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Universities: VAT on Alterations to Listed Buildings

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 5 July 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what evaluation they have made of the impact on universities of the removal of the zero rate of VAT for alterations to protected buildings.

My Lords, removing the zero rate of VAT from alterations to listed buildings, including those belonging to universities, removes a perverse incentive to change rather than repair them and ensures that all alteration works receive the same tax treatment. The change makes the VAT rules simpler for businesses to understand and reduces the scope for error and non-compliance. In the Government’s assessment of the impact of the measure included in the consultation response published on 28 June, no separate assessment was made of the impact on particular categories of listed building.

Does the Minister fully appreciate that the proposed removal of zero-rated VAT for much needed university alterations to listed buildings will have a severe impact on those universities? Not just Oxbridge, but nearly every university old and new has listed buildings and the sector as a whole will have to find an additional £150 million over the next five years. It is like an extra tax which will reduce the amount that universities have for bursaries. Will the Minister accept that the situation could be rescued without a U-turn if the Government were to limit zero-rating to buildings owned and occupied by charities?

My Lords, I fully accept that universities will be affected, but that is not a reason not to go ahead with this measure. It is for sound and principled reasons, which I have summarised. There has been an extensive consultation process, including my honourable friend the Exchequer Secretary meeting representatives from a number of Oxbridge colleges, including the noble Baroness’s successor as principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford. There have been various numbers, including numbers coming from Oxford, which seem to vary considerably, meeting by meeting. I do not therefore recognise the £150 million figure, but I accept that there is a cost. As a result of the consultation, there have been significant changes to extend the transitional period and some of the details of the transition, but the change will go ahead.

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the additional cost to universities resulting from the removal of the zero rate should be met from their teaching and research resources, or by an additional Higher Education Funding Council grant, or should it be passed on to the occupants of student housing?

My Lords, it will be for the universities and colleges affected to decide what they do. We have made generous transitional arrangements which give the affected institutions time to plan. Of course, the total of higher education institutions’ funding will rise during the next two to three years, so there is time for those institutions to make the necessary decisions.

My Lords, if the Government are to continue with the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, why do they not introduce a listed places of learning grant scheme? Better still, why do they not abandon their defeatist attitude towards the European Union and reopen vigorous negotiations with the European Commission to secure a unified zero rate of VAT for both alterations and repairs to heritage buildings?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, he makes the point that I would make: that the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme is a continuation of an existing scheme and not a new scheme that has been introduced. As regards his question on Europe, we need to abide by the VAT rules that Europe sets. Those rules very seriously constrain us, and the noble Lord makes the important point that we have to work within those constraints.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, while it is welcome, does not address the issue satisfactorily? All buildings in the ownership of cathedrals, for instance, are not eligible for it; it is just the place of worship itself. All the heritage organisations, headed by the Heritage Alliance, have submitted evidence to his department which shows that all those who truly know and care about the future of our built heritage in this country believe that the Government have got it wrong. Can we please have a rethink on this?

My Lords, there has been a consultation; there have been extensive discussions; and the response to the consultation was published on 28 June. Concessions have been made that will significantly help university listed buildings; for example, certain transitional repairs will be allowed to carry on for four summers. I shall not be drawn again into a discussion of listed places of worship, save to say that some of the same considerations apply. For example, anomalies in the arrangements affecting universities include the fact that those listed buildings which are used for business purposes such as teaching are already subject to VAT as are alterations to all non-listed university buildings, so there are very considerable anomalies here which we are clearing up.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, which contains some of the most beautiful grade 1 listed buildings in the country. The Minister did not accept the figure of £150 million put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, so I can perhaps help him by giving him a precise figure for the impact on my institution. My senior bursar tells me that the impact of this change on my institution will be up to 5% of the teaching, research and student support budget. Was that the Government’s intention?

My Lords, the intention was to reduce a number of VAT anomalies, of which this was one, and to introduce generous transitional provisions relating to those measures.