As my hon. Friend has said, the scheme is a blunt instrument that has had unforeseen consequences. It is also a barrier to investment and regeneration, which particularly affects the north, but I will go on to that point later in my speech.
The previous Labour Government reformed the empty non-domestic property rate relief in 2007 in an alleged attempt to encourage more commercial properties to be brought back into use throughout the supposedly never-ending boom years. The Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 increased rates on empty properties from 50% to 100% of their occupied rate. It also removed the exemption for storage and industrial premises, which was recommended by Kate Barker and Sir Michael Lyons in their independent review ahead of the 2007 Budget. As one would expect, the plans were controversial at the time. It was said that the 2007 Act would lead to constructive vandalism. However, the vast majority of property owners would not deliberately hold back empty properties from the marketplace. If I had been an MP at the time, I would have said that such properties were most often empty as a result of the poor planning system or a simple lack of demand for commercial properties within specific locations.
Appreciating that the new policy introduced unnecessary burdens on businesses in recessionary times, the pre-Budget report of November 2008 outlined a temporary increase to the threshold for exemption from such rates to £15,000 and then later to £18,000 for a two-year period. That provided much-needed relief for many affected individuals and was greatly appreciated. The Business Centre Association estimates that that measure saved its members about £10 million. However, the problem has returned. On
As a loyal supporter of the coalition, I appreciate that the Government cannot afford to tackle every issue and reduce the vast deficit simultaneously. Furthermore, I understand that some issues must take priority over others. I accept that the reckless economic legacy of the previous Government has largely tied our hands. Thankfully, though, this Government are intent on spending only what they can afford, and long may that approach continue.
The previous Government are responsible not only for the creation of the empty property tax rates, which they designed and implemented, but for the inflexibility of the coalition’s fiscal options. Having to spend £120 million a day to pay off our country’s debt interest payments hinders the present Government’s ability to reform as broadly as they might otherwise do. None the less, empty property rates should be higher on the Minister’s list of priorities.
Property owners in rural villages across the country are beginning to be hurt by this policy. They now feel let down by successive Governments. Such sentiments have been summed up well by Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, who said:
“If the Government is pinning its hopes on a private-sector led recovery, then this is a damaging and retrograde step. Empty rates are a tax on hardship at the worst possible time. The majority of the properties affected by this announcement will be in areas which are already economically disadvantaged, and so this will be a further blow.”