Examination of Witness

Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:03 pm on 6th July 2021.

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Sarah Pickup gave evidence.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale 2:45 pm, 6th July 2021

Q We will now hear from Sarah Pickup, who is the deputy chief executive of the Local Government Association. Sarah, can you confirm that you can see and hear us?

Sarah Pickup:

I can, thank you.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Q We have until 3.15 pm for this session. Could you confirm your details for the record?

Sarah Pickup:

I am Sarah Pickup. I am deputy chief executive of the Local Government Association, with a lead on finance. I do not have the level of technical, detailed knowledge that your preceding witnesses had, but I can certainly bring you the LGA’s views on questions.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q By way of introduction, could I ask for the view of the LGA on the principle of the Bill, which I think you welcome, and your concerns about any of the detail?

Sarah Pickup:

You are correct: we welcome the principle of the Bill. An unquantified amount of material change of circumstances resolved over an unspecified period of time would be a really difficult prospect for local government to manage, and the need to make provisions would have been substantial. We have spoken to Manchester City Council, for example, which said it had calculated that it might need to make provision of around £11 million in respect of these material change of circumstances, which obviously would have meant that it had to take that resource from somewhere else. We think that there is a substantial level of challenges—we understand around 50,000 nationally. Manchester alone has had a 569% increase in those appeals on the year before, and 88% of those were to do with material change of circumstances, so certainly something needed to be done.

We welcome the prospect of a discretionary scheme, because we think councils will be able to assess where the real damage and the hit is on businesses in their area, but there are of course some challenges in devising a scheme within a fixed sum of money, so we await the guidance. A plus to local discretion is that you can try to fit it to your circumstances, but of course you have to fulfil the promises you set out in your scheme, and the resources put a cap on that. There are some challenges here, but in principle we absolutely welcome this as a way forward.

The other thing I just refer to is the timing issue, which was referred to by the previous witness. Our understanding is the same—that if someone has not made a decision by September, they cannot relate the change to the previous year. The appeals that have come in have come in largely for 2020-21; certainly, the Manchester increase refers to 2020-21. I think that is what businesses were applying for. The fact that it is ongoing into 2021-22 raises another question. There is a question about whether this fund is intended to apply to 2020-21, 2021-22 or to an unspecified period over which coronavirus has an impact. Those things will need to be addressed in the guidance, and we will need to understand whether we are trying to meet the losses to businesses in one year or in more than one year, and the timing of the regulations is important there as well.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q That is really helpful. My second question was going to be whether you feel that £1.5 billion sounds like an adequate figure based on the indications you have had from local authorities. Given that you find it difficult to work out the time period involved, I am guessing that it is even more difficult to judge whether £1.5 billion is sufficient. Do you have any view on that?

Sarah Pickup:

It is extremely difficult, actually. If we assume that it is meant to be for one year, I think Manchester’s assessment of £11 million represents about 1% of its rateable value. If in a very rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation you were to extrapolate that up to a national picture, it would take you to about £1.1 billion. However, that is a big extrapolation. Manchester has calculated what share it thinks it might get of the £1.5 billion pot, and it thinks that will permit it to offer reductions of around 10% to non-hospitality and leisure properties across its area. Of course, not all of them may need a reduction or will qualify for a payment from this fund, but I think it reinforces the point made earlier—that the expectations of business of what the fund might be able to deliver for them might not be realised in reality, for two reasons. First, more than one year is at stake here, and, secondly, people will have to design their schemes within the confines of the resources available through the distribution mechanism.

It is difficult without knowing how prescriptive the guidance will be. We understand there will be discretions here, for the very reason that you have to fit your scheme to the money available. What we do not want is some guidance that leads businesses to expect more than councils can possibly deliver within the sum available in their area.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Clearly, the guidance is absolutely key. Can you confirm whether discussions are happening with the LGA or individual councils about drafting that guidance?

Sarah Pickup:

Not that I am aware of. The guidance would normally follow from the legislation. Obviously, people will have to give some thought to it alongside the passing of the Bill. We have not been involved to date in discussions about developing that guidance. We would welcome the opportunity to get involved in that with the Department.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Labour, Stockport

CanQ you comment about how these provisions will affect local government’s income from business rates? We hear a lot about cuts to local government in the last 11 years, but how will this impact finances?

Sarah Pickup:

These provisions mitigate against the need for having to make provisions against the material change of circumstances. In that sense, they are beneficial to local government, because it takes away that uncertainty, albeit we need the clarifications around timing and discretion as part of this.

If we stand back and think about business rates as a source of finance for local government and the Treasury’s fundamental review of business rates, they form 25% of local government income and are really important. Alongside council tax, business rates are one of the two main sources of funding, but where we stand now is that there is a whole patchwork of reliefs and new provisions for relief to businesses against their core business rates commitment. It means that the future is very uncertain. The way in which the next revaluation will go is uncertain and, arguably, while business rates have a role going forward, some significant reforms are needed to make them a stable source of finance for local government going forward.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you for your evidence: I know the LGA conference is happening today. Can you think back and tell us when the LGA first heard about the potential scale of losses through MCC challenges and appeals? What was the reaction of local government at that time? What issues were they raising with you and how widespread was the concern? What time did it start to build up?

Sarah Pickup:

Gosh, it is really hard to recollect precisely; so much has gone on in the last year. It was probably about a year ago; it may be slightly less. There was a lot of discussion at the point when the Valuation Office Agency started to discuss how it might address these appeals. I think there might have been some leaks in the press. That is when the discussion started to come to the fore a bit more, because there were some quite substantial proposals around the adjustments to valuations that might go forward. I think there was an attempt to address this on a uniform basis, rather than deal with every appeal and address it individually. We have gone from there to this scheme which approaches the issue differently, probably more straightforwardly and in a more timely way, certainly in the short term.

The anxieties around appeals are ever present and this was just an addition to the pre-existing issue about businesses’ ability to put in appeals right up through a rating list with no time limit on it. The check, challenge, appeal process has made a difference to that, but we have not yet seen the end result of the number of appeals from the 2017 list, because the time window has not closed yet.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q It would be interesting to hear your view, from a local government perspective, on exactly why the LGA thinks that ruling out MCC appeals for councils provides extra certainty—I think that is what the LGA has said—and how big a difference that has made to councils and their planning of their finances.

Sarah Pickup:

There is a greater degree of certainty, because they do not face a period of time of not knowing whether an appeal will be successful or not, nor the extent of that success, and therefore having to make additional provisions on their balance sheet. Instead, they have a scheme to operate that offers them resources to provide discretionary funds to local businesses, which is welcome. As we have said, there is still some uncertainty in relation to what the guidance says and whether the scheme delivers what businesses expect, and whether, if not, there is either a pressure on the council to fund beyond the resources that have been made available, or a pressure because businesses cannot manage without the relief that they had been expecting, and therefore some businesses start to fail.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q As a slightly different angle on this, I was just wondering about any contact that you may have had, or experience that you may have had, with the Valuation Office Agency at the moment, and whether it has the resources it needs for the work it is currently undertaking—its existing functions—as well. I would be very interested in your perspective on that.

Sarah Pickup:

I do not have detailed knowledge of its precise funding at the moment, but over time, we certainly have made a case that we support the Valuation Office Agency being funded adequately to deal with the task in hand, because there has been a very big backlog of appeals on the books. It has been pulling those down, and the change to check, challenge, appeal has impacted on that. Nevertheless, there is still a backlog, and our fears were that if the Agency was not properly resourced, you would end up with overlapping backlogs of appeals from different rating lists creating ever more uncertainty and not really taking away that need for councils to keep assessing the provisions that they need to make on their balance sheets.

One of the things that we certainly would support is a time limit on the time when businesses can put forward checks, challenges, and especially appeals against any given rating list. We think that would help, and it is in place, I believe, in some of the other UK nations.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q The business rate revaluation that is currently taking place should 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?

Sarah Pickup:

This was probably picked up by your previous contributors. Because the basis of a valuation is based on rent as of March 2021, that valuation date sits in the middle of the pandemic, so the question is whether any adjustments are made to that or not. You would think that the impact of the pandemic on rental values would be reflected in the valuations going forward for the list starting in 2023, but clearly we will not know that until we go forward.

The other point is that it is a very changeable picture, and businesses will continue to be able to appeal based on changes in circumstances. Things that are currently due to covid could turn out to be long-term impacts on businesses, in which case I think they move into a different category. If you lose trade as a result of covid, that is one thing, but if your business goes into permanent decline, it becomes a very substantial and permanent change in circumstances, and that probably falls into a different category.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Are you aware that three exemptions to the restriction on appeals are set out in clause 1(5)? They are very specific. The effects of covid-19 may be taken into account in valuation decisions when they affect the physical state of the property, the quantity of materials extracted or the quantity of waste disposal from the property. Those are the three specific reasons—losing trade or someone’s business going down because of covid are not among them. Are you aware of that?

Sarah Pickup:

Yes, we are aware, and we think that the exclusions seem reasonable—as you say, they are very specific. They would be limited to very small numbers of businesses. Loss of trade goes across a much wider range of businesses and therefore the scheme is aimed at addressing that.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Earlier this afternoon, you talked about a backlog of rateable valuation appeals. Do you consider that the rate valuation officers will be resourced enough to catch up with the backlog and get on with everything that comes from this?

Sarah Pickup:

That is something that they would have to address. We have had concerns in the past about whether the resource was sufficient to deal with the backlog quickly enough. It is in the interests of local government for there not to be a big backlog and for things to be dealt with as and when they arise. That is much more efficient in the long run.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q When we get the guidance—I imagine that the LGA would welcome an early indication of what that might look like—there will be quite a job for councils. They will have to design the scheme and agree it with their members. They will then have to do all the eligibility assessments. There might be IT updates to facilitate the new relief and there will presumably be some sort of reporting requirements. That is a lot of extra burden. I am guessing that the LGA might welcome some new burdens funding. Do you have any thoughts on that and what an appropriate amount might be?

Sarah Pickup:

I could not give you an estimate of the amount of funding, but it is clearly a new burden. In most of the instances when new burdens have come along during the pandemic, some resourcing has been put in place to help with the design of new schemes.

Of course, revenues and benefits officers—in particular, finance officers in councils—have implemented a huge number of different schemes, some of which they have had to consult on and some of which have been much more directed and put in place by the Government. They have done that throughout the pandemic and this is another instance of something they will have to do.

The key thing, of course, is that those officers are given time. Sometimes, what we have found is that the money is announced, the guidance is passed or the regulations are put in place and then immediately everyone starts asking councils, “Where is the money? Why has it not been put out yet?”. As you said, councils need to be given time to go through due process to put schemes in place. A lot will depend on what the guidance says—and yes, early sight of it or early drafts and indications of the direction of travel, as well as early indications of the sums of money available, would be extremely helpful in helping councils to prepare.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

There are no further questions for Ms Pickup. I thank you for your time this afternoon giving evidence to the Committee.

Sarah Pickup:

A pleasure—thank you.