause 38, there is also hypothecation with the combined authority levy. A taxation system that is based on referendums and hypothecation is a step too far and the Government ought to rethink rather than extend that approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 38 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 39