Consideration of Lords amendment
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in the Lords amendment. If the House agrees to it, I will cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
I must also inform the House that Mr Speaker has certified that the amendment relates exclusively to England. If there is a Division, it will be subject to a double majority.
Higher amount for long-term empty dwellings
I beg to move, That the House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in support of the amendment. As previously discussed in this House, this Bill takes forward two important measures that featured in the Chancellor’s Budget speech of last November. The first fulfils the Government’s promise to end the so-called “staircase tax”, giving welcome relief to businesses. The second, which is the subject of our deliberations today, addresses the issue of long-term empty homes, doubling to 100% the council tax premium that local authorities can charge on homes that have been empty for two years or more.
Is the Minister aware that in my constituency the number of empty properties has been driven down by a third by the existing empty homes premium? I am delighted to see this measure, because it will reduce the number of empty homes in my constituency, which is currently at 400—that represents a village the size of Great Bowden. That means far less pressure on development and a better use of our housing stock.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for his support for the measures in this Bill. I also pay tribute to his local authority for the sterling work it has clearly done, as have so many others across the country, in tackling this blight of empty homes. I am particularly grateful to him, because I know he has another housing-related debate coming up in short order and so I am privileged that he has made time to speak in support of this measure. I wish him well in his further debate later this afternoon.
My hon. Friend is promoting a very welcome measure. Is he able to give the House any indication as to the quantum of properties that lie vacant for more than two years and would therefore accrue this additional council tax? Will he add some indication as to the potential uplift in revenue to our local authorities, which certainly need it?
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will be grateful for that little bit of patience and I will go over all the facts and figures of the current policy later in my speech. I hope he will find what he is looking for in that section. If he wants to come back to me for more detail at that point, I would very much welcome a further intervention.
I am not known for my patience.
You also should not test ours. [Laughter.]
As my hon. Friend mentioned, this measure will strengthen the incentive for owners to bring long-term empty properties back into use. Hon. Members will recall that this Bill received widespread support when it was considered by the House earlier this year. I am very pleased to say that that cross-party support continued through the debates in the other place.
Before we turn to the detail of the amendment, I thought it would be helpful to recap the purpose of this clause and the background to the policy in general. Our housing market is not working as we would want. Young people are often struggling to get on to the property ladder—struggling to enjoy the same opportunities as their parents and grandparents.
I absolutely support the measures the Minister is putting forward. Does he agree that in a town such as Redditch, which is growing rapidly, we need more housing? We struggle to expand, however, because we just have not got the room. It is therefore right that we are bringing more empty homes back into use to meet the housing need of our young people in our growing town.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right to say that the Government are doing many things to increase the supply of new housing, and I will come on to discuss those, but that we must also do better with the housing we already have. That is what this measure will enable us to do.
Today, the average house price in England is almost eight times the average income, whereas it was four times the average income in 1999. Costs are also rising for private renters, who spend, on average, more than a third of their household income on rent. The Government are committed to boosting housing supply to ensure that hard-working people have a secure place to call home. The Government and the tireless new Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), are taking end-to-end action across the entire housing system to address these issues, releasing more land for homes where people want to live, and building them faster and cheaper.
The UK is going through a housing crisis. Does the Minister accept that one of the best ways of tackling the social housing crisis is to abolish the right to buy?
The right to buy has helped thousands of young people, first-time buyers, up and down this country to get on to the housing ladder. I have seen the measure transform people’s lives in my constituency, as I am sure many Members have in theirs. It supports what this Government and the Conservative party stand for—allowing people to fulfil their dream of owning their own home.
Obviously, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am concerned about your latitude in allowing us to venture slightly off the topic—
Indeed, but I could not stay in my seat having heard that. Just this summer, the Government announced voluntary right to buy across the west midlands, which is a valuable opportunity and has been heavily subscribed. Members of the public in those homes clearly think it is a good idea.
As always, my hon. Friend puts it well. He has the pulse of the people in his constituency; he knows what they want. We serve to fulfil their aspirations, and I am delighted that the interest in the new scheme has been so high. I look forward to seeing the fruits of that and welcoming all those new people into homes that they will own for the first time.
This set of reforms is putting us on track to see an average of 300,000 homes delivered per year by the mid-2020s, and we are making strong progress. Last year, 217,000 new homes were delivered in England, which is the highest number seen in all but one of the past 30 years. In 2017, the number of first-time buyers stood at about 365,000, which is the highest level in more than a decade.
Building new homes is undoubtedly a fundamental part of improving our housing market, but, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), we must also make more efficient use of our existing housing stock.
Does the Minister agree that in addition to all the measures in the Bill, the Government must get their own house in order? Some 10,000 Ministry of Defence homes are left empty; does he not think it is slightly ironic that we are discussing this issue when the Government have so many homes that are not being put to use?
I am not aware of the precise statistics for the Ministry of Defence, but in general we encourage all organisations and private owners to bring empty homes back into use. The Bill will apply to all homes. As far as I am aware, there is no statutory exemption for MOD housing, but I am happy to look into that and write back to the hon. Lady. As an MP who represents a constituency with a heavy military presence, with Catterick garrison on my patch, I know well the issues relating to serving personnel and their families having access to good-quality accommodation. I hope that there are few empty homes in my area and that they are all being well utilised. I thank the hon. Lady for bringing that issue to my attention.
It cannot be right that while many households are waiting to find a house to call home, thousands of properties stand empty, some for many years. Beyond that, homes left empty for the long term can often be a blight on a neighbourhood, as well as sites of crime and antisocial behaviour. I am pleased to say that the Government’s record in this policy area is strong. We have ensured that local authorities have powers and strong incentives to bring empty homes back into use.
The Minister says that he is empowering local authorities, but the Government refuse to have a register of landlords. An enormous amount of paperwork is required for local authorities to chase landlords and get these backyards into use, or whatever the problem is that he says his Government are happy to see resolved. Will the Government help local authorities, as he suggests, and introduce a national register of landlords so that we can take the action that he describes?
I will be careful not to stray too far from my brief, but the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), who has responsibility for housing and homelessness, is actively looking into appropriate regulation in the private rented sector and the potential introduction of a single housing ombudsman, among other things. I should point out that the Government introduced measures to tackle rogue landlords and, indeed, created a rogue landlord database and a new set of penalties to tackle the issue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds some comfort in that and will wait for my colleague’s findings on the general regulation of the private rented sector.
Before 2013, councils could not collect any council tax from properties that were empty for up to six months, so the coalition Government at the time decided to support councils and ensure that they had the freedom, should they want it, to charge the full rate of council tax on such properties. That same year, the Government enabled local authorities to charge a council tax premium of up to 50% on long-term empty homes.
I strongly welcome the Minister’s comments. There are a number of empty properties in my constituency that I would very much like to see come back on the market. Will the Minister tell us what effect the Government’s action has had in this policy area? By what proportion has the number of empty homes come down since the Government made those changes?
I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the powers that were introduced in 2013 have been taken up by around 90% of all local authorities, all but three of which applied the full 50% rate. I am glad to tell him that the number of long-term empty properties subject to a premium has fallen by 9% among those councils that have used the power every year since 2013.
There are carrots as well as sticks. Our new homes bonus scheme gives local authorities the same financial reward for bringing an empty home back into use as for building a new home. We have allocated £7 billion in new homes bonus payments to local authorities since 2011. Following those interventions, the number of properties that are empty for six months or longer is down by a third since 2010, from 300,000 to just over 200,000.
It is worth touching on one or two local authorities that have done a particularly impressive job of tackling the scourge of long-term empty properties in their areas. Several years ago, Bolton had close to 3,000 empty properties, but now has fewer than half that number. Bolton Council offered interest-free loans to bring a long-term empty property up to a suitable standard for rental. The council has also introduced an online matchmaker scheme that matches empty-home owners with potential buyers and offers advice about how to rent out properties through the Bolton landlord accreditation scheme. Between March and October of last year alone, more than 300 long-term empty properties were brought back into use. The council has recently joined forces with Bolton College and the University of Bolton on a new pilot project to bring a rundown empty house back into use.
Kent is another example of a local authority on the cutting edge of tackling this issue. Several years ago, Kent County Council launched the “No Use Empty” programme to bring empty homes back into use. Loans available through the scheme are repayable over five years and then recycled for further use. The scheme has now administered loans totalling almost £20 million, unlocking investment from owners totalling a further £20 million, and has returned over 5,000 empty homes back into use over the past decade. Notably, the programme ran a £3 million project to deliver new homes on the site of a former pub in Herne Bay that had been empty for five years following a fire. The pub’s conversion was undertaken in partnership with a local developer, which bought the property and applied for a loan from the “No Use Empty” fund to unlock the redevelopment. The project has now delivered 14 new apartments.
I am delighted to hear of the good work that is going on in Bolton and Kent, but I am obviously much more interested in what is going in Worcestershire and in my local area. Will the Minister go on to discuss how my council can learn from the excellent examples that he describes?
I am always willing to learn from and listen to local authorities up and down the country. My hon. Friend and I have corresponded on various issues that have been brought to my attention in Worcestershire, and it will always be a pleasure to meet her local authority. She could bring officials here or I could go and visit them.
As my hon. Friend has been kind enough to pay tribute to the development in Herne Bay, which is part of the magnificent constituency that I represent, perhaps he would like to come and see the finished development for himself.
I can see my diary filling up rapidly as the debate progresses, but I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend and the successful redevelopment. Indeed, I will perhaps mention it to my hon. Friend the Housing Minister for when he is next in the area.
I promise not to invite the Minister to my constituency—although I stress that he is always very welcome there. He tempted me to intervene with his mention of the pub that was brought back into use through the “No Use Empty” programme. Does he agree that this legislation is an example of a wider point that needs to be discussed: the reuse of our existing building stock more generally? Permitted development rights and other things that make it easier to reuse older buildings have taken the share of new properties coming on to the market through change of use from about 12% of supply to 20% of supply over the past couple of years. Does he agree that that is saving a huge amount of countryside?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an insightful point. He has great experience in this area. Indeed, he has published proposals relating specifically to this area, on which my hon. Friend the Housing Minister is engaging with him. More intelligent use of development rights and our existing stock can help play a part in solving the housing market problems that we see.
I am interested in what the Minister says, and do not disagree with it, but I will say the same thing that I said when this legislation came around last time. It is great to talk about Bolton, a unitary authority, and Kent may have a progressive county council—I do not know—but my local district, Accrington District Council, only receives 15% of the precept with 72% going to the shire authority which, unlike Bolton, is not interested in reinvesting. When will we have a change in the law that allows district authorities to retain 100% of the extra precept on the council tax?
Opening up a conversation about the redistribution of council tax is probably beyond the scope of this measure, but we encourage co-operation between local authorities, and there are good examples of that from across the country. Indeed, business rates retention is now working deliberately to incentivise local authorities across tiers to partner together, and we have found that that has unlocked conversations beyond the pooling of business rates to strategic co-operation on other matters, such as housing.
Will the Minister come to Lancashire to encourage Lancashire County Council to give money back to Hyndburn and Chorley?
I am always happy to visit all local authorities, and many of the authorities in Lancashire have submitted proposals to be in the upcoming 75% business rates retention pilots. I am pleased to see lots of local authorities in Lancashire working together, and I look forward to reading that application with interest in the light of those comments.
As we have seen, different areas, from Redditch to Lancashire, will have different housing needs and different numbers of long-term-empty homes, so it is absolutely right that decisions on whether to apply a premium, and the exact rate to charge, should be taken at local level, as they were before. Councils are acutely aware of the needs and demands of their areas. We recognise that local authorities will want to reflect carefully on the local housing market when deciding whether to issue a determination—for example, where a homeowner is struggling to rent or sell a property in a challenging market. We are clear that the premium should not be used to penalise owners of homes that are genuinely on the market for rent or sale.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I also put on the record my support for these proposals. At a time of housing crisis, it is incredibly important that we bring more homes back into use, which is exactly what this measure will do. Will the Minister set out measures for similar situations in which retail premises are unused? Filey, in my constituency, has a shop—I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker; I am about to conclude—that has been disused for some time and is a blight on its street. What can the local authority do about that?
It is always a pleasure to take an intervention from my constituency neighbour, who represents what is without doubt the second most beautiful part of the country. I must admit that I am not familiar with that particular shop in Filey, but I will be delighted to chat with my hon. Friend afterwards, to make sure that the full resources of the Department can supply him with as many options as he can supply to the local authority in question.
Does my hon. Friend have any thoughts on empty dwelling management orders, which councils can use to take possession of a property that has been left vacant for six months or more? I understand that those are rarely used by councils in England.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that empty dwelling management orders exist as a tool for councils to take control of long-term empty properties that cause a social nuisance. I do not have the exact figures to hand, but he is right that those orders are not extensively used. However, they are a measure that local authorities should be aware of. The orders are a tool at local authorities’ disposal and are one of the various measures that they can use to tackle this particular problem. I thank him for raising that option here today.
Does the Minister agree that it is vital that landlords bring properties back into use? They should not be penalised while carrying out genuine work to bring those properties back into use, but equally they should not take an extended period and say that they are doing work when no work is actually going on.
I thank my hon. Friend not only for his intervention but for all his work on the Bill, as both an individual and in his role on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. I am grateful for all his comments as we debated the Bill during its earlier stages. He is absolutely right, and the Government published guidance to that end in 2013—when the original premium was introduced—reminding local authorities to take into account the specific reasons for a property being empty. Hon. Members may wish to note that the provision we are discussing will not bring any additional properties within the scope of the premium; only properties that would already have been potentially liable might be affected by the higher premium.
On the flexibility and discretion raised by my hon. Friend, no property covered by an existing statutory council tax exemption can be liable for the empty homes premium. For example, exemptions are already in place for homes that are empty owing to the council tax payer living in armed forces accommodation for job-related purposes, or for annexes that are used as part of a main property. Furthermore, the council tax system already provides specific statutory exemptions for properties left empty for a specific purpose, such as when a person goes into care. On probate, such properties, where left empty, are exempt from council tax for up to six months after the granting of probate or after letters of administration have been signed.
I also say to my hon. Friend that section 13A of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 gives billing authorities a wide power to reduce the council tax that a person or group of people is liable to pay. That can be reduced to such an extent as the billing authority sees fit. The power can be applied to situations pertaining to the status of a dwelling or the category of a person, and can be used in cases of hardship, fire or flooding. Together with the guidance that I will speak about more broadly in a moment, I hope that this reassures all hon. Members that councils and local authorities will have the flexibility and discretion that they need to treat each situation on a case-by-case basis.
Before I turn to the Lords amendment, I will recap some of the statistics on the operation of the current policy to ensure that everyone has the facts to hand as we reach our deliberations. As I said earlier, 90% of billing authorities have applied the empty homes premium, to around 61,000 homes—that we have data for—in the last year. All but three of those councils did so using the maximum 50% rate. Of the remaining 10% of councils that were not applying the premium, more and more are now starting to. We estimate that the empty homes premium generated around £40 million in the last year for local authorities, when we take into account individual local authority collection rates.
I sorry to ask the Minister this question; it is ignorance on my part. How do councils ascertain that properties are empty? Might we need to give councils additional powers so that they can identify which properties are truly empty?
That is a very thoughtful question. Every council takes a slightly different approach. An interesting method is to offer a temporary discount on empty homes for a short period of time, providing a financial incentive for homeowners to register their home as empty. Down the line, the council then has a list of properties that might become long-term empty. Of course, councils also require people to fill out forms, and there are civil and criminal penalties for filling them out with false or misleading information. Indeed, the authority also has other intelligence from the various other ways in which it touches an individual property. Together, councils can build up a picture of which homes are long-term empty, and apply the appropriate premium as and when necessary.
Hon. Members may be interested to know that the proportion of dwelling stock across the country that has been empty for six months or longer is about 0.85%, with the lowest numbers being found in London and the south-east, and the highest being found in the north-east and the north-west.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. One issue that has been brought to my attention as a local MP is the time that it can take the council to turn around the voids when one tenant leaves and another comes on stream. Will this provision affect the council’s housing stock? I would be grateful for that clarification.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. Council housing is governed by a slightly different set of regulations, so it will not be affected by this particular measure. However, in general she is right to highlight that all local and public authorities have a duty to bring empty homes back into use as quickly as possible for the benefit of all potential residents.
I now turn to the Lords amendment, which makes a helpful improvement to the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lady Pinnock, the noble Lord Shipley and the noble Lord Kennedy, who originally tabled this amendment in a cross-party spirit. I also thank the noble Lords and Ladies in the other place for all their contributions on the Bill. Having attended the debates and read through the Committee transcripts, I am grateful for the valuable experience and insight that all those who commented on the Bill brought to bear, as this has helped to inform how we have thought about the legislation. I am glad that there was wide cross-party support in the other place for this Bill and this measure in particular.
This so-called escalator amendment will allow local authorities to charge premiums of up to 200% on homes empty for at least five years and less than 10 years, and to charge premiums of up to 300% on homes empty for at least 10 years. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the amendment is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the legislation, which is to strengthen local authorities’ existing powers to tackle empty homes for the benefit of their communities.
I completely agree that it is in keeping with this legislation. It seems crazy that in this day and age, when we have people who are desperate for a home, there might be up to 11,000 properties in England that have been vacant for over 10 years.
Order. The Minister has now taken up 50% of the time. It is only an hour’s debate, so I am concerned. We have a lot of Members in the Chamber, and I hope that he is not trying to take up all the time.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have tried to take any interventions that have come my way from all parts of the House, but I will take your steer and try to reach my conclusion in a slightly more swift fashion, if that will help.
I am sure, as I said, that hon. Members will agree that this amendment is in keeping with the spirit of the legislation and will enable local authorities to do more. However, we are not proposing to alter the provision on homes empty for at least two years and less than five years, as we have discussed previously.
I thank the Minister for paying tribute to my colleagues in the House of Lords who led on this amendment. Does he agree that another issue is land banking? It is all very well if homes are being brought back into use, but we also have an issue of land that is often kept for a very long time. What does he intend to do about that?
I agree that land banking should be looked into. The hon. Lady will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) is currently looking at that issue. Interim findings have been published and more findings will be coming out shortly. I hope that she will be happy to wait for the findings of those reports. Nor are we proposing to change any other arrangements for charging premiums. It will rightly remain a matter for local authorities individually to decide whether and what premium to charge. In making these decisions, local authorities should of course consider local circumstances, as we have discussed, as well as the guidance issued by the Government.
It is right that we target particularly the homes that are empty for excessively long periods in this way. To be sure, they are likely to be few in number— potentially 11,000, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes)—but where they exist, they can indeed be a nuisance and a blight on their community. Such properties may even become sites of crime and antisocial behaviour. It is right that local authorities are equipped with greater powers in these difficult cases, where a 100% premium may be ineffective. We are proposing that these higher premiums come into effect slightly later than the original measure, which was announced at last year’s autumn Budget. This will give homeowners sufficient notice of the change. The 200% premiums will come into effect from 1 April 2020, and the 300% premiums a year later. The original proposal, of which people have had good notice, will come into effect from 1 April 2019, as planned.
We recognise the crucial importance of ensuring that premiums are applied fairly. That is why in 2013 the Government published guidance reminding local authorities to take into account the specific reasons a local property is empty, as indeed we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). In the light of this amendment, I can confirm that the Government will take a fresh look at the guidance with the aim of publishing revised guidance ahead of the introduction of the 200% and 300% premiums. This refreshed guidance will be subject to consultation, of course, and we will welcome the opportunity to benefit from the experience of local authorities, council tax payers and others when the time comes. In particular, we are keen to ensure that the guidance clarifies that premiums must be applied with due consideration to issues facing low-demand areas and cases of hardship. We expect to revisit the wording of the guidance to set out clearly the Government’s expectation that premiums are not applied where homeowners can demonstrate that their properties are genuinely on the market for rent or sale, and appropriately priced.
Another area we expect to consider is cases where homeowners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East noted, are struggling to complete or afford renovations that are necessary before the property can be occupied or sold on, and where they can demonstrate progress and hardship.
I am delighted to bring forward this amendment, which has been termed the escalator amendment. I am grateful to all colleagues, the Select Committee and partners in the rating agencies for helping to get this amendment and this Bill to the House. By strengthening the incentive for owners of long-term empty properties to bring them back into use, this amendment will surely come as good news for local government, for families seeking a place to live, and for the affected local communities as a whole. I commend it to the House.
It takes a very good education to be able to talk at length without saying much at all.
We are at the end of a process as we reflect on the Lords amendment, which I should say is entirely in line with Labour’s manifesto. If anything, it could have gone much further. While the Lords have suggested a 10-year period regarding the charge on empty properties, the Labour manifesto proposed that after a year, because we recognise not only that there are lots of people on the housing waiting list and many people who are homeless—sofa-surfing and on the streets—but that these properties are often a blight on their local communities. It is right that the owners of the properties are held to account, and a charge is one way of doing so. Of course we welcome the amendment, but we would have liked it to go much further.
We have heard in Committee and in the Chamber that the staircase tax was about listening to the interests of business and how the business rates system was adversely affecting them, but it is slightly odd that of all the issues that businesses are raising when it comes to business rates, this is the sole one that has been picked out for this place to address. There is absolutely nothing about the condition of our high streets and town centres, and nothing about business rates’ impact on our pubs. There is no recognition that while we have rural rate relief for the last pub in a village, council estates are not given the same luxury for the last pub on the estate. Businesses are raising plenty of important issues.
Fundamentally, we see with rates the same thing that we are seeing with council tax: we are incrementally putting more and more pressure on what is a diminishing resource in many places. We have seen that with the revaluation, where the value shifted to London and the south-east, and certainly away from my region. The Conservative party has been in power for 10 years, through the coalition and more recently with the support of the Democratic Unionist party, and the housing shame in this country is a national scandal.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Government are doing nothing to tackle some of the issues on the high street. Is he not aware of the Government inquiry that is led by Sir John Timpson on the difficulties the high street is facing and what we should do about it? Is it not a sensible starting point that we gather some evidence before we decide what we should do?
If all we had was time, we could carry out an inquiry and a review every few months, but the fact is that that leads to almost no change. Our tax base system is getting to a point where it will not be fit for purpose. How can we have a situation where someone’s ability to get adult social care in later life will be predicated on their local authority’s ability to raise money from a diminishing base of council tax and business rates, thereby putting more and more pressure on the communities that can least afford it? How can it be right that a child’s ability to get the protection they need will be based on house values in 1991 when the Government walk off the pitch and end revenue support grant completely? How can that be fair?
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Will he set out his party’s policies on rejuvenating the high street and replacing business rates?
Order. The debate is not about business rates.
The hon. Gentleman raised it.
I know. I have allowed Members to generalise. I do not want to narrow down what the shadow Minister has to say. I allowed the Minister to spread his wings—perhaps I was a bit too open in allowing that. I do not want to concentrate on just one area.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will not abuse the purpose of the debate; I will stick to the Bill and the Lords amendment.
Many of these issues on council tax and business rates need not be party political. Most people recognise that high streets and town centres are at a point where they cannot take much more pressure. Most people recognise that council tax is taking on a disproportionate burden to fund local public services and, increasingly, people services, too. These are not party political points; they are self-evident when we see the condition of council budgets, and our town and city centres and high streets.
I have offered from this Dispatch Box to sit down with the Minister and work out where there is common ground and where we ought to be working together. I am afraid that all these offers of visits to constituencies around the country are taking away time that could be spent in this place working through some of these complex issues that have been ignored for so long.
Clearly, we are not going to oppose the Bill, in which very sensible steps are being taken. We support the Lords amendment, so we do not suggest opposing that either. However, we do want a bit more courage from the Department. There is a brand-new Secretary of State in place, who I hope has more access to the door of No. 11 than previously and can finally get a conversation about how we can properly fund local government services. We ought to be working together to find a long-term, sustainable solution to ensure that every man, woman and child right across the country gets the public services they need and deserve.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon). I draw the House’s attention to my interest, which I think is in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The hon. Gentleman and I served—I will not say with distinction, but we certainly served—on the Local Government Association resources panel for some years.
All Members will recognise that, as a result of our perfectly properly facing up to trying to repair the disastrous legacy that the Government inherited in 2010, the local government family has certainly faced a disproportionately heavy share of the burden. As we know, that has had an impact on our communities up and down the country. In my judgment, local authorities have acted perfectly properly. I served for 12 years as a district councillor, for seven of which I was running resources and the budget, and my then finance director, Frank Wilson, and I were always at great pains to find any way whatsoever to bring in extra money. We went down the back of every sofa, armchair and chaise longue to find coinage wherever it could possibly be hiding. When the Government presented us with an opportunity to raise perhaps a couple of extra quid, we grasped it like drowning men in a turbulent ocean.
I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister said about flexibility, which is of absolute importance. My understanding of both the Bill and indeed the Lords amendment is that this should not be viewed not as a revenue raiser for local authorities, but rather a spur to maximise housing stock accessibility. There cannot be a colleague in the House who does not meet people—at their advice surgeries or at other constituency engagements—raising the problems of accessibility to housing, the inability to get on to the housing ladder, and the length of and delays in the planning process, all of which make a contribution to the difficulty of getting on to the housing ladder itself. Anything that can be done to increase access to existing housing stock has, in my judgment, to be welcomed very warmly.
If I may, I want to probe what the Minister said and to read into the record his very important comments about flexibility. Proposed new subsection (1A) in Lords amendment 1 reads:
“In subsection (1)(b)”—
if anybody wants to buy shares in the man who makes the keys for the bracket signs, I suggest they do so now, because there are an awful lot of brackets in this measure—
“(maximum percentage by which council tax may be increased)”.
The key word there is the conditional “may”. It does not have to be increased, and local authorities should view this as not merely a cash cow but, as I say, as a spur to increase accessibility. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider providing very clear guidance to local authorities—perhaps via the Local Government Association, but also directly to finance directors and leaders of councils—that they do have such flexibility.
My hon. Friend the Minister suggested one or two things. I am concerned about cases in which the clock is not reset when a property is sold. I appreciate entirely that there may be circumstances in which there is a paper transaction between brother and brother, or sister and sister, to try to dodge the additional tax, but I suggest that that is probably, given stamp duty and so on, a rather unlikely scenario.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he not accept that there are cases in which people do not have any intention of selling the property? It might be on the market at inflated price, but if not, when someone tries to buy it, every obstacle is put in their way to stop the purchase.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why I am rather pleased that the Minister may be writing guidance and setting out examples. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct: whenever we create a system, someone somewhere will find a way of playing it. However, with the greatest respect, I do not think that that should preclude the authoring of guidance notes with examples and, indeed, the creation of those systems. However, he is right that we should always be alert to those who try to play the system.
I would like to give the House and my hon. Friend the Minister some examples to consider. If a building is in a conservation area or has listed building status, that can lead to a complicated planning process. If a house is incredibly run down and is not legally habitable, but someone buys it with a view to doing it up and putting it on the market, it would be perverse, if they were making an investment to make the house habitable but experience problems with listed planning consent and so on, for them to be double-clobbered with an expensive council tax bill.
My hon. Friend alluded to natural disasters.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I give way with great pleasure to my hon. Friend, a fellow Home Office Parliamentary Private Secretary.
My hon. Friend is making good points about flexibility and councils’ powers. The Minister referred to instances in which people were in care. Does my hon. Friend have any thoughts on that, because that can often be a fluid and flexible situation?
My hon. Friend makes a telling point.
Order. We are drifting.
I was about to talk about flooding, Mr Deputy Speaker. Drifting and flooding may be linked.
Some might suggest a filibuster, but do carry on.
If anyone, Mr Deputy Speaker, were to suggest a filibuster, they would be challenging your authority, because we look to you to ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members remain in order.
Order. You are drifting. Get on with it—come on.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you are robust.
I am enjoying it.
If I receive no other accolade in the House, to give enjoyment to my—
Order. We are not here to discuss accolades. We are going to discuss the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I was about to talk about natural disasters such as fire or flood. A house that has been significantly damaged by flood may have to be rewired and replastered, meaning that people cannot move back in.
Does that not reinforce the importance of local authorities using their discretion before levying extra charges on empty properties? They need to use their judgment.
My hon. Friend strikes at the beating heart of my argument and the importance of that three-letter word “may”. The word is not “shall”, not “would” and not “must”, but “may”.
What is entirely proper—this was implicit in my hon. Friend’s contribution—is the discretion that local authorities, with their local knowledge, will have. It is not for the Minister and his bowler-hatted officials—I see all the bowler hats in the official Box—to be absolutely prescriptive. Local authorities will know some of the rogues and chancers in their area, and they will know if there is a difficulty in the planning process. They should—I have little or no doubt that, with the exhortation of our hon. Friend the Minister, they will—understand the vital importance of the word “may”.
I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. A fire in Paignton on Thursday affected a number of residential properties, and does he agree that that is why the “may” is so vital? This cannot be just about people doing what they can to get the maximum revenue. It is about doing something to get a property back into use when someone is not taking the steps to do so, but not penalising those who clearly are making best efforts to ensure they get their property back into use.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In drawing on his extensive local government experience, he hits upon the very salient phrase “best efforts”. Most people in a locality will be able to see through those who are not using their best endeavours but merely trying to play the system. He references properties damaged by fire, mentioning one in his constituency. I think that we will all have had properties in our constituencies damaged to varying degrees of intensity by fire. That can, of course, lead to incredibly delayed and complex insurance claims, with all the to-ing and fro-ing that cannot necessarily be dealt with particularly swiftly. I would hope that where there is a clear prima facie case that there were delays in the insurance process, those, too, will be taken into account.
The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) referred to people who are selling a house but deliberately set the bar too high so that they make it unaffordable. Of course, there are people who, because of historical claims for fire or flooding, will find it difficult to secure insurance and a mortgage so that they can buy a property. That is not a fault of the purchaser and it is certainly not a fault of the vendor. I recently saw a house for sale in my constituency on which, because of the materials with which it was built, a mortgage cannot be secured. That is not the fault of the vendor, who has been trying to sell it for a considerable period of time. It would, I suggest, be an entirely unforeseen and unjustified consequence if that person were saddled with an onerously high council tax bill at a time when they were legitimately trying to dispose of an asset, but could not do so because nobody could afford to buy because they could not arrange a mortgage for it.
I hope that local authorities will not put into the “too difficult to deal with” box the civil law matter of a family that is rowing among themselves about who actually inherits a house, who has the right to sell it and who wants to inhabit it. We all know that where there is a will there is an argument, and that sometimes where there is no will there can be a real cause for concern. Those are the areas of flexibility that our local authority officers and councillors need to be alert to and flexible about. I hope that the Minister can assure me that guidance highlighting the “may” and the need for flexibility and discretion will be pointed out to our local authorities.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived.