Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations, which are highly technical, make changes to the regulatory framework governing the day-to-day operation of the business rates retention scheme. The amendments in these regulations are necessary to ensure that the regulatory framework properly reflects the impact of the 2017 business rates revaluation, our decision to create new 100% business rates pilots in London and 10 other areas of the country, and changes to the compensation arrangements in enterprise zones.
Before saying something about each of the changes, I remind the Committee that the rates retention scheme was introduced with effect from 1 April 2013. For the first time since 1990, it allows local authorities to keep a percentage of the business rates they collect from local ratepayers and gives them a direct financial interest in maintaining and extending their business rates’ bases.
When the scheme was first set up, local government was able to keep 50% of locally raised business rates, subject only to a redistribution mechanism that requires authorities which have more business rates than their relative needs to pay over some of that income as a so-called tariff, while authorities that have a lower business rates income than their relative needs receive a top-up payment.
In 2017-18, we allowed local authorities in five newly created 100% pilot areas to keep all the local business rates they raised. Additionally, we increased the GLA’s share of business rates from 20% to 37% and, in return, it took on direct responsibility for financing Transport for London’s investment grant from its additional share.
In December last year, we announced that we would create a further 11 100% pilot areas, including in London. In 2018-19, therefore, local authorities in Berkshire, Cornwall, Derbyshire, Devon, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Kent, Leeds City, Lincolnshire, Liverpool, London, Solent, Suffolk, Surrey, West of England and the West Midlands will all keep 100% of the business rates they raise locally. The regulations before the Committee this afternoon will give administrative effect to the 11 new 100% pilots that will come into force on 1 April 2018. They will ensure that the sums paid and received by the pilot authorities over the course of the year reflect the new pilot arrangements.
As well as amending the administrative arrangements of the rates retention scheme to reflect the new 100% pilots, the regulations also make changes to tariffs and top-ups following the revaluation. As I said earlier, tariffs and top-ups are the way in which we redistribute local tax income between richer and poorer authorities under the rates retention scheme. They were originally set in 2013-14 based on the difference between the business rates that authorities were expected to collect in that year and their relative need, as established in that year’s local government finance settlement. Since then, they have been uprated only by inflation.
However, as a result of the business rates revaluation that took effect on 1 April 2017, the amount of business rates that authorities will actually collect in 2017-18 will be very different from what they collected in 2016-17. If, therefore, we were simply to uprate the existing tariffs and top-ups by inflation, as we have done in the past, authorities could find their income from business rates substantially changed, for reasons quite unconnected to their efforts to secure growth. Therefore, when we set the scheme up in 2013, we announced that we would adjust tariffs and top-ups to strip out the impact of revaluations.
In the 2017-18 settlement, we announced adjusted tariffs and top-ups for all authorities, but, as we said at the time, we would revise them in the 2018-19 settlement to reflect updated data. These revisions were duly made in February as part of the local government finance settlement for 2018-19. However, the revised values are also used in the calculation of levy and safety net payments under the rates retention scheme. The changes made by the regulations before the Committee this afternoon ensure that the revised values for tariffs and top-ups in 2017-18 and 2018-19 will be used in levy and safety net calculations. Without these regulations, the calculation of the levy and safety net payments due to or from authorities would be wrong. Authorities that needed a safety net payment would fail to get one, and other authorities might be forced to pay a levy that they could ill afford.
Finally, the regulations make changes to the financing of enterprise zones. Under the rates retention scheme, certain areas have been designated as enterprise zones. In those zones, authorities are entitled to keep all of the growth in business rates income. The growth is used by local enterprise partnerships, or LEPs, to help regenerate the zones. Enterprise zones were first set up in 2013, and there are now more than 200 separate zones in nearly 100 local authorities. As well as keeping all the growth in business rates in an enterprise zone, authorities are also able to give business rates relief to new businesses relocating there, thus further stimulating economic development. Where authorities use their powers to award relief, they can be compensated by central government for the reduction in their income. Compensation is given to local authorities by allowing them to deduct the cost of the relief from the 50% share of business rates that they otherwise pay to central government under the rates retention scheme. Of course, with the advent of 100% business rates pilots, any compensation owed to 100% pilot authorities will be paid via a Section 31 grant because there is no longer a central share from which it can be deducted.
When the first enterprise zones were set up in 2013, authorities were entitled to receive compensation for the relief they gave for a period of five years until 31 March 2018. That period, set out in the rates retention regulations, has not changed since, despite the fact that we have set up new enterprise zones in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. In order to ensure that every enterprise zone is treated on an equal footing, regardless of the date that it came into being, the regulations ensure that authorities can be compensated for up to five years after the enterprise zone came into existence, regardless of whether that was 2013, 2017 or any year in between.
To sum up, the regulations make technical changes to the administration of the business rates retention system to reflect the impact of the revaluation. They allow the new 100% rates retention pilots to operate from 1 April 2018, and they put all enterprise zones on a level playing field. Without the changes, authorities would be unable to receive the income from the business rates retention scheme to which they are entitled. I commend these regulations to the Committee.
I register my interest as a councillor in the borough of Kirklees, which is part of the Leeds combined authority, rather than Leeds City, for the 100% business rates retention scheme. The people in Kirklees would not be happy to think they were part of Leeds City, so we had better make that clear.
Not ever, I would say. As the Minister said, these are quite complex technical amendments, which, in the circumstances, I particularly welcome. Obviously, as he has indicated, they are to enable the so-called 100% business rates retention pilot authorities to come into existence next week.
I do not think that the Minister referred to the fact that the pilots lasted for only two years, as I understand it. That comes up against the deadline for the loss of government revenue support grant, and I would like to comment on that. First, the Minister described this as a very technical document, which it is. On other occasions I have referred to the opaque way in which these changes are referenced, and perhaps the Minister will be able to explain what they all mean. For instance, one of the formulae that amends Schedule 4 reads, in Regulation 9(4):
“(A-(B+C-D-E)) x 33%”.
It would be great if those of us involved in local authority finance were able to fathom what that means, because nowhere in the document is there any reference to what any of those letters refer to. One thing that we should do in these technical documents is to make it clear what the letters in the formulae refer to. I know that the regulations refer back to the original Act but I do not think that that is helpful for anybody who just looks at the amendments.
Secondly, the headline reference to 100% retention of business rates is misleading. It would help understanding and discussion at the end of the pilot period if that phrase were not used to describe what actually happens, which is that 100% goes out but then you have tariffs, top-ups, levies and safety nets to take into account. Certainly in some areas, those tariffs and top-ups are significant, and they change the way that we look at the delegation of business rates. Therefore, in my view we are looking not at genuine fiscal devolution but at changes in the way that business rates are redistributed. I support what is happening but we need to recognise that we are not talking about 100% due to the way that the money is divvied up.
Can the Minister provide us with some reassurance as to the progress of the fair funding review? How will the business rates retention scheme fit with that model, and how will an ever-diverging local government tax base be addressed to provide for equalisation of the funding system? This will be a challenge for government but it will be a very big headache for local authorities unless what the funding looks like and how the business rates retention scheme fits with that are made much clearer and more transparent.
Any business needs to plan two or three years ahead. We are facing 2020—which is 18 months away—when local authorities will be making decisions about their budgets, but those of us in local authorities have no idea what the funding system will look like. Will there be more—we optimists live in hope—or less, which is more likely? Where will the money come from and what will the requirements be from government for spending the ever-decreasing fund that we have?
I appreciate that these are very technical regulations and I broadly support the move towards giving local government greater control and responsibility over the funds that it has, but I look forward to the Minister’s response to some of my queries.
My Lords, I refer the Grand Committee to my relevant interests as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I should say at the outset that I am happy to support these regulations. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, has just said, this is a technical document and she made a valid point when she highlighted the formula. I must say that the key she is after would have belonged in the Explanatory Notes. It is strange that we have notes but no explanation of what the letters mean. It cannot be changed now, but perhaps it is something that the department should take back for the future. However, as I say, I support the regulations which are useful and will be helpful.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer a couple of questions. We will have 10 pilot authorities. How many actually applied for this? I might be wrong, but I think that it was around 24 authorities. What is the department doing in terms of providing feedback to the unsuccessful authorities to explain why they were not selected? If I was a member of an authority which had not been selected, I would certainly like to know why that was the case. There may be all sorts of reasons, but it would be useful to know what is said to those authorities which are not to be part of the scheme.
The noble Baroness also mentioned the fair funding review. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to say a little more about that. Can he confirm whether any councils will see a reduction in their income as a consequence of the fair funding review? Will everyone get a bit more or will they all remain as they are now? It would be useful if he could respond to that.
There is also the question of the business rates appeals. I think that something like 150,000 appeals have been hanging around since 2010. We have to deal with them because at the moment the system is not working. The Valuation Office Agency needs more resources to speed up its work because it would be better for everyone if these issues were resolved as quickly as possible. Some of these appeals now go back almost eight years so they need to be sorted out. Again, I would be grateful if the noble Lord can tell us something about the position.
I am also aware of the grant error set out in a Written Ministerial Statement published on 20 March. There appears to have been an overpayment of £36 million which the Government are not going to claw back this year, but may do so in the next financial year. How did the error come about? I would like to understand what has happened because it is quite a large sum of money. Has provision been made for councils to hand the money back or will the repayment be spread over future years?
With those few points, I am happy to approve the regulations.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for their contributions and I shall try to deal with the points raised. I am flying solo at the moment so one or two caveats may be entered here and there.
On the technical issue raised by the noble Baroness and echoed by the noble Lord about the nature of some of the schedules with the figures and letters set out in them which make Einstein look rather straightforward, perhaps I may get back to them to try to explain how they work.
I shall take up the point made by the noble Baroness about Leeds City Council. I have checked the schedule where it is referred to simply as “Leeds”, but I very much take the point she made about the fierce local loyalty in Kirklees and I readily understand the point she is making.
I gently disagree with the noble Baroness on fiscal devolution. This is significant fiscal devolution. Obviously, at the end of the day there have to be adjustments, which I think we all support. Without a smoothing mechanism, so that rich authorities contribute towards poorer authorities, the system would break down as being totally unfair. I understand the point that she makes, but I think that this is significant fiscal devolution.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness raised the fair funding review. In a sense, we have twin-track processes, both of which kick in in 2021. Significant work is being done on the fair funding review. I say to the noble Lord, without anticipating precisely what the review will show, which of course I cannot do, that I would be amazed if everywhere got a larger sum of money. That is not how it will work. I would have thought that some will get a lesser sum of money, while others will get more. The essence of it is that it will be fair.
The noble Lord asked how many applicants there were to be pilot authority areas. Twenty-six made an application. We have sought to explain to those authorities that were not chosen that the field was competitive, that there was a lot of interest and how we made the decisions. He then, fairly, raised the issue of appeals. He will know—we were both party to the discussion—that the check, challenge and appeal process that we are now adopting will significantly cut down the time taken for appeals. We are working alongside those that are appealing to cut down the time further. Considerable work needs to be done, but we are progressing that.
Lastly, the noble Lord, again fairly, raised the issue of Section 31 overpayments. We have taken the decision not to claw back the overpayment for the last financial year, so to that extent the authorities affected are all better off by virtue of that, but for the next financial year, 2018-19, we have decided that we are not going to overpay. Those authorities will get the correct amount of money. It is not as if we are clawing it back, as it has not been paid yet, but it will be a lesser amount than we were proposing to pay, because we got the figures wrong in the department. Mea culpa on that—lessons are being learned and there are red faces. As I say, this has resulted in a windfall for those authorities overpaid last year, but we are ensuring that this year we pay the correct amount—some £80 million less than it would have been if the error had not been spotted.
I am grateful to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their support. I will ensure that I respond to them on the points that I was unable to deal with, particularly the technical one about the figures and letters in the schedules. As I say, I am grateful for their support and I commend the regulations to the Committee.