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Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill

Volume 642: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2018

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Agriculture is at the heart of our country’s rural life, and, moreover, at the core of our rural economy. It employs over half a million people and supplies almost half of everything we eat and drink in this country. In England alone, the rural economy is worth over £250 billion. We want our country to offer unparalleled business opportunities for an agricultural community that produces some of the finest food and drink in the world. At every stage of the food chain, the UK is creating exceptional food and drink enjoyed around the world, with lucrative opportunities for British exporters, international buyers, and investors. In just 10 years, global demand has grown by nearly a third, with total food and drink exports now exceeding £20 billion.

I am proud to represent a deeply rural and agricultural constituency, home to businesses like Wensleydale Creamery, HECK sausages, Stamfrey Farm yoghurt, and Thornborough Cider—all fantastic rural businesses producing food and drink that competes with the best around the world.

This Government are absolutely committed to supporting sustainable growth in the rural economy. Through the 2014-2020 rural development programme, we are investing almost half a billion pounds in England’s rural businesses. Our support for rural enterprises includes developing farm and horticultural companies. In February, the Government launched a wide-ranging consultation on the future of farming—one that supports farmers once the United Kingdom is outside the European Union. The Government are now analysing views and responses from all stakeholders who contributed. Our ambition is for a more dynamic and self-reliant agricultural industry. Supporting our rural economy and protecting farmers is an essential part of our exit from the European Union. Leaving the EU provides the Government with a unique opportunity to establish new frameworks that support our farmers to grow more, sell more and export more great British food and drink. As we develop this new approach to food, farming and fisheries outside the EU, we will not compromise on our high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection.

The Government are set to continue to commit the same cash total—£3 billion—in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament. Then the Government will devise a new agri-environment system to be introduced in the following Parliament.

One of the big problems with regard to protecting farmers, as I am sure the Minister knows, is getting labour in from the EU and other parts of the world. That is where the big problem might lie after we have come out of the EU.

It is not quite my place to comment on future immigration policy, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the new Home Secretary is devising a new immigration system for the UK after Brexit. Of course, ensuring that all businesses, not just in agriculture, have access to the talent and the labour they need will be at the forefront of that new system.

The Government have also said that they will use the structural fund money that comes back to the UK following the EU exit to create a UK shared prosperity fund. The needs and interests of rural businesses have to be addressed as part of any future plans.

We firmly believe that the business rates system plays an important role in supporting agricultural productivity. The agricultural exemption from business rates is a key part of this support. It is a broad-ranging and generous tax measure that ensures that no business rates are paid on agricultural land and properties.

The Bill itself does not define what a “nursery ground” is, but the explanatory notes, which are not considered by Parliament and are not part of the legislation, do contain a definition of what a “nursery ground” is. Why is this? Would it not be better to put the definition in the Bill, or does it exist in other legislation?

My right hon. Friend is right. My understanding is that other legislation has outlined the difference between the two, and I will come on to the Court decision that distinguished the treatment of the two.

It might be helpful, for Members who are not aware, if I explain the distinction. A nursery ground is where small plants or trees are propagated or sown with a view to their being sold on to someone else for growing on to their mature state, for sale to or use by the end consumer, whereas a market garden is where fruit, vegetables, flowers or plants are produced to be sold directly or indirectly to members of the public for consumption.

I have been much involved with the horticultural industry, so I am quite aware of the nursery industry, but I believe that many people are not aware of how significant it is for growing produce for our home market. We could grow it even more after Brexit—indeed, we need to—and the Bill will help a great deal by making these businesses more viable.

My hon. Friend is, as ever, an incredible champion for agriculture and the rural community. She is right to highlight not only the current contribution of the fantastic horticultural sector to the UK economy in providing such fantastic food and drink for us to enjoy but the opportunities that will come after Brexit, as we make good on the promise of a global Britain where our food and drink exporters can look out to the world around, where demand is growing exponentially, and take advantage of all those opportunities. Consumers around the world will have the opportunity to benefit from high-quality produce developed in this country and always to high welfare standards, of which I know she is also a champion.

It is worth noting that the exemption from business rates for agricultural land has been in place since 1929. Before that, in the early part of the 20th century and before, agriculture benefited from a partial exemption from rates. For almost 100 years, the Government and Parliament have considered that agriculture should not pay rates. This Government and I trust that this Parliament has no intention for any change of direction in this matter.

It has been assumed until now that all plant nurseries where plants or trees are grown in the initial stages of their life, as I outlined, benefited from that exemption. That had always been the understanding of both rating valuers and practitioners, but in 2015, a Court of Appeal decision showed that the exemption did not apply to plant nurseries in buildings where the buildings were not used in connection directly with agricultural land. That does not reflect Government policy, and neither does it reflect our commitment to supporting sustainable growth in the rural economy.

This legislation will ensure that plant nurseries in buildings will once again benefit from the exemption from business rates for agricultural land and buildings. It will restore fairness for hard-working businesses hit by an unexpected tax burden, and it will enable the Valuation Office Agency to return to its former practice of exempting plant nurseries in buildings and removing plant nurseries that have been assessed from the business rates list. Plant nurseries paying business rates since 2015 will be eligible to apply for a backdated refund of their business rates, which will ensure that these businesses do not continue to suffer as a result of a property tax with an impact on the cost of farming and produce.

My hon. Friend is clearly laying out the Government’s position, but can he clarify one issue that has been raised with me? Garden centres are commercial centres for direct provision to the public, but what will be the position under the new legislation of hybrids—in other words, plant nurseries with a garden centre alongside them that sells their produce directly to the public?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing up a helpful and important point that is worth clarifying. Under current legislation, garden centres are not exempt from paying business rates because they are not treated as agricultural businesses, which I am sure hon. Members will understand. It would be for the Valuation Office Agency to determine the individual facts of the case that he mentioned, but in general, it is perfectly possible for different parts of an entity to be treated in different ways. In the example he gave of a hybrid, where an agricultural business also had a retail operation, the Valuation Office Agency would be able to treat different parts of the business in different ways, and some may benefit from the agricultural exemption. Another example might be a working farm that also happens to have a retail element—for example, a farm shop—that might not benefit from the agricultural exemption, whereas the rest of the farm would. I hope that that clarifies my hon. Friend’s query.

In developing this legislation, we have worked very closely with the National Farmers Union to make sure that the measure meets our shared aim of ensuring that plant nurseries benefit from the agricultural exemption. I want to put on the record my thanks to the NFU for its invaluable insights and expertise, which has helped us to bring this effective legislation to the House. I very much welcome its support for the Bill.

I also want to put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). He deserves enormous credit for highlighting this issue to both my predecessor and others last year, and he has continued to press the case with Ministers and other parts of the Government. I am glad that he will be able to see the fruits of his labour brought to bear today.

To return to the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the Bill will not otherwise disturb the existing boundary of the agricultural exemption, so uses beyond agricultural operations, such as garden centres, will continue to be subject to the normal business rates process.

Is the Minister in effect saying that all the Bill does is return the law to the same state we all thought it was in before the case of Tunnel Tech v. Reeves?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: that is what the Bill seeks to do. It is a limited, targeted Bill that restores the practice previously widely accepted and understood by all participants in the rating system and ensures we will return to the state that existed before the Court of Appeal decision.

While I am responding to my right hon. Friend, let me clarify my earlier point. He asked where exactly the definition of nursery grounds can be found. I am reminded that it is precisely defined in case law, rather than in statute. That is where the definitions used over the years have been developed.

To turn to the business rates system in general, the Government are very clearly using the business rates system to create opportunities and to drive growth across the country. The Government have introduced a range of business rates reforms—worth over £10 billion by 2023—that will benefit the wider economy, including many businesses in rural areas. In April 2017, we permanently doubled small business rate relief to 100%, and raised the threshold from £6,000 to £12,000. As a result of these measures, over 600,000 small businesses—occupiers of a third of all properties—now pay no business rates at all. This demonstrates the Government’s clear commitment to supporting small businesses. We understand the impact of business rates in the rural economy in particular, so at the same time the Government also doubled rural rate relief from 50% to 100% for eligible businesses.

I have an urban area in Taunton Deane, but I speak as someone whose constituency is particularly rural. There is a view that there is an increasing divide between urban and rural, particularly in the south-west, where we are largely rural. These business rates exemptions are absolutely crucial. Does the Minister agree that this Government are very much indicating that they understand their importance?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She will know that I also represent a deeply rural constituency. I have seen at first hand the incredible difference that the business rates exemptions make to small rural enterprises, whether they are small business rate relief, rural rate relief or, indeed, some of the measures to support pubs that the Chancellor has announced in the last Budget or two. All of these measures add up to tangible savings for thriving enterprises, which are indeed the lifeblood of rural areas.

My hon. Friend will know, as I do, that rural areas typically do not benefit from large multinational employers. The backbone of rural economies are small and medium-sized enterprises, for which business rates are often a significant cost to bear. Any relief that the Government can give is always warmly welcomed, and it makes an enormous difference to their profitability and future success.

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Government continue to listen to business. At the spring Budget last year, the Chancellor announced a £435 million package to support rate payers facing the steepest rises in bills following the revaluation. Further answering calls from businesses, the Government brought forward to April this year the switch in the annual indexation of business rates from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. That represents a cut in business rates every year. Although bringing forward that measure two years earlier than previously planned might sound technical, it is worth £2.3 billion over the next five years.

Furthermore, at last year’s autumn Budget the Chancellor also announced an increase in the frequency of property revaluations from every five years to every three years following the next revaluation. That will ensure that bills more accurately reflect properties’ current rental value and relative changes in rents. The 2018 spring statement announced that the next revaluation would be brought forward to 2021 from 2022, so that businesses can benefit from the change as soon as possible. After that, three-year revaluations will take effect in 2024.

To deliver on that commitment, the Government have already introduced secondary legislation to set the valuation date for the next revaluation on 1 April 2019, allowing the Valuation Office Agency to start preparing for a 2021 revaluation. The Government will introduce primary legislation to change the date of the next revaluation to 2021 in due course. The British Retail Consortium recognised that that was a positive move to improve the fairness of the system, and I look forward to meeting its representatives shortly.

In spite of all that, the Government are not resting on our laurels. We are also reviewing the wider taxation of the digital economy, and the Chancellor has been clear that we need to look more broadly at the overall taxation of the digital economy. The Government are working internationally to ensure that corporate tax rules deliver fairer results for certain digital businesses. We will use the output of those discussions to help inform consideration of the wider business tax system, to ensure that all businesses make a fair contribution to the public finances and that business rates continue to support the stability of local government funding.

I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way. What would be the position of a business adversely affected by the Court of Appeal decision? Would it be able to claim compensation for any losses suffered?

I am happy to tell my right hon. Friend that businesses will absolutely be able to claim back any business rates they have paid from 1 April 2015. In Wales, businesses will be able to claim back to 1 April 2017. It might help Members if I explain the difference between the two dates.

The business rates system in England has relative lists of valuation dates—there is a 2010 list and a 2017 list. When we reach a certain point, it is then impossible to go back and change the list from the beginning. In this case, for any decisions that the Valuation Office Agency made after the spring of 2016, it was only possible to go back and change people’s bills to April 2015. Our understanding is that only a handful of businesses have been caught, and they will be able to use this legislation and subsequent regulations to appeal to the Valuation Office Agency and receive a refund backdated to when they first started paying bills.

Will the Minister clarify something—and if he cannot answer today, will he write to me? In addition to claiming back what has already been paid, will the businesses affected be able to claim costs and any other expenses arising out of the money that they erroneously had to pay?

The businesses will not be able to claim costs; the new “check, challenge, appeal” system allows them to make a no-cost filing with the Valuation Office Agency, so there will be no cost to them as they claim back the bills they paid. However, it is important to note that, when they paid, the bills were not paid in error; they reflected the circumstances on the ground at the time.

I said that I would clarify why the date in Wales is different from the date in England. It is purely on the advice of Welsh Government officials. They do not believe that any businesses have been caught up by this in a way that would impact their previous list. In Wales, therefore, any active businesses caught up in this will only have their bills backdated to 2017 at the start of the new and current ratings list. Further retrospective dating is therefore not required.

My hon. Friend is clearly setting out to answer many of the questions from across the House. Will he clarify the number of businesses caught up in this and the total amount of money involved? I quite understand if he is unable to answer those questions today, but it would be helpful to many colleagues if this could be clarified subsequently in writing.

I can answer my hon. Friend’s question now. The Government do not actually know, and are not in a position to know, the tax or business rates circumstances of individual businesses across the country. The VOA is under no obligation to share confidential taxpayer information with the Department. What I can say, based on informal conversations with the sector and the VOA, is that we believe just a handful of businesses impacted by the court ruling have subsequently had their bills changed. That is the working number we are aware of and I hope that provides the clarity he requires.

To return to digital taxation, the paper published at the 2017 autumn Budget sets clear expectations on what the Government hope to achieve on digital taxation: international momentum behind long-term corporate tax reforms and, pending that, the development of interim multilateral digital tax measures.

In conclusion, the Bill delivers on our commitment to support the rural economy and promote this country’s rural life. Moreover, it promotes fairness for hardworking businesses in the agricultural sector. I believe that it has widespread support from the agricultural community and valuers around the country. I very much commend it to the House.

The Opposition welcome the provisions in the Bill. Broadly, we welcome the Government proactively seeking to iron out anomalies across the business rates system, bringing clarity to business, the Valuation Office Agency and local authorities. We agree with the principle that land and buildings associated with the operation of plant nurseries should not be liable for business rate payments, which is why we support both clauses in the Bill.

I should say, however, that the spirit with which the Government have approached this matter is not necessarily reflected in the state of our town and city centres. We recognise that support is being given to small businesses through small business rate relief, but many town centre locations are just above the threshold and do not qualify for any relief. The Minister, like me, will be a regular visitor to town and city centre businesses. He must hear first-hand, as I do, that many businesses on the high street find it a struggle to make ends meet, particularly when their online competitors have a distinct advantage with lower overheads. They can avoid the impact of town and city centre business rates, because they can operate in cheaper locations elsewhere. I think that all of us are pleased that digital taxation is being considered, but without a real and direct strategy to deal with the decline of our town centres and high streets, I am afraid that it will all be for nothing.

Returning to the Bill, since 1929 there has been a history of exempting such premises from paying non-domestic rates. The 2015 court ruling changed matters and it is good that the Government have responded, but let us be honest. It has taken three years for the judgment to work its way to becoming Government policy and to work its way through Parliament to be debated here today. Although it is correct that payments and refunds will be backdated, the point was made earlier on that compensation is not being paid and interest payments are not being made to businesses either.

From the Opposition’s perspective, it would be helpful to understand what the Government have in mind to iron out these types of anomalies across the system. We had the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill a month or two ago and we have this Bill today. If any others are in the forward plan, it would be helpful to see them, because they could well be wrapped up into a single Bill, which would save a lot of time on the Floor of the House and in Committee. These Bills are genuinely not controversial or divisive. They will not be divided on in Committee, provided that they are about dealing with the impact of court decisions that were never Parliament’s original intention.

We welcome the fact that the policy is being applied retrospectively. It will mean that businesses will not be at any direct financial disadvantage and will get back the money that they paid in business rates. However, we need to see what the Bill means for local authorities. The Government have been clear in this and previous Bills that when they are rectifying the decision of the court, their view is that the local authority involved effectively had a windfall for a short period. I just do not believe that is the case at all. Any money that is taken out of a local authority’s base budget, particularly when that local authority is part of a business rates retention pilot, will be a net loss with regard to the money that it has to spend on public services in its area.

While I acknowledge what the Minister said, I am not sure that “a handful” is a number. The Government do not know the number—[Interruption.] Let us say five then—no more than five. However, a very worrying precedent is being set whereby the Government can bring legislation through the House that has a direct impact on the funding of public services by local authorities and choose not to reimburse local authorities for the money that has been taken away. While we accept that only a handful of businesses have been affected in respect of this Bill, a Bill could come tomorrow that affects hundreds of local authorities and thousands of businesses, involving many millions of pounds, but the Government take the same approach and stance. It is not fair, proper or in the interests of good governance for us to make decisions without knowing their full impact. If we are to receive another Bill of this nature, I ask again that the Government come forward with a proper impact assessment by local authority so that we know exactly what impact it will have, including the financial impact, both for those that are not part of a retention pilot scheme and those that are part of the regular scheme.

We look forward to finding reasons to talk at length about the Bill in Committee, as well as to finding other reasons to talk about it at length on Third Reading when it comes back. I implore the Minister, however, to look at his forward plan to see what elements can be brought together to save time on the Floor of the House.

Chichester is home to a vibrant rural economy that is worth over £1 billion to the area and employs 9,000 people. It is the largest single employer by sector. We have a major growing environment, and this is due to our wonderful environment—our weather, sunshine and, mostly, proximity to the coast means that we have 10% more light than any other area in the UK, and that boosts growing conditions.

As an MP, I have had the opportunity to visit many of these businesses and see what 21st-century farming looks like. In many cases, it is not what I had imagined. Much of the growing occurs indoors in a highly controlled and precisely monitored environment, ensuring that crops are grown efficiently, sustainably and to the best quality. Some growing practices involve moving crops from nursery grounds, whether in glass houses or polytunnels, to open fields or other larger glass houses. However, what is clear is that each of these growing cycles is agricultural and should be classified as such.

The Tunnel Tech Ltd v. Reeves case brought to light a legal anomaly in how the Valuation Office Agency assesses business rates in agriculture. In doing so, the case broke with nearly 100 years of exemption from agricultural business rates for nurseries. Many businesses in my area are therefore pleased that the Government have brought forward this Bill to amend existing legislation and rightly deliver on their commitment to ensure that nurseries are treated as agricultural buildings.

Speaking to the West Sussex Growers Association ahead of this debate, I was told of growing concern, in the light of the Tech Tunnel Ltd v. Reeves case, for future assessments by the Valuation Office Agency of other agriculture buildings. There is now concern that historical exemptions applying to ancillary buildings for packing, offices or energy production, for example, may come under threat. I ask the Minister to clarify this. One company in my constituency, which grows 10% of the peppers sold in the UK, packs all its produce onsite in a building adjacent to the glasshouses where the peppers are grown. Similarly, businesses across the horticultural and agricultural industry have developed sustainable energy production by using their waste to produce energy in biomass boilers, for example.

The 2015 Court of Appeal decision created significant concern for the wider industry, so I am pleased the Government have taken swift action to rectify the issue and ensure that the measure’s implementation is retrospective. This has sent a clear message of support to the industry, which has been well received. The deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, which welcomed the Bill, said

“this is a significant victory for nursery growers, and brings them in line with other farm businesses and providing essential certainty for the future.”

The Bill will ensure that agricultural land and buildings are not liable for a property tax that could otherwise have a significant impact on the cost of farming and produce, and we must make sure this remains the case. I fully support the Bill as it works towards the Government’s commitment to a productive and sustainable agricultural sector, which is so important to rural economies such as Chichester, and will become increasingly important as we leave the European Union.

We are always being told that debates in Parliament should be about real people, not statistics, and in that spirit, for me, this debate is about cabbages and flooding, not business rates per se.

This matter first came to my attention when the Black Sluice drainage board came to me deeply concerned about the prospect of losing £23,000 as a result of the levy. Worrying though that was, it turned out that a business in my constituency—it is incredibly rural, and in many areas business rates payments are very little, which is why I have some concerns about business rates retention, although we will gloss over that—was, although set to see its drainage levy fall by £23,000, faced with a business rates rise of well into six figures. So my drainage board—one of several in my constituency—was in a state of some confusion over the prospect of not having enough money to keep people’s feet dry, and my local businesses were in a state of perturbation at the prospect of going bankrupt.

This anomaly was a real issue for my constituents, as it was for those of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). When I went to see R. Fountain & Son, the business in my constituency, I was delighted to discover not just its confidence in expanding its business, this potential problem aside, but how much it led not just Lincolnshire—a pretty difficult place to lead when it comes to growing brassicas—but the country in terms of its technology. In collaboration with the National Farmers Union, whose work on this I pay particular tribute to, it alerted me to the anomaly arising from the Tunnel Tech case and the ramifications of that case for it and others running glasshouses across my constituency.

I believe that my hon. Friend’s constituency contains two villages called Bicker and Wrangle, which I have always thought would make an excellent name for a law firm.

It was suggested earlier that there should be a compensation fund for those who had had to pay rates in the past, and also for local authorities that had suffered loss. What is my hon. Friend’s view on that, and who does he think should pay for such a fund?

My constituency also contains a village called Old Leake, which is in the same ward as Wrangle. “Wrangle and Old Leake” surely has some comic potential as well. I agree with my right hon. Friend that businesses that have paid out—I should say that I do not believe that Fountain is in that position—should be entitled to the refund that the Minister suggested, and the Government should consider establishing such a fund if compensation is due.

Having been exempted from rates since 1929, the businesses to which I have referred were faced with a number of factors that they had previously never even had to consider incorporating in their business models. I understand that glasshouses, which are obviously of huge concern to a constituency such as mine, have been exempted since the 1990s. An issue on which businesses throughout this section of the economy have been entirely predicated was upended by the courts almost overnight.

I agree with the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) that the Government deserve some credit for seeking to clarify what might have been an important issue had the system been allowed to persist. There was real concern—not just among businesses in my constituency—when it became obvious that the Valuation Office Agency was going down this path. I began by saying that the issue was about brassicas and flooding, but in fact it is about the jobs that would have been at stake. If the Government had not intervened to clarify the position, people would undoubtedly would have found themselves out of work.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who at the relevant time had ministerial responsibility for these matters. Having visited those at R. Fountain & Son and reassured them that I was confident that such an extreme situation could only be the result of a mistake rather than Government policy, I had the extraordinary and delightful experience of mentioning that to my hon. Friend in a Lobby—he may not even remember it—and being told that the Government were already looking into the matter. It was a pleasure to be able to go back to businesses in my constituency and say that the Government would not be daft enough to increase their business rates so suddenly and massively.

To be honest, however, it was an even greater pleasure to go back to the drainage board. While I obviously care greatly about businesses throughout my constituency, the work of drainage boards in Lincolnshire is particularly and enormously valuable. They do huge service to the broader economy, and provide a great deal of reassurance through their work with the Environment Agency across the broader flooding landscape. Given that, according to the Association of British Insurers, my constituency is at greater risk of flooding than any other, I am particularly alive to that.

As I have said, my constituency is largely agricultural, and we are grateful for the business rates retention pilot. The Department is obviously aware of what must be done to ensure that business rates retention works for the areas to which it is applied, and that we do not end up losing out overall and accidentally giving more money back to the Treasury. I know that it does not intend that to happen in any circumstances.

I hope that Members will bear in mind that the Bill represents a useful endeavour to fix a problem that would have had a real impact not only on the local economy and jobs in my constituency, but on the availability of cabbages throughout the country, about which I know the House cares deeply. I also hope that, while accepting my praise for his swift action, the Minister will bear in mind that it highlights what business rates retention may well look like as we proceed with what I consider to be a worthwhile and popular policy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is heartening that although people often think that we in Parliament are powerless and are not listened to, when my hon. Friend went to the Minister about his cabbages, the Minister listened and we have done something that will help? That is a positive message. It might be a small thing to many people, but this is a positive message that, with cross-party work, we can make something happen.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and this shows the power of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton, and now the power of the two current Front Benchers. I agree with the Opposition spokesman that it is of course a good thing to work cross party on such an issue, which relates to not an intentional decision taken by the Government, but a decision by the courts that risked upending a long-standing principle.

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton and those who have continued his work. I hope that the one wrinkle in the potential of the excellent notion of business rate retention will be considered in the context of these sorts of decisions. Such decisions could of course come up again, because people do go to courts, and courts do produce judgments that perhaps surprise all of us. In this case, the decision certainly surprised my drainage board and farmers such as Fountains. I praise the Government and hope we can get on with this as soon as possible.

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), and I want to add my comments on what is a very precise Bill. Although it relates to plants, it is not in any way flowery; it is a tight, neat little Bill that very much that does what it says on the tin—or, we might say, on the plant pot.

The Bill exempts from non-domestic rates buildings that are, or form part of, a nursery ground. That is highly significant for our highly professional and essential horticultural industry, which does not often get as much attention as it deserves. The horticultural industry supplies many fantastic plants for the whole nation, and as the Minister mentioned—I am glad he referred to this—there is scope for the industry to increase.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her knowledge in this area; in fact, I think she was a TV star in the horticultural sphere for a short time. Is it not true that the changes in the Bill will make it much easier for plant nurseries to grow and be productive?

Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. One of the programmes my name was attached to was called “Loads More Muck and Magic.” It was a Channel 4 series and it was all about growing plants organically, which is terribly trendy now, so it was a bit ahead of its time—it was all ponytails and carpets then, though. It was filmed not far from my hon. Friend’s constituency at the Ryton organic gardens at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, which is still a terrific centre for organic gardening. The organisation there was called the Henry Doubleday Research Association, and it did a lot of great work on how to grow plants and what we should all do as growers at home.

My hon. Friend makes the good point that this Bill looks very much at the beginning of the plant chain when people take seeds and grow them—that exciting germination and propagation process that grows up plants, which can then be handed through the chain. I will go into that in more detail shortly, but it is an area that people forget about, even though it is such a valuable part of this important industry.

Although this is a great industry and it is highly valued, it is quite difficult to put an exact value on the horticultural trade. For example, estimates show that the whole gardening industry—that category is very wide, and would include garden tourism and events such as the Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows—is worth approximately £16 billion to the economy and employs 300,000 people.

Normally, however, the best measure of an industry’s contribution to the economy is gross value added. I am not an economist—I am sure that most of my colleagues are much more knowledgeable about this than I am, particularly the Minister, who I know is very good with his figures—but I believe that GVA measures the value of an industry’s goods or services to the economy, excluding any goods or services used in production. However, that breakdown of statistics is not carried out for the horticultural industry. If it were, we would have a much better figure to show just how important the industry is. Should the Minister ever move to the Treasury—he may well do, given his mathematical brain—he might like to look into that GVA anomaly. That would be incredibly helpful to the nation as a whole, particularly in the light of Brexit. It is hard to grow an industry and attract the investment that it needs if we do not have the exact figures relating to that industry. You might think that I am digressing, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I think this is an important point.

I do not think that my hon. Friend is digressing at all. In fact, she has made a germane point in mentioning the 300,000 people who work in the industry. Does she agree that if we can get people to plant more and get them really interested in horticulture in ways such as this, we could get a great deal closer to self-sufficiency, not only in food but in plants?

My hon. Friend is a man after my own heart. I do not know whether you are a gardener, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am—

A reluctant gardener? That’s okay. You can garden from your chair, or in a window box, but you can get your fingers into the soil. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) is absolutely right to say that we could increase our home growing, but we could also increase the health and wellbeing that people get from being engaged in the soil and growing things. Horticulture is such an exciting area to be in, and it is also very good for mental health. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

The industry itself believes that if we had the statistics that I was talking about, it would be possible to grow the industry by £18 billion. I am pleased to say that the ornamental horticultural roundtable group, in which I have been much involved, has commissioned Oxford Economics—at the vast expense of £50,000—to look into the value and economics of the ornamental horticultural sector. That is just one section of the horticultural industry, but it is pertinent to what we are talking about today. I urge all my colleagues to join the all-party parliamentary group on gardening and horticulture if they are not already members of it, because we have interesting trips to places such as Chelsea and glean a lot of excellent information. The group is also looking into the issue of growing the horticultural industry in the context of Brexit.

The ornamental plant industry supplies our landscaping industry and our popular gardening sector with wonderful bedding plants and perennials, and it is thought that that sector was worth £1.4 billion in 2017, which represents an increase of 4.8% compared with 2016. So the sector is on the up, and it could increase more. It could be a much more viable industry with this essential business rates exemption, and the more we can grow the industry, the more it will benefit the economy, particularly in the south-west.

It has been great to hear about the all-party parliamentary group—perhaps I should dig out the details. Coming back to the exemption that the Bill is likely to provide, my hon. Friend has talked at some length about the fact that the industry is now able to grow. Is it not also the case, however, that the tax that was imposed by the Court of Appeal could well have had a significantly detrimental effect on many growers, particularly the smaller businesses that would have been most affected?

Order. I could put the hon. Gentleman on to the speaking list if he would like. I will put him on it with pleasure, but we must have short interventions.

I thank my hon. Friend and apologise to you on his behalf, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, he made a useful intervention, because I am going to come on to that point. That issue was causing concern among many businesses, because it would have cost some of them hundreds of thousands of pounds, and some smaller businesses could have been wiped out, so this is a serious point.

First, does my hon. Friend share my disgust that not one Liberal Democrat MP is in the Chamber to discuss an important matter affecting rural communities? Secondly, although retrospection in law is generally to be frowned upon, does she agree that it is most welcome in this case because we are righting a perceived wrong?

We began this debate on a cross-party basis, and I am loth to say anything more controversial, but he makes an exceedingly good point about the Liberal Democrats. They were large in the south-west, but we wiped them out—as one does with a weed wiper, to use another horticultural term. The south-west is a rural region, and gardening and horticulture are important parts of our economy. One would have thought that the Liberal Democrats might have realised that and turned up, but yet again it is the Conservative party that speaks up for the rural community, and I am proud to be part of that community. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) is also here, of course.

The south-west has a good climate for horticulture, as does Chichester, and horticulture and gardening are important in Taunton Deane. We have some wonderful open gardens and visitor attractions, such as at Hestercombe and Cothay, hundreds of private gardens, and many allotment holders, many of whom have plants that started their lives in the nurseries that we are talking about today. I had a marvellous Sunday planting out my fuchsias, geraniums and alyssums into my tubs and containers, and they would have started life at one of those nurseries. I had a lovely time, and the weather was beautiful.

To get back to the Bill, which is going to come to fruition today—to use another horticultural term—nursery grounds were exempt from non-domestic rates from 1928 until recently, when the Court decision that we have heard about found exemptions to be an incorrect application of the law. As I said, that change caused a huge amount of worry in the nursery industry, where margins are tight. The Horticultural Trades Association reported that the change would be detrimental to the industry, inevitably driving up costs if nurseries had to pay business rates that they had not been paying previously, and that those costs would be passed on to the consumer. As Conservatives, that is not something that we are in favour of.

Order. I do not mind if you want to pad out the debate, but I am bothered by the fact that we have another Back-Bench speaker to come and I still have to bring in the Front-Bench speakers, so I do not know whether you still want to give way.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. If it will be short, I shall take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who has not yet intervened.

My hon. Friend was talking about the prosperity of our economy. Does she agree that the growers and the farming industry of the future are important to that prosperity? There are many technological changes coming along in germination, for example, and our growers and farmers do not want to be sat there thinking about rates on particular buildings or polytunnels. The Bill is important to allow flexibility and ensure sustainability so that we have a thriving food economy.

That is a good point. Industries such as horticulture are not quick—it takes time to grow plants and for them to go through the cycles, so it is important that businesses have the security and confidence that this Bill will put back into their lives. I am grateful for that.

The HTA has reported that some members are facing bills to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds, which we do not want. I am pleased the Bill clarifies the situation and is aligned with the previous practice of exemptions. I am particularly pleased to hear that the funds will be backdated, as the Minister clearly said.

I thank the Minister, because many colleagues on both sides of the House have been to see him, and he has listened. That is what people want from the Government, and we are making the change. This is the right way to go. The turnaround supports the Government’s commitment to a vision of a productive, competitive and sustainable UK agricultural sector, of which horticulture and the plant nursery sector are an important part.

Plant nurseries are under the microscope in the Bill, and they are important to our landscaping industry and to our towns that have been landscaped. Taunton has just received garden town status and will be seeing more landscaping. We want more trees and, as the MP, I have laid claim to that and have said that we must have more trees in our urban environment. Local authorities are not necessarily keen on having more trees, because they claim trees have a high maintenance cost, but we will change their mind.

Plant nurseries are hard-working businesses with soil under their fingernails. They grow plants from seed to germination to propagation, and many nurseries then sell them on to the next stage for businesses to grow them before they ultimately get into the market. That is what the Bill is about—plant nurseries are important stepping stones.

Nurseries will become increasingly important, because we need to increase our home-grown production, if nothing else, to prevent the threat of pests and plant diseases coming in from abroad. There is a terrible disease called xylella that is wiping out olive trees and many other herbaceous and woody commercial plants in Europe. We do not want that in the UK. If we grow more plants at home, and if we help our businesses with business rates exemptions such as this, we can expand and grow our own industry. That is essential, because there is a great line of diseases waiting to march in here on imported plants. We have a very good biosecurity system, but there is always a danger of disease. The more we can help our businesses to grow with Bills such as this, the fewer diseases we will have in this country.

The Bill will help an industry with very tight margins. It is a crucial step, and I know the Minister is taking it all to heart because he is committed to enabling the viability of the agricultural industry, rather than saddling it with a property tax. The Bill is about supporting the economy, and it is vital for the south-west, where horticulture is so important. Horticulture needs to grow, and I hope the Bill and the plant nurseries it supports will blossom.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). We have discovered that she is clearly a star of stage, screen and media.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for raising this issue in the first place. Equally, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) who made the commitment on behalf of the Government, and I thank the Government for delivering on that commitment.

The devil is in the detail. In my constituency, on the edge of the green belt in London, we have plant nurseries that are growing plants, as well as garden centres that are selling them. One of the institutions in my constituency that has had a problem has been held back: young people with learning disabilities are planting plants and growing them for commercial sale, but the investment in that has been held back because of the very decision we are discussing. So I trust that when we clarify this, it will be clear.

The final thing I want to say is that the devil is in the detail and we need to clarify the provision in respect of plant nurseries and garden centres. We should not run the risk that certain people may choose to ride roughshod over the intentions of the House by turning garden centres into plant nurseries and trying to avoid paying business rates as a result. With that, I strongly support the Bill.

I am pleased to say that this Bill has been addressed in a climate of co-operation, as has been said. The Bill irons out an anomaly in the business rate system highlighted by the Tunnel Tech case, as we heard from the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), and it is the right thing to do. It removes unnecessary doubt, although, as the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) has highlighted, there are still little grey areas and perhaps those need looking at in the future. The Bill will make claims clearer for small businesses and, we hope, avoid lengthy and costly court cases in future.

We have all heard how important the horticultural industry is to many areas, and the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) highlighted that. We also heard about the many variations in the horticultural and plant industry, and she has tempted us to go to look at her garden after all she said about planting this weekend. There is an increased use of new technology, with the polythene tunnels and grass and crop growing, and of businesses that specialise in one discrete stage of the growth and do not rear the crops to their mature state ready for the market. Fewer distinctions seem to be made between “nursery ground” and “market garden”, and the Bill does recognise that, even if it retains the terminology. A lot of businesses contain elements of both and simply prefer to see themselves as “food growers”, rather than separating the businesses out. Nobody here wants to stand in the way of home food production, or of more crop-growing operations taking place under the cover of polythene or involving some of the many other novel, innovative techniques that our growers are looking at now. That can lead to cost savings for consumers and more efficient use of limited land, and, as we have heard, it can also protect us from bringing in imported seeds, which may also bring in imported diseases. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) highlighted the fact that removing some of the anomalies and giving people confidence that the business rates will not be charged allows his local businesses to grow.

Does my hon. Friend accept that this is one piece of evidence of a Government agency, the Valuation Office Agency, seemingly overstepping the mark, causing confusion and not a little additional cost? Does she agree that this Government need to get a grip on this sooner rather than later?

I do agree with my hon. Friend on that. Indeed, this is not the first time the VOA has caused confusion. To see that, we have only to look at the combined premises Bill that had to be brought before the House to separate out the issue of whether premises were conjoined because of how close they were. That was discovered to be wrong from the VOA, too.

I am pleased that the Government have confirmed that the revenue they have received from plant nurseries being assessed for business rates will be returned, but I am not sure we can call it an unexpected windfall. This is money that the local authorities will have factored into providing local services. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane said this could be hundreds of thousands of pounds in some cases, and that is a big loss to a local authority already struggling with the Government cuts at the moment. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) that this and all policies should be costed. Without that, the effective scrutiny of financial implications is impossible. It is just not good enough to talk about a “handful” if that handful involves hundreds of thousands of pounds to a local authority. I would like to see this and all future policies costed. If the VOA will not give the figures to the Government, surely the Government should be telling that other arm of government, as it is a Government agency, that they need these figures.

I have 15 minutes in which I have the pleasure of winding up this incredibly interesting and broad-ranging debate on an important subject. I am grateful for all the valuable contributions that have been made; it has been helpful for me to hear Members’ views ahead of further scrutiny of the Bill. There have been contributions from all parts of the House—well, almost all parts—and they have all been very well informed.

I wish to respond to some of the points that were raised, but first I wish to refer to the opening remarks by the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), and to flesh out his comments on what we have done to improve the revaluation process. As my hon. Friend noted—[Interruption.] Mr Deputy Speaker, I never knew how much interest there was in plant nursery grounds.

There are Whips at the Bar of the House who when they noticed a nursery grounds Bill thought it referred to Lords nursery ground, rather than to plant nurseries.

Let me build on some of what my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier. We heard from stakeholders that the normal five-year revaluation cycle was too long. They told us that the property market can sometimes move very quickly and a five-year period can therefore leave rateable values out of date for some time. We recognised that that was unfair. [Interruption.] They are still coming, Mr Deputy Speaker. We listened to stakeholders’ concerns, which is why we announced in the autumn Budget 2017 that we will move to a three-year revaluation period.

To help businesses further, we have moved the next revaluation forward from 2022 to 2021. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is here; there is clearly a Ministry of Defence interest in the Bill. The steps we have taken have been welcomed and supported by ratepayers across all sectors. The VOA has started to prepare for the 2021 revaluation and we have ensured that the agency is sufficiently funded to carry out high-quality valuations.

Let me turn to the points raised by the Opposition. The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) asked whether ratepayers would be paid interest on any repayments made as a result of the Bill. In principle, ratepayers are entitled to receive interest for overpayments, including as a result of the Bill, but it is only fair that the interest is tied into the actual cost of money and that ratepayers do not gain overall from receiving repayments if they are found to have been paying too much. To ensure that that is the case, the rate of interest is set at 1% below the average base rate of the largest banks. The reality is that not much interest will be paid back—in fact, there will be nil.

The hon. Gentleman also rightly asked why the Government are acting only now and what other cases are in the pipeline. The court decision was indeed taken in July 2015, but it was right that the Government and the VOA looked into the impact of the decision and how it would be applied in practice before deciding whether to change the law. A written ministerial statement was made in March 2017, and a further written ministerial statement in 2018 restated the Government’s intention to legislate and make the changes in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) is the most fantastic champion of rural issues in Chichester. She asked whether ancillary buildings are exempt. They may very well be—it will of course depend on the facts on the ground—but it is for the VOA to decide whether rates are payable.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) displayed his disgust at the fact that there were no Liberal Democrats present in the Chamber for this debate. It may very well be the case that one can get an entire parliamentary Liberal Democrat party into two London cabs. I am very pleased to see that the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) did make his way in for this debate.

In conclusion, this Bill will deliver on the Government’s commitment to ensure that plant nurseries can continue to benefit from this important agricultural exemption. Members have raised a number of interesting points in today’s debate, and we will return to them at a later date. I hope that we can all agree that the overall aims of the Bill and the positive impact that it will have on the rural economy mean that it should be welcomed, and I commend it—

I am very, very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I congratulate him and say that it is great to see him in his place. May I place on the record my deep gratitude to the ministerial team, and indeed to the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), for bringing forward this measure? Will the Minister join me in acknowledging the very important role that the National Farmers Union played? It first brought the matter to my attention, which led to me raising it in the House. It has played a very important role in speaking up for its members, and it is only right that we acknowledge the role that it has played in this.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, without his amendment on the Local Government Finance Bill, I am not entirely sure that we would have got to this measure so quickly, so he should be congratulated, along with the NFU and everybody else who has contributed to the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am wearing a new set of glasses. I thought that the clock said 6.59, but it actually said 6.49, so, if you do not mind, as there are so many Members in the Chamber, they may very well want to hear some more about what this Government are doing for the rural economy.

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps he should have gone to Specsavers. Will he say a little bit more about compensation? Some of the people who have to pay rates, which they will now get back, may have deferred business investment decisions, based on a business expense that they were not expecting. There is an arguable case in future for our looking at the issue of compensation again.

What I can tell my right hon. Friend—it is not the answer that he will want to hear—is that there will be no compensation paid to these businesses. We are talking about a very small number of organisations and businesses that are affected and a relatively small sum of money.

In the absence of any more interest in this debate, I hope that we can all agree across this House that this Bill will have a positive impact on the rural economy and that it should be welcomed. I am sure that we all look forward to being able to flesh it out further during its later stages, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill:


(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Proceedings in Committee, on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading

(2) Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.

(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.

(4) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to other proceedings up to and including Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(5) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Question agreed to.