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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 Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I do not know anything about that gentleman’s property, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of someone’s personal tax affairs without looking into the matter further. However, I will certainly go away and do that.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has already acted decisively to implement the Barclay review recommendations that do not require primary legislation. Those include expanding fresh start relief to help town centres, which is very important to my constituents in the market towns of South Scotland.

The bill reflects the Barclay review’s recommendations that are intended to overhaul and modernise the ratepayer’s experience of navigating the system, which was judged to be poor, in order to increase fairness and, of course, to promote economic growth.

The bill will put in place ambitious reforms to the appeals system, which will improve decisions and build trust. The new two-stage appeals system will facilitate better and earlier information sharing, and it will enable a “right first time” valuation in order to reduce the number of changes on appeal, and to build trust in the system.

The Barclay report acknowledged the

“strong consensus among stakeholders that 3 yearly revaluations ... would provide a better timeframe.”

I note that the briefing for the debate from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers says:

“We believe that these changes will ensure that the rates system better reflects market/trading conditions and provide a more effective ‘natural stabiliser’ against cyclical economic effects as well as economic shocks.”

I want to say something about the measures in the bill that are aimed at tackling tax avoidance, with regard to empty properties in particular. Empty property is one of the biggest problems that we face in urban and rural regeneration, so I welcome the attention that has been given to the matter by Barclay and the bill. For example, it was suggested to the Barclay review that a well-known avoidance tactic to reduce an empty property’s rates liability is to occupy only a small part of the property as storage. That allows the owner to qualify for another relief or allows a new period of empty property relief to begin after a set period.

Section 12 of the bill deals with the first of those aspects. I will watch closely to see how that works in practice. I understand that the second aspect will be dealt with through subordinate legislation. Either way, it is important that councils use the new powers to tackle the scourge of empty property and, indeed, that they use the powers that they already possess to deal with the problem.

I note that Barclay recommended reform

“to restrict relief for listed buildings to a maximum of 2 years and the rates liability for property that has been empty for significant periods should be increased.”

The Government’s consultation said that, after two years, relief should fall to 10 per cent and that a surcharge should apply after five years, from 2020.

That would deal with a problem of which I have direct experience. I have been approached by constituents in the town of Annan who are directly affected by listed buildings that have been left to crumble. I pay particular tribute to William Hogg, who is a local resident. He led on a petition that asked for action to be taken on properties including the Albert hall, the Central hotel and Erskine church. Because I was not on the committee that scrutinised the legislation, I am unable to ascertain whether that Barclay recommendation on listed buildings will be enforced through the bill or through regulations. However, I note that the consultation proposed that it would take effect from this year, so I hope that the minister can confirm that that is the case.