It is a privilege to be granted time to hold this debate here today and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. As all Members present know, the rating of empty properties is a contentious and sensitive issue.
Let me start by outlining the situation of a couple of farmers in my constituency who have lived and worked on their land for decades. After the previous Government strongly encouraged them to diversify their land, they decided to develop a couple of small business premises to rent out to local entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises. They undertook substantial developments and put tenants in place. The future looked bright until the financial crisis broke and the recession hit. As a result of the subsequent turmoil in the financial market, many of my constituents’ tenants were forced to downsize and move out. In some unfortunate cases, their tenants’ small businesses collapsed, as bank lending sadly dried up. The limited three or six-month exemption from empty property rates has now expired, with the threshold returning to its original £2,600 level. As a result, my constituents now face bills totalling thousands of pounds.
Like all rational and sensible politicians, I have a great deal of sympathy for my constituents. In a letter to me, they said:
“We have worked hard all our lives to get what we have today... the price we are paying now is the price of progress and it is like a lump of concrete around our necks.”
One of my core principles in life is that every person has the absolute right to aspire and achieve without unfair burdens being placed on their shoulders.
In the current economic climate, our inherited policy of rating empty properties is unfair. We seriously run the risk of driving small business men and women into the ground, particularly in rural areas, where a number of small retail and commercial properties have been developed on diversified land. The owners are not wealthy property tycoons and often possess only limited experience of property management. It is wrong to believe that every property owner can take the hit of tax on empty properties; many simply cannot. To lay the blame for such a situation at the door of the coalition Government is entirely foolish and short-sighted.