Non-domestic rating: exemption for nursery grounds

Local Government Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 21 February 2017.

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‘(1) Schedule 5 to the Local Government Finance Act 1988 (non-domestic rating: exemption) is amended as follows.

(2) In paragraph 3(b), after “market garden” on each occasion where it appears, insert “or nursery ground”.—

This new clause would provide that the definition of an agricultural building for the purposes of the exemption from non-domestic rating includes a building which is or forms part of a nursery ground and is used solely in connection with agricultural operations at the nursery ground.—(Steve Double.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

With the new clause, I seek clarification of the legislation and confirmation of my belief of the original intention of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 regarding the agricultural exemption from non-domestic rates for nurseries and market gardens. This has been prompted by a court case brought by the Valuation Office Agency in 2015 against Tunnel Tech Limited, mushroom growers who grow their product under polythene or glass.

For more than a century, legislation has dictated that agricultural land and, latterly, buildings have been exempt from rating liability. The principle of an agricultural exemption is well established. The Court of Appeal, however, interpreted the legislation as not to include nursery grounds consisting wholly of greenhouses, polythene tunnels or buildings with the exemption.

The horticultural industry in the UK has undergone significant changes in recent years in order to increase our home food production, something I am sure we all support. That has included more and more crop-growing operations taking place under the cover of polythene tunnels and other buildings. It has also led to more sophisticated growing techniques being explored.

There is no longer a distinction between enterprises that would have been classified as a “market garden” and those classified as a “nursery ground”, as per the legislation. They are instead simply “food growers”. Many growers are a combination of both “nursery ground” and “market garden”, operating from the same premises with no distinction of areas. The Valuation Office Agency argument in the case centred around the fact that Tunnel Tech did not produce mushrooms that were ready for market.

In order to become more productive and cost-effective, the industry has become increasingly segmented in its approach to production. There has been a move towards businesses specialising in niche production. Growers may now only produce one stage in the development of an end product, such as plug plants for vegetable production. That is more economical for the industry, allowing it to be more competitive in the global marketplace. Significant increases can be made in production, where each stage can be carried out at individual premises designed solely for each specific stage of production. Dealing with all production stages on the same premises has substantial limitations.

With more and more agricultural land being taken up with housing provision for our expanding population, there is a need to be able to produce food for the country over smaller areas more efficiently and more reliably. That can, to an extent, be addressed by growing more product under cover.

The Tunnel Tech case has highlighted how outdated or ambiguous the current legislation is in that regard. It makes a defined distinction between “market gardens” and “nursery grounds” and treats them differently for exemption purposes, whereas enterprises today are, in reality, simply growers.

It is unlikely that, in drafting the legislation, it was Parliament’s intention to limit UK horticultural production, as will be the case potentially should the legislation stand as it is. A significant ratings bill in addition to other rising costs will prevent investment in growing businesses. It will prevent growers from exploring new techniques requiring under-cover operations. It may also have a reverse effect on operations that already do grow under cover, forcing them to abandon these growing methods. I have tabled the new clause simply to clarify the relevant legislation, which is the Local Government Finance Act 1988, and to ensure that the agricultural exemption from ratings liability is protected as the industry evolves and modernises. I do not believe that there will be any significant fiscal impact to the Treasury from this change, as it is not revenue that the Treasury has historically been receiving.

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

I am sympathetic to the new clause. I just wanted to clarify the question of cost. We would not want to support anything without knowing whether there were cost implications. It would be helpful for the hon. Gentleman to clarify whether he has checked with the House of Commons Library or with other sources about the potential financial cost to the Treasury of the new clause.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and indeed for the revelation that he has come to the view that we need to consider the costs of all new moves, which is welcome. I have not got the figures from the Library, but my understanding, from speaking to people in the Treasury and people from the National Farmers Union, is that this is not money that the Treasury has historically been receiving. This is a recent development; it has happened only in the last few months. Therefore, if the change happens, this will be new money—increased revenue—to the Treasury. It is not something the Treasury has been receiving historically; I believe that is the case. Therefore, I am seeking support for the new clause to restore the position that I believe was Parliament’s original intention when the legislation was introduced in 1988, to clarify the position in the light of the court ruling and to continue this vital support to our food producers.

I do not intend to push the new clause to a vote. I simply seek the Minister’s response and put down a marker that I believe that this issue needs to be addressed by the Department and by the Treasury to provide clarity and certainty for our food growers that they can continue to enjoy the relief, which I believe was the original intention.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West 3:45, 21 February 2017

I rise in support of the new clause. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the background is that for the past 20 years at least, food security in the United Kingdom has been much overlooked. We import an increasing proportion of our food and the strain on our food security may increase or decrease because of Brexit, depending on what we do. The measure proposed by new clause 10 is very helpful in that regard.

The Tunnel Tech case, as I understand it, related to the tunnels where mushrooms are produced, ready for market. Paragraph 2(1)(a) of schedule 5 to the Local Government Finance Act 1988 provides the definition of agricultural land, whereas paragraph 3 provides the definition of an agricultural building. The definition of agricultural land includes meadows, which are extremely important, whether they are in Cornwall or elsewhere. However, as I understand it—I am not an agriculturalist or a horticulturalist—meadows do not produce food that is directly ready for market. Even so, they are an important part of our landscape and can contribute to the food chain. Therefore we have an anomaly. Paragraph 9(1) of schedule 5 to the 1988 Act exempts fish farms, so the provision applies more widely than suggested by paragraph 2, which defines agricultural land as pure

“pure arable meadow or pasture ground”.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not intend press his new clause to a vote, but I understand his reasons for that. In supporting his amendment, however, I advise him—he may have liaised with others on this— to consider whether a change needs to be made to paragraph 2, which provides the definition of agricultural land, as well as to paragraph 3, which provides the definition of agricultural buildings. He and I both want clarity so that the matter is not ventilated before the courts again, and I suspect that a tweak to the definition agricultural land would also be helpful.

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

I am minded to press the new clause to a vote, such was the clarity of the argument of the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West has made a compelling case in support of it. The hon. Gentleman has reassured me that, having had conversations with the Treasury, there is no cost associated with it and he clearly has the support of the NFU. The Minister will have to make a pretty powerful speech to convince us not to press the new clause to a vote.

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

It looks as if there is no pressure on me to satisfy the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for raising this important issue. The Valuation Office Agency faces a challenging task of maintaining non-domestic rating lists covering a vast array of different types of property throughout England.

The background to the amendment originates from a rating case concerning a property producing mushroom mycelium, which is essentially the material from which mushrooms are grown. It is then sold on by the ratepayer to mushroom farms, which then produce the final product. The VOA felt that, because the property was not producing the mushrooms itself, it was not able to claim the agricultural building exemption and therefore should not be rateable. The ratepayer disagreed. Eventually, the matter reached the Court of Appeal which ruled that the property should be rateable.

On business rates, there is nothing unusual about that chain of events. Usually, further discussion of such technical rating cases would be confined only to the most dedicated members of the ratings profession. The Government are not usually involved in that sort of discussion, but the Court of Appeal decision has wider implications in this case.

The judgment clarified that there is a difference between market gardens and nursery grounds where buildings are involved. In effect, that means that there is a difference between the exemptions available for market gardens and nursery grounds. The Court of Appeal judgment means that where the activity at a nursey ground takes place only in buildings, it is not exempt because it is not an agricultural building as defined by the legislation. Previously it was a long-held practice to treat such buildings as though they were exempt from business rates. The VOA has been discussing with the industry what the decision means in practice. We understand that it would mean that some ratepayers operating nurseries producing plants prior to the point of sale to the consumer could face a rate bill for the first time. However, the proposed new clause would ensure that those nurseries were again exempt from business rates.

I stress that the Government believe that the exemption for agricultural property is an important part of the rating system. It ensures that large areas of agricultural land and buildings are not liable to pay a property tax that could have a significant impact on the cost of farming. We firmly believe that it is necessary for a line to be drawn for all exemptions and the Court of Appeal has clearly done that in its judgment. It is also important that reliefs and exemptions are targeted where support is most needed. I have therefore asked my officials to look at the impacts of that decision, how it will be applied in practice by the VOA and what it means for the companies affected. I will also meet the NFU to discuss it. The Government keep all taxes, including business rates, under review and I assure my hon. Friend that that includes the implications of the Court of Appeal decision.

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

Given that one should support even Government Back Benchers when they suggest very sensible amendments, I want to clarify whether the Minister will take a serious look at the merits of the amendment and potentially bring something back on Report, or is he just going to go through the motions of a quick chat with the NFU on the back of something else, while his colleague is sent away with nothing?

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

The hon. Gentleman is taking an interest in this subject, but I have spoken a number of times to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, who came to me with this important issue, and I have also spoken to several other hon. Friends on the Government Back Benches who are concerned about it. I have been clear today that the Government take the situation seriously and I have asked my officials to look at the impacts of the decision, how it will be applied in practice and what it means for the companies affected. I will also speak to the NFU. Given the gist of my comments, I hope that hon. Members are assured that we take this matter seriously and that we will consider it carefully before we get to the next stage of the Bill. I hope therefore that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendment and that, in the spirit of my comments, Opposition Front Benchers will not seek to press it to a division.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I thank the Minister for his response and I am grateful for the support of Opposition Members. I am happy to take the Minister at his word at this stage and hope that they will, too. I have put down a clear marker and believe that the Minister takes the matter seriously, but I will be watching closely to ensure that it is addressed in the near future. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 11