Good afternoon. We are now in a public session and I can welcome our fourth panel of witnesses: Adrian Blaylock, revenues adviser at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, and David Magor, chief executive of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation. Gentlemen, may I confirm that you can see and hear us? And can you each introduce yourselves?
I am Adrian Blaylock, lead revenues adviser for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. My role in the institute is to provide specialist technical advice to local government on matters relating to council tax and non-domestic rates.
My name is David Magor. I am the chief executive of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation—I run a professional body; it’s that simple. In a previous life, I was a chief officer in local government.
Thank you. This session will run to 2.45 pm. As you will understand, you will be questioned by members of the Committee. Are you going to start the questioning, Mr Smith?
Yes. Good afternoon; thank you for being with us. I thought it might be useful to start by asking both of you to make some introductory remarks about, in particular, clause 1 of the Bill and whether you think that it is the appropriate way of dealing with the problems that the Government have flagged upQ40 .
Local government has faced significant financial pressure since the start of the pandemic—and before that, for other reasons—and the Bill attempts to address, potentially, some of the issues that local government could face if the covid restrictions are not prevented from being considered in the material change of circumstance appeals. The potential loss of income to local government could be pretty significant, and what local government really needs is continuity of funding and certainty of funding, so to carry the risk of material change of circumstances, which could be the case for many years, depending on how long they take to actually make their way through the system, is significant. I think that the Bill addresses that potential issue; it does what it is intended to do.
Adrian is correct in his summary. Certainly the impact of the material change of circumstances and the challenges that were outstanding will have had a significant financial effect on local government, and of course that will have reduced Government revenues. The Chancellor, in the Budget, had not forecast the anticipated loss as a result of these material changes in circumstance. The rating professionals, the rating advisers to the ratepayers, had chosen what was the only route available to them at the time; the route that they lawfully had to take was to treat the coronavirus impact as a material change of circumstance and act reasonably on behalf of their clients, which they did. But of course the financial impact was going to be considerable and so we have a situation where Government have intervened and said that a better way of dealing with it is through a relief scheme. All things considered, and provided that the relief is paid in a timely manner and the amount of relief is appropriate, that is a satisfactory way of dealing with it.
That having been said, the reductions in assessment that were being mooted with regard to the material change of circumstance were quite considerable, and it has raised expectations of ratepayers. One hopes that when the Bill is passed into law, as we expect it to be, and the relief scheme is put in place, the amount of relief will be sufficient to satisfy the desires of those particular ratepayers. Certain sectors, like retail, hospitality and leisure, have done very well out of the reliefs that have been awarded to them. This measure, of course, picks up others, who were not covered by those particular rules. One hopes that, when the Bill becomes law and the relief scheme is put in place, it will meet the needs of the ratepayers.
Q Thank you; that is very helpful. We will probably come back in a second to the issue of the amount. I suppose that this measure can be considered as shifting the risk from local authorities to Government and businesses—well, hopefully not businesses if the Government provide the money. Do you have any comments on the view from business and whether there are businesses and sectors that are particularly concerned? We have been approached by, for example, the airports, which do not think the money that will be available will be enough to tide them through the problems that they are facing. Other businesses or sectors may have a similar view. I am just wondering whether you have a view on that.
Obviously, the Chancellor made provision for the airports with a special airport scheme, but of course the rateable value of the major airports in England is very significant. One can look at Heathrow, for example. It has a very significant value, and the amount of relief that was made available to it was nowhere near its rates liability. You can look at all the airports in England and compare those airports with the way airports have been treated in, for example, Scotland, where they have had 100% relief. The expectations of the airport providers and the companies running the airports are very high. However, the amount does not appear to be sufficient to meet the desires of all the ratepayers who had outstanding challenges and large assessments, like the airports. The challenge for the Government is to ensure that those particular ratepayers are satisfied.
As far as businesses generally are concerned, there are of course those that have done very well through the pandemic: their trading positions and profits have remained stable. You can argue that giving relief to them, as well as to those that have really suffered—particularly companies in the supply chain—would be unfair. Of course, if the new relief scheme is going to be dealt with by application—companies can choose to apply—one hopes the criteria of that relief scheme will ensure that relief is paid to those who are entitled to it. Meeting the expectations of the ratepayers who have had challenges in is going to be the real problem with the outcome of this Bill.
Q That takes me on to another question, specifically for Mr Magor, but Mr Blaylock may have a comment as well. The IRRV written evidence that we received flags up the issue of how you differentiate between covid and non-covid challenges and says that a “transparent, evidence-based process” needs to be adopted. I completely agree. I suppose the big question is how you do that. Would you have any comments on how you might define the difference between a covid and a non-covid challenge?
The challenges are laid down in legislation; we know what the challenges, and the circumstances surrounding those challenges, are. It is for the valuation officer to look at every individual challenge and how that challenge is made up, and to decide whether it is covid-related or related to a normal material change of circumstance.
The important thing is that the valuation officer inspects every challenge and makes a reasonable decision in every case. That will be absolutely critical. The ones that are covid alone will stand out quite clearly. However, with those where you perhaps have a change in the high street, with the closure of a major retailer because of trading patterns, you have to be very careful to make sure that you do not mistake the fact that the retailer was intending to close anyway for the impact of covid. Remember, the valuation officer is very experienced in this process. The material change of circumstance legislation has been around for a long time, and there is lots of case law. There is absolutely no reason why the valuation officer cannot act in a reasonable and transparent way.
What David says is absolutely right. It is important to recognise that there are material changes of circumstance that are not related to covid. These can still go through the normal process, and the Valuation Office Agency should be able to distinguish between the different types.
Thank you both for giving evidence to us today. I wonder if I could get your views on the value of what I think you have described as a “funding pot”—the £1.5 billion that has been allocated. Do you have concerns about the sufficiency of that, and what are those concerns based on?Q
The second question is more specifically to Mr Blaylock and relates to the IRRV’s evidence, in particular to paragraph 6, where you are talking about the benefits of amending provisions of section 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988. It would be useful to talk through your argument there to help us understand it.
That is probably aimed at Mr Magor, rather than me. It is really hard to know whether the size of the pot—the £1.5 billion—is large enough or not. The way I expect this scheme to work is for the Government to release guidance on the types of business they expect local government to support. In the announcement on
Local government has to follow guidance issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. That is in the regulations; section 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 says that it must be taken into account. Until we know exactly the types of business the Government are expecting local government to give support to, it is really hard to say whether £1.5 billion is enough. Airports were given as an example. If airports appear in the guidance as something that the Government want local government to support, as Mr Magor says, their rateable values are large, and therefore the pot probably would not be sufficient, but it is really hard to say at this point in time.
On the size of the overall pot, we at the institute have the advantage of having a comprehensive database going back to 1990 of all non-domestic properties. We have been looking at that database and trying to do some early forecasting of how big the pot should be.
You can see from the ministerial statements that the Minister has made quite clear exactly the direction that he wants the relief to go in. You can do a rough calculation by taking out retail, hospitality and leisure properties, exempt properties, small businesses and so on, and you are left with an effective amount of rateable value and an effective number of properties that would get the relief. Of course, the Government have also added local economic factors into the decision on the distribution of the pot, and we do not know the detail of them.
If you look at the eligible rateable value and the eligible properties, once you take out the exempt properties and those that have already received relief, you start to come to a figure well in excess of £1.5 billion. You are starting to look at a figure perhaps three times that amount. Initially, that sounds quite frightening, but of course we do not know the economic impact of covid on individual companies. Again, the Minister said in his guidance that the scheme will be by application, so it will be for companies to choose whether they apply.
No doubt, if we see the draft guidance and it gives clear indications of the way local government is to work, you can frame an application form in such a way that it will target the relief at those in most need. Until we see the guidance, it is difficult to give a clear forecast of whether the pot is large enough, mainly because of the mysterious economic factor. The implication from the Minister’s statements is that it will differ from area to area, so it will be impossible to know what figures the Minister has taken into account unless we have absolute transparency and those figures are made available.
Of course, there is a danger that individual local authorities will challenge the figure. If it is not sufficiently clear, the first thing that elected members will do is compare their figure with that of a similar local authority, and if it is significantly different, they will want to know why, so there are a few challenges ahead for the Minister.
Q Thank you both for your evidence this afternoon. You clearly both have a wealth of experience, so it is really useful to hear your thoughts. What has your experience been of how the scope and extent of MCC claims have evolved over recent years? Could you talk us through the changing landscape of using this type of appeal over the past few years?
When this legislation was introduced, you saw various significant events that triggered MCC changes. When you are looking for things that are similar to covid, you perhaps look at the crash of 2008 and things like foot and mouth disease. These are factors that are taken into account when you are looking at the broad picture. The covid situation, as we all know, is quite unique. The normal material change of circumstance is an essential part of the overall evaluation process. You need to reflect the changes in communities and in the environment, such as buildings being demolished or empty and so on—the material changes that happen in every neighbourhood from day to day. There are roadworks and 101 different things. Those have been dealt with very adequately by the Valuation Office Agency. The agents, on behalf of ratepayers, put in the challenges under the new challenge and appeal process, and it has worked very effectively. It has ensured that the distribution of the rate is as fair as it can be when you have got a five-year cycle of revaluations.
The special circumstances that come to mind are the crash in 2008 and foot and mouth disease. It worked quite adequately but, of course, it was nowhere near on the scale of covid, and the impact of covid on the economic wellbeing of communities.
The only thing I would add is the position since the end of March 2020. From
Q A lot of the early feedback we received suggested the potential scale of the appeals was causing concern in local government. We started to hear talk from local government about potential savings to frontline services that would need to be made. Could you tell us your experience of the way local government started to approach that potential task, and whether that started to impact on budgeting and forecasts for councils in setting their budgets?
Since the introduction of the rates retention scheme, local authorities have had to forecast the impact of changes in the valuation list from year to year when preparing their budgets. You started with 50% retention, and moved to pilot schemes of 75% and 100%. When you have a rates retention scheme that works in that way, if you make a mistake in forecasting the reduction in value, you will significantly affect the finances of the local authority and the budgeting process.
Every chief financial officer has to make a forecast of the impact of a change. They would have to make a provision against that forecast and, of course, provisions prevent you from spending money, because you are providing for an event that is likely to happen. Certainly, as far as forecasting for the 50% rates retention scheme was concerned, every time you looked at your rateable value and the changes in that over the forthcoming year, you were conscious that any forecast you made, 50% of that reduction in value would fall on your budget.
That was the way the retention scheme worked, and it created a great deal of concern because chief financial officers were making very significant provisions. As I said, making provisions curtails the local authority’s ability to spend. Elected members quite rightly get very concerned about that. Then the MCC checks and challenges came in, with the checks first. As Adrian said, the enormous number of checks has now reached half a million, and the challenges emanating from those are well in excess of 100,000. You are talking about a massive impact on the valuation resources of the list. Local authorities have to make provision for that.
Through this Bill you would remove that risk and, as the Chair said, transfer it to central Government, because you would fund it through a relief scheme. The real problem is whether the relief will be sufficient to meet the needs of the ratepayers who are expecting a reduction in rateable value.
That is right. The risk and the responsibility of a local authority to set aside sufficient funds to cover any potential losses to the rating list could be significant. If I can just give you some indication of where we were: at the end of 2019-20, local government had just short of £3 billion sat in provisions for alterations of lists and appeals. This is all pre-covid. This is nothing to do with the pandemic, just essential changes to the rating list. Every year, they have to forecast what they think they will lose in the forthcoming year and there is roughly £1 billion a year being added to that pot, regardless of covid. So the potential loss on top of those normal everyday changes to the rating list—well, I would not like to think what would happen to local government finances if it went ahead. You would need a significant level of provision to be able to carry that. We have already seen local authorities applying to MHCLG for capitalisation directions because they are struggling to pay the day-to-day costs of running their services. How many more authorities would need to go down that route if that is where we get to? That is what concerns me.
There are three very specific exemptions to the restrictions on appeals set out in clause 1(5), inasmuch as the valuation decision must take into account the effects of covid-19 on the quantity of minerals extracted and the quantity of waste disposal from the property, along with the physical state of the property being affected. Do you think those exemptions are reasonable and are there any other circumstances that you feel should be includedQ ?
I must admit that the Bill is very well framed. We have looked closely at the Bill, clause by clause, and it meets its specific purpose. The approach to dealing with the material change in circumstances and to withdrawing or removing the covid ones is very sound. I find the provisions of clause 1 fit for purpose and they meet the needs of Government. That is a relief, in the sense that it seems to be fair. Of course, it is important that in making decisions in relation to the clauses that you have mentioned the Valuation Office Agency is transparent and gives the ratepayer and ratepayer’s agent every opportunity to make their case for other matters that are outside the covid situation.
It is really hard to say because there was a suggestion of what level of reduction ratepayers would see in their rateable value from discussions between the Valuation Office Agency and rating agents. However, it is hard to say. Would that be across the board? Is that for a specific area? Is it for a specific kind of property? Without knowing exactly what the extent of the reductions in rateable values would be through material change of circumstances, it is really hard to say. The other thing to think about is longevity. Is it for the period of the lockdown? Is it from now to perpetuity? Forever? It is hard to say what the actual loss would be. There are too many unknowns, I would suggest.
The problem with the pot of money is that when the Bill is passed and the relief scheme is released and we have guidance—of course, along with that guidance, one assumes you will have the distribution of the pot as well by individual local authorities—as well as making sure that they fully understand that individual pot and how it is made up, each local authority will then have to develop its own scheme and that scheme will be approved by members. In developing that scheme, you would have to look at the potential eligible properties in your area. From ministerial statements, you can take out RHLG properties, exempt properties and so on, because they will not get any relief, or it is the Government’s intention that they do not get any relief. You will then be left with a number of properties that are entitled to relief. What you do not know is what the economic factor in the distribution will take account of, but one assumes that you will look at the economic factor from individual company to individual company, and a company that has traded satisfactorily through the pandemic will, no doubt, not qualify for relief. One assumes, certainly from the statements that have been made in Parliament, that that is the way the Government wanted it to work.
When you get to that situation, you have to decide exactly how much relief you will pay to each individual ratepayer. There is no indication of what a reasonable amount is. There were some press releases from certain rating agents suggesting reductions as high as 25%. A couple of examples were put forward in statements from the Treasury where the amount of relief granted was a good deal less than 25%, but at the end of the day a local authority has to be really careful because it has a cash-limited pot that it has to distribute fairly to everybody to ensure that it has sufficient resource to meet the needs of every applicant. That in itself will be a challenge.
As Adrian says, you have to know how long the pot will last. The problem is that, if it is a cash-limited pot and you cannot go back for more, local authorities will be in a really difficult situation with those ratepayers who may be entitled but you did not have enough money to go around. You then revert to your other discretionary powers, particularly the hardship power. Then the cost of that starts to fall on the shoulders of the council tax payer, so it really is a massive challenge to local authorities. On top of that, in a practical sense there have already been adverse reports from the ombudsman about a lack of transparency in some local authorities with regard to the grant schemes. That was a significant problem with the grant schemes, and local authorities handled it really well. This problem, I think, is greater.
Q Of course, it then has an impact on the resources available to meet the statutory duties, because business rates are much more involved now than when it was grants from the Government. The business rates revaluation is currently taking place, to be concluded in March 2022. The Bill would prevent businesses from retrospectively making an appeal against rateable values as they are now, even when the new system is in place. Is that provision necessary in your opinion?
When the new values come into force there will be rights to appeal against them. The effect of the Bill, of course, is to prevent any applications under the check, challenge and appeal process from going forward in relation to the pandemic. That seems to be the intention of the Bill. Due to that being the law—it has closed down that particular area of activity, and the impact of the pandemic on the material change of circumstances definition—they cannot make any more appeals about that, but of course they can still continue to make normal material change of circumstances appeals right up to the closing of the existing list.
Definitely. The way I read it, the Bill prevents any announcements regarding the pandemic from being taking into account, but it does not prevent any other methods of check or challenge from being taken forward by a ratepayer if something different is affecting their rateable value.
I thank our witnesses. Clearly there is widespread support for the restriction on rating appeals, given the trade-off of extra funding for relief from the Government, but picking up on the point about the rate revaluation—Q [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Mundell. Is there a sense in which the timing of the rate revaluation is a helpful coincidence, in that it could mitigate some of the issues that ratepayers might have with the change to their business arising from coronavirus, perhaps particularly where a business has been badly affected and has to change its whole focus? Is the revaluation a way to mitigate that, and is that a helpful coincidence of timing?
It is a helpful coincidence of timing. There is an antecedent evaluation date, and the rental evidence gathered to determine the values for the next evaluation list will reflect the circumstances of the pandemic and what is happening in the property market. The valuation officer has started to call for that evidence, which is required by statute and will reflect the current situation. Therefore, the list coming into force in 2023 will reflect the current difficult circumstances and, as you rightly say, potential changes in trading patterns and other things.
Q To ask a follow-up question, you were talking about local authorities and schemes they may need to set up, Mr Magor. What are you expecting in the guidance from Ministers? How soon does that guidance need to come? We heard concerns about how quickly this needs to happen. From your experience, could you share your view on how long that pot could last? Does there need to be reporting and review of expenditure? What do you expect from the Government on that and on working with local authorities on this?
I know Adrian will pick up on the impact of it, but I will start. On the guidance, for reliefs under section 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, the Minster is required to give guidance and local authorities to have regard to it. You would expect the guidance to be sufficient to enable local authorities to develop a scheme within the Government’s wishes. From ministerial statements, we know that that scheme will not include awarding relief to retail, hospitality and leisure, or those in receipt of other reliefs that remove their rate liability, and that economic factors will be considered from company to company. I would expect the guidance to clarify those issues and make it clear how the individual pots will operate.
I would also expect it to give local authorities an element of discretion—after all, section 47 is about discretionary relief—to have a scheme shaped for their area. This is why it has to be done in stages. The first is passing the Bill into law. Then, you issue the guidance with the distribution, give local authorities a chance to analyse that distribution and understand whether it is fair, and what to do at a local level. Local authorities then have regard to that guidance and devise a scheme, which has to be done quickly.
If we had not had this proposed change in the law, the valuation officer and ratepayers’ agents would be settling matters now, and I suspect refunds would have started to circulate. If this scheme is to replace those MCC challenges, you would like to think it would be in force later this year, and that any reliefs would be paid during the current financial year— that must be the aim.
The pot is a one-off that would be distributed as quickly as possible, because now is the time when the money is needed. The real issue for local authorities is devising a scheme and ensuring that they can distribute the pot fairly, and that they do not run out of money. That, in itself, will be a massive problem.
The only point I would add to that is timing. I think you questioned the timing and the need for haste; as David said, businesses need this money now. The only thing I would question is to ask what this relief pot meant to be compensating for. The majority of the lockdown measures and the restrictions applied during 2020-21 rather than during 2021-22, and there is a specific part of section 47 of the Local Government Finance Act that says that a local authority cannot take a decision more than six months after the financial year to which the decision relates. So, strictly speaking, as at the end of September a local authority will not be permitted to give discretionary relief rate back into 2020-21. That means that either everything needs to be in place and all the local schemes need to be up and running by the end of September, or the relief is not given for 2020-21 but is given for 2021-22 instead. However, what then happens to the businesses that had a material change of circumstances lodged for 2020-21 that are no longer in existence? They have missed out on that.
As for the timing, it is important that the Bill gets through as quickly as possible, but it is also important for people to understand that local government also have to go through their own governance processes. Devising a scheme is not just a case of somebody sitting at a desk and saying, “There you go, this is our scheme”. It needs to go through the proper governance process, which will take time. It could take two or three months for all that to go through its own internal processes, on top of whatever time it takes for the legislation to be passed and the guidance and allocations to be issued by MHCLG. Timing is crucial in this process.
Q Looking at the parliamentary timetable, it seems very unlikely that the Bill will be passed before the end of September, which creates the problem that you have just identified. I think we are all fairly clear that the Bill will pass at some point. Is there any reason, in your view, why the Government cannot give indicative guidance ahead of—you talked about it being in three stages—stage 1 being completed? Is there any reason why indicative guidance and possibly indicative valuation amounts for each local authority could not be given?
I do not see why not. If the Government have already taken the decision on the value of the pot—I do not know what they are doing about the allocations, but if they can work out what the allocations need to be for each local authority, they must have a clue now what they want to support, what areas they want to support and where they want local government to focus their attention. If that was to happen, it would allow local government to start formulating plans and start going through the process of putting together their own local policies. I think that would be a positive step.
I agree wholeheartedly with that. Draft guidance and an indicative figure of the amount for each local authority would be most welcome at this stage. It would enable planning to start; it would also enable the local authorities to challenge. Better those challenges come now, as we are preparing. We are going through—let us hope—a long, hot summer, and through that long, hot summer local government accountants have nothing better to do than to work out what their relief should be, so I am sure that they would be pleased to see some indicative figures and draft guidance.
Q Clause 1 is effectively trying to make retrospective the regulations that were passed in March. I appreciate that only three months or so have passed since then, so it may be too early to make a judgment, but is there anything we can learn from the way that businesses or local authorities have reacted to those regulations? Are there any lessons that we can take from those operations so far?
I think the overall reaction to where we are now has been relatively positive. The Government are in the process of removing this element of the material change of circumstance, and are replacing it with a grant scheme—with funding of a relief scheme. I think the only problem is the timing—that is the issue. If there is any lesson to be learned, it is that ratepayers are expecting their relief now and local authorities need to provide it in the current financial year, because they are the customer-facing service. They face the ratepayer and have to deal with the complaints that the relief has not been paid promptly enough.
Gentlemen, your timing has been excellent, because you have concluded answers to the questions just within the time limit. On behalf of the Committee, I thank you both for your evidence this afternoon.