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Renovation of Empty Property (VAT)

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

I wanted to secure this debate because of the pressure to build on the green spaces and the green belt in Sefton and elsewhere. Sefton council is consulting on its core strategy and, using the figures in the regional spatial strategy, it says it needs 480 new homes each year. To achieve that target, the council has suggested three options, two of which imply significant incursion into the green belt. The draft national planning policy framework does not continue the brownfield-first policy, and councils are not allowed to include windfall development sites, such as the Maghull prison site in my constituency, which would deliver several hundred homes. In addition, empty homes cannot be counted towards a council’s target, and so the 6,000 such properties across Sefton are not included in the figures. All that means that councils need an alternative strategy for building the homes that we—especially our young people—need. Affordable housing is in such short supply. A sustainable policy is needed, and a cut in VAT on the renovation and refurbishment of empty properties would contribute significantly to delivering the housing targets at the same time as protecting the green belt and important urban green space.

The VAT regime perversely incentivises new build on greenfield land because it attracts 0% VAT. A cut in VAT to 5% on the renovation and reuse of existing buildings would allow greater emphasis to be placed on urban regeneration, on which VAT is levied at 20%. The “Cut the VAT” campaign has a wide coalition of support; it is run by the Federation of Master Builders and supported by many organisations, including the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the Federation of Small Businesses. There would be many benefits to reducing VAT on building repairs and conversions, and there are strong environmental, economic and social grounds for doing so. In general, subjecting repairs and conversions to VAT is damaging, because it acts as a deterrent to urban regeneration, the proper maintenance of buildings and our caring for the historic environment.

The differential between VAT rates on new build and on repair creates a perverse incentive to leave properties in a state of disrepair or to demolish sound buildings, rather than encouraging their effective use and maintenance. The differential adds to the cost of bringing buildings back into use through repair, renovation or conversion, and contributes to a cycle of decline, because run-down areas are generally a less attractive proposition for investors and developers, even though they might present significant opportunities. I believe that the Government would agree with that analysis. I am looking for the Economic Secretary to nod—she is not doing so.

The additional cost that VAT adds to repairs and refurbishment distorts the market in favour of new build over reuse and refurbishment, which means that developers are incentivised to bring forward new development on greenfield sites before attempting to bring existing resources back into useful occupation. As well as assisting regeneration, making productive use of existing buildings can play an important role in conserving scarce resources such as the land, energy and building materials bound up in the properties, and such an approach also contributes to reducing waste. Government statistics indicate that there are more than 750,000 empty houses in England, and there are many other empty and underused buildings. That is an enormous waste of resources, and a reduction in VAT on refurbishment to create a level playing field between refurbishment and new build would, therefore, make a lot of sense.

Historically, it has been argued that a VAT reduction is not possible because of EU laws. However, the European Commission’s Economic and Financial Affairs Council agreed in March 2009 to allow member states to reduce VAT on housing repair and maintenance, so that barrier appears to have been lifted. The cut in VAT on renovation is now an option that would promote regeneration, bring empty buildings back into use and minimise the use of greenfield land.

Turning to the impact on the construction industry, a VAT cut from 20% to 5% would reduce rogue traders’ competitive advantage and help rescue many legitimate local firms from the brink of collapse. Dozens of small and medium-sized businesses would benefit considerably from a VAT cut on home repair, maintenance and improvement work, and that is why the campaign I mentioned has the support of the Federation of Master Builders. Given these tough economic times, a cut would make a huge difference to many small firms, certainly in constituencies such as mine. It would also make important home repairs more affordable, and help protect consumers from cowboy builders who currently flourish by evading VAT. It is a logical step to help boost the economy, and I call on the Government to take it as a matter of urgency.

The UK economy is facing a weak recovery from the recent recession. Output in the construction industry shrank faster than the economy as a whole during the recession, and recent forecasts suggest there will be no significant sign of recovery in the industry until 2014. Successful trials in a number of EU countries strongly suggest that a cut in VAT on home repair and improvement work would reap economic benefits for the UK. Independent research by Experian, based on a standard VAT rate of 17.5%, suggests that the total stimulus effect of reducing VAT in the sector would be in the region of £1.4 billion in the first year alone.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 249,000 work force jobs have been lost in the construction sector alone since 2007, and that has had a big effect on the Government’s finances as well as a considerable human impact. We know from independent research that a cut in VAT on home repair and improvement work would create thousands of new jobs in the construction sector and the wider economy. Again, independent Experian research based on a standard VAT rate of 17.5% suggests that 24,200 extra construction jobs could be created in the first year alone if VAT on home improvements was cut to 5%. According to the same research, such growth in the construction industry would also lead to 31,000 new jobs in the wider economy.

Those significant job losses—249,000—risk creating a major skills shortage in future years, unless the industry can recruit and train sufficient numbers of people now. The number of construction apprenticeship starts fell by 4,010 between 2008-09 and 2009-10. Almost 1 million people under the age of 25 are currently unemployed, but when the construction industry returns to more sustainable levels of growth there will not be a sufficient number of people equipped with the right skills to meet demand. It will be difficult for employers to make more apprenticeship places available unless there is an increase in construction activity.

We are building fewer than half the number of new homes needed to match the rate of household growth in the UK, and it is therefore shocking that there are up to 750,000 empty homes. Many of those homes require considerable repair work before they can be lived in, and the high rate of VAT makes that a very costly activity for private owners, landlords and local authorities, who could otherwise renovate more existing properties to help ease the pressure on housing supply. Making home repair and improvement work more affordable would encourage the use of existing structures, rather than continuing the urban sprawl and the possible building on green belt land.

Existing homes contribute about 27% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions, and there is a vast amount of work to be done if the UK is to meet the legally binding emission-reduction targets. A simple, single cut in VAT on home repair and maintenance work would help millions of households to upgrade their homes and make them more energy efficient. Without help to reduce energy use, the number of households living in fuel poverty will continue to grow, as they struggle to protect themselves against rising fuel prices.

According to trading standards organisations, rogue traders steal a staggering £170 million each year from unsuspecting home owners across Britain, and cause significant damage to law-abiding businesses. Rogue traders flourish by evading VAT in order to offer a cheap deal. However, all too often, the deal comes without a proper written contract or any kind of paperwork, making the enforcement of consumer rights almost impossible if something goes wrong.

Again, a simple, single action to cut VAT to 5% on home repair and improvement work would protect consumers and legitimate businesses by significantly reducing rogue traders’ competitive advantage. By charging 20% VAT on all home repair, maintenance and improvement work, the Government are exacerbating numerous serious social, economic and environmental problems. Introducing a reduced rate of VAT for all home repair and improvement work is a simple plan to relieve the country of many of those problems.

Thank you, Mr Chope. I am grateful for your warm welcome. I thank the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing this debate. I acknowledge some of the good arguments that he made, but I believe that his proposal is not the right tool for achieving economic growth. I shall deal with some of his specific points, including a note on apprenticeships, a little on energy supply and some remarks on green opportunities for householders.

The hon. Gentleman made some sensible arguments regarding the reuse of empty properties. Of course, we would all like existing housing stock to be put to good use; I know that from my constituency, as I am confident he does from his. He also made good points about the need in the current economic situation to support small businesses as best we can, and about evasion. I shall come to those points, but I will begin with a few words about the Government’s policy on empty property in the round before discussing the specifics of how VAT applies to empty property. I reassure you, Mr Chope, before I veer anywhere near being off-subject, that tackling the country’s 700,000 empty homes is a priority for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, as promoting growth and apprenticeships are for all my other colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman will know that in this year’s Budget, the Government announced £180 million for up to 50,000 additional apprenticeship places over the next four years. That is real action, and I am sure that hon. Members agree that it will meet some of the concerns raised in this debate.

On 20 September this year, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced more powers for community groups to bring empty homes back into use. Community and voluntary organisations will be able to bid for a share of £100 million in Government funding to pioneer housing schemes to help ensure that empty properties are lived in again. That will also help to provide more affordable housing, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman welcomes.

I welcome the Minister to her role. I do not know whether this is the first debate that she has responded to, but I congratulate her on her appointment. She mentioned the £100 million available to community groups. How many homes are expected to be brought back into use as a result?

I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a specific figure, as I do not have it with me. However, as I will discuss—this goes straight to the heart of the issue—incentives also exist for councils to bring empty homes back into use by including them in the new homes bonus, which he will know about. I think this figure will reassure him: after just one year of the new homes bonus, 16,000 previously empty properties have been brought back into use.

The Department for Communities and Local Government will also consult in due course on plans to allow local councils further discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their area that have been empty for more than two years. That will provide a stronger incentive to get those homes back into productive use—an aim I am sure the hon. Gentleman and I share, as do other colleagues—and remove that blight on local neighbourhoods.

It might be helpful to the hon. Gentleman if I explain how VAT applies to empty property. He might be unaware of some reliefs that go a significant way towards meeting the demands of the “Cut the VAT” campaign. The VAT system already provides for numerous reliefs from the standard rate of VAT, as he will know, but some reliefs particularly encourage new housing supply and the bringing of empty properties back into use as homes. The first sale of a new domestic property is zero-rated for VAT, as are most supplies of goods and services used in the construction of a new build, as he acknowledged. However, he might not be aware that the renovation or alteration of residential premises that have not been lived in for two years benefits from a 5% reduction in the rate of VAT. He mentioned European constraints. The 5% reduced rate of VAT exists, and is the minimum available, under long-standing EU VAT legislation. The reduced rate also applies when properties are converted from non-residential to residential, and when the occupancy of existing residential property is increased.

Wide relief already exists for the renovation and conversion of empty properties. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that goes some way towards meeting the valid concerns that he raised about the homes in which his constituents might live. He might not be aware that the “Cut the VAT” campaign’s report makes it clear as early as page 5 that

“the many and varied exceptions that exist within the housing RM&I VAT regime…can easily lead to confusion as to what attracts VAT at the standard rate and what attracts a reduced rate.”

The report goes on to provide a helpful table summarising the available reduced rates, including for

“Renovation or alteration of empty residential premises”.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen supporter of the campaign, as are those on the Opposition Front Bench. For the most part, the VAT reduction for which he asks specifically for the renovation and refurbishment of empty homes is already available.

I am aware of those points. I have a copy of the campaign document, as does the Minister. Is she also aware of the Prime Minister’s commitment to the Federation of Master Builders? He agreed to write to Treasury Ministers to consider the case for cutting VAT on home repair and improvement work. Does she know whether he has done so, whether he has received the response and what it might be?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have just spent my first two days at No. 1 Horse Guards. I shall of course ascertain the location of that letter. However, I will suggest a few things that I have absolutely no doubt the Prime Minister will bear in mind as he considers the issue.

Wider VAT reduction risks a serious impact on public finances. I know the hon. Gentleman will be aware of that, despite some of the comments that he made this morning to the Formby Times. For example, if the rate of VAT on residential property renovation and refurbishment were reduced to 5%, it would cost £2.2 billion in the first year alone. If the rate were reduced for five years, it would cost £2.4 billion each year. If it continued for a decade, the cost to the Exchequer—to his constituents and mine—would rise to £2.9 billion for every year of that period. To put those figures in context, that would cost more annually than the entire budget for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and double the budget for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

I therefore do not accept the claim that cutting the VAT rate for the home improvement sector would lead to a net increase in jobs across the economy as a whole or pay for itself over several years. Although the impact could be positive, we know the real likely impact. If we made such a cut, the revenue shortfall would have to be met from additional taxation elsewhere, which would lead to job losses that would offset any job gains in the building sector. Alternatively, we would need to meet the cost through additional borrowing, which would risk increasing interest rates. As the hon. Gentleman will know, higher interest rates would have an adverse impact on families and small businesses, including businesses in the building sector. I am afraid that there is no such thing as a free pass without effects elsewhere in the economy.

The Government want to provide support across the entire economy for businesses and households.

I had anticipated the Minister’s comments, because this morning I received a written answer from her colleague, the Exchequer Secretary. I understand the Treasury analysis, but the answer mentions

“in the absence of behavioural change”.

Such behavioural change would include the impact on cowboy builders and the economic benefits of people spending money in the sector and being able to afford home improvements, so there is a balance. I also mentioned earlier the £1.4 billion impact on the economy that Experian anticipated under the old VAT regime. Will the Minister comment, either today or in due course, on the assessment of the impact of behavioural change, and not just of the figures that she has quoted in isolation?

Let me first deal with behavioural change in relation to rogue trading, because it is important to put this on the record. I do not accept that a reduced rate of VAT would suddenly cause the illegitimate trade to become honest. I do not believe that behaviour changes in that sense—5% can be as attractive, in many ways, as 20% to a crook. There are many other factors—this is key—beside cost that cause a customer to use the informal economy, and a trader to operate in it. It is unlikely that a reduction in the rate of VAT, which is only one factor, would have an impact on rogue trading and purchasing.

On the wider point of evasion, the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is investing £900 million to tackle avoidance and evasion and attacks by organised criminals, and that relates to the construction industry. A reduction of the VAT rate alone would not create a level playing field between legitimate businesses and those operating in the informal economy. I fear that his concerns about behavioural change, in that sense, do not go to the heart of the matter.

I will be happy to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specifics of the Experian report. I am afraid I do not have the figures to hand, so I cannot respond on the spot.

To return to the points that we need to take into account in the wider economy, we need to be aware that households face difficult times. That is exactly why, only yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change met energy suppliers to discuss how to bring down customers’ energy bills. It is also why this Government have increased the personal allowance, cut fuel duty and will reduce corporation tax year on year, which will assist businesses, including those that have signed up to the “Cut the VAT” campaign.

It is important that the Government continue to explore their options for credit easing, with which the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be familiar. We should try to inject money directly into parts of the economy that need it, especially small businesses, which are the driving force for economic growth.

Doing those things will not only boost demand in the short term and, indeed, change behaviour, but help to tackle long-standing UK problems associated with the supply of credit to small and medium-sized businesses. That is vital. The Chancellor will announce further details on 29 November.

To finish on the broader point, Labour, I am afraid to say, may have been content to spend beyond its means, but such costs are unsupportable in the current economic climate and simply cannot be reasonably entertained. We need sound public finances to make sustainable growth possible. Over the past decade there has been an increasing reliance on an imbalanced economy, which drove ever greater problems throughout. That model has proved unsustainable and what we have needed in the meantime, as set out in the Budget 2010, the spending review and other work, is a credible plan to tackle the unprecedented deficit that the Government inherited—and that the hon. Gentleman, no doubt, is about to jump to his feet to defend.

Until 2008 and the financial crisis, the Conservative party in opposition supported the spending levels of the then Government. It was the financial crisis and the bail-out of the banks that caused the deficit to grow to the level it reached. On the balance between quantitative easing and proposals such as the “Cut the VAT” campaign, which has the support of 49 business organisations, many prominent and highly regarded economists think the latter a far more direct way to get money into the economy to stimulate growth and demand, which I know the Government are in favour of. If we disagree on the means, we certainly agree on the need to do it, whether that be via quantitative easing or cuts to VAT on home improvements. We need to take either one action or the other. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that economists have strong views that such VAT cuts are another way of addressing the issue.

I shall say three things in response. First, on the argument for such a VAT cut, many different sectors make the same argument for their own cuts. It is not clear why this particular cut is the one that should triumph, even if money was available. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman may think that this Government have gone off plan, but his shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), is already £27 billion off the Darling plan this year alone, and the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) has already stated that anyone without a credible economic policy is simply not at the races. Thirdly, our approach to building a credible economy via a credible plan to tackle the deficit has been endorsed, as the hon. Gentleman will know, by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the European Commission, the rating agencies and UK business organisations beyond those that deal in installing bathrooms. The difficult decisions that this Government have had to take have made Britain a safe haven in the sovereign debt storm, and that is exactly what we intend to carry on being.

Of course, there are concerning signs. I acknowledge that the recent employment statistics make very tempting calls such as the hon. Gentleman’s on behalf of the construction industry. Those signs, however, show more than ever why the UK must stick to its course. We need stability and confidence in the economy, and we need to hold down the costs of borrowing for businesses and home owners.

The hon. Gentleman’s plan risks putting Britain back in the firing line. It could lead to rising interest rates and falling international confidence, which would undermine the recovery in his constituency, the country and internationally. In that context of a recovering economy, fiscal consolidation is what is most important, not only to ensure stability but to provide the conditions for the private sector growth that we all seek. It needs to provide the conditions for investment and hiring. Any suggestion of cuts to VAT for the construction or any other industry, or of extensions such as that proposed by the hon. Gentleman, on top of the relief that already exists to tackle his concerns, adds up, I am afraid, to calling for the wrong thing at the wrong time.