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Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 10th October 2019.

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Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee clerks and the staff from the Scottish Parliament information centre for all their support. I also thank the minister and the Scottish Government for their generally supportive response to our stage 1 report. Most of all, I thank the committee members—those who are presently on the committee and previous members—who worked hard to produce the report.

The committee began its scrutiny of the bill during the spring of this year. We took evidence at five meetings and our call for views generated a high volume of responses. The committee went on three visits. One visit was to an independent school and the other two were to Kilmarnock and Stirling high streets, where we met local businesses, charities and other employers to get a snapshot of local views on the rates system. The high level of informed engagement helped the committee enormously in our role of reporting to the Parliament on the general principles of the bill.

Turning to the report, I say at the outset that the committee unanimously endorsed the bill’s general principles. We took that position because of the clear support from diverse sectors—the public and private sectors and from business and the third sector—for the overall direction of travel.

I will single out two reforms for comment. The first is the proposal to speed up the revaluation cycle from five to three years and to bring the date at which revaluations are calculated—the tone date—one year closer to the date on which revaluation actually takes effect. Put simply, that means that, for those who pay rates, the amount that they pay should more closely reflect the actual current value of their property. It is hoped that that will result in fewer appeals against revaluations. Just about everyone agreed that there are far too many appeals at present and that they clog up the system, eating into the resources of councils and assessors. Appeals can take an extraordinary amount of time to resolve, which of course does not help ratepayers either.

The second reform that I want to mention relates to the appeals process. Those new provisions, too, were generally welcomed. There was a general consensus that the current system is unsustainable. However, the committee had some caveats of which the Parliament should be aware, and I will mention two. First, the switch to a three-year cycle will undoubtedly mean more work for assessors, and the profession already has a recruitment problem. That needs urgent attention, so we have asked the Scottish Government what plans it has to address the issue. Secondly, the new appeal provisions simply create a framework for a revised process but leave the details for later. The committee understands why the Scottish Government has taken that approach but, as the minister said, it means that the next steps will be crucial to ensure that we end up with an appeals system that is more efficient than the one that we have now.

I do not say this lightly—because the committee, like the Government, appreciates the importance of access to justice, especially for smaller enterprises—but, given the evidence that we received, we ask the Government to give careful consideration to introducing fees for appeals. I am delighted that the minister said that she will give the matter serious consideration. It became clear to us that the absence of fees is one of the primary factors contributing to a climate in which speculative appeals have become normalised.

The most contentious proposal is in section 12, which removes from most independent schools the right to claim mandatory charitable relief. I expect that issue to be widely discussed today, so my comments on it will be brief. The majority of responses to our call for evidence were about section 12; generally, they were from parents, teachers and, occasionally, young people with a direct connection to an independent school. They expressed their views with sincerity and strength of feeling, and set out their concerns about what they felt the change could mean for their school.

I want to mention the visit by committee members to George Watson’s college in June. I thank the college for hosting a discussion with representatives of the independent sector. As members will imagine, they put their views across to us forcefully, clearly and courteously; by the end of the meeting, the committee knew well where the independent sector stands on the issue.

However, it is important to be clear that there was a strong welcome for the proposal, including from councils. They shared Barclay’s view that the change would bring to an end an anomaly and help to level the playing field between independent and state schools. In the end, a majority of committee members were more persuaded by the latter point of view. The independent sector has been around for a long time and has always shown an ability to adapt to change. It did so last decade when the Scottish Parliament agreed reforms to charity law. Most of us believe that this is another change that the sector will adapt to.

I want to expand on the committee’s comment in its stage 1 report that the bill is “inevitably piecemeal”. That was not intended as negative commentary, but as a simple reflection on the fact that, of the 27 Barclay recommendations that the Scottish Government has largely accepted, most do not require legislative intervention. The bill is limited to those recommendations that do.

We should all take note that the bill is just one part of a wider effort to meet the Barclay goal of having a ratings system that is fairer, more efficient and more business friendly. Much of the evidence that we received was about the bigger picture beyond the parameters of the bill. The committee agrees that there is benefit in continuing the debate about how well the current rates system, including its supporting architecture of reliefs and supplements, reflects modern commercial realities.

To pick one example, we might ask whether there are aspects of the ratings system that could be re-engineered to address the problem of struggling high streets and to enable a town centre renaissance. Perhaps that is a discussion for another day, but we should keep the bigger picture in our sights over the coming months and years as we judge the effectiveness of the whole package of reforms that has emerged from the Barclay review.

Given the tightness of time today, I merely repeat that the committee welcomes the bill. I look forward to the rest of what will be a very interesting debate, particularly for the members of my committee.