Clause 1: Hereditaments occupied or owned by the same person
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 30, at end insert—
“( ) Any change made in the 2010 Rating Lists to the existence or extent of a hereditament by virtue of this section applicable on 31 March 2017 must also be given effect by the Valuation Officer in the 2017 Rating Lists, unless physical circumstances affecting the constitution of the hereditament changed on 1 April 2017.”
My Lords, I know that after Brexit, the question of business rates and council tax must be one of the high points of your Lordships’ week. With that in mind, I start by declaring my interests as the owner of business property and the occupier of business premises, my professional interests, and the fact that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Although business rates, the subject of this amendment, do not quite have the pull of Brexit, they are nevertheless of great significance to businesses. I suspect that, like Brexit, they will be a matter that we will still be debating long after the initial dust has settled. Moreover, the issue will be debated whatever the outcome of our relationship with Europe.
I pay a brief tribute to my two external advisers who have been helping me with these amendments, and to staff in the Minister’s department for their willingness to discuss, both formally and informally, matters to do with business rates that have concerned me over many months. I have a sort of private pact that I have just agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, to keep things brief, and I will do my best in that regard.
I hope Amendment 1 will be seen for what it is: a means of preventing unfairness and an aid to streamlining. I should explain that the Bill provides for business rate payers to seek to amend principally the 2010 list and later assessments, to which the Bill applies, affected as they were by the Supreme Court case of Woolway v Mazars. However, while under the Bill the facility to amend appears on the 2010 valuation list, a successful application under that list does not automatically translate into the assessment in the 2017 list. To me, this seems an oversight. In the absence of a material change of circumstances, the 2017 list should use the same general basis, valuation levels apart, as that which applied to the 2010 list.
This matters to ratepayers, billing authorities and business rates administration more generally. Amendment 1 seeks to remedy the matter by allowing the automatic carryover of an adjustment made pursuant to the Bill on a 2010 list assessment or assessments into the 2017 list. Without this provision, the business rate payer will have to make a de novo application under the 2017 list using the government portal that operates the system known as “check, challenge, appeal”. Noble Lords will know that I have raised significant concerns about the “check, challenge, appeal” procedure, principally at the end of last summer in a debate I secured for the purpose. Although it has improved, and I acknowledge that improvements continue to be made, for appellants it remains a barrier to fair access in terms of both the need to register the timeframes and the complexity of sorting out the various stages, especially if the matter is not considered clear-cut or is contested by the Valuation Office Agency. I once had the privilege of working for its predecessor organisation, the Inland Revenue Valuation Office, for nearly seven years.
I do not believe it should be necessary to jump through these hoops under the 2017 “check, challenge, appeal” process where a simple administrative adjustment would suffice. That is the purpose of the amendment and I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for his amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his contribution.
The measure we will deliver through Clause 1 has been welcomed by stakeholders. It will return the practice of the Valuation Office Agency back to the position that applied before the Supreme Court decision in Woolway v Mazars. As highlighted by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, it is important that we still consider how this measure will be implemented. In December last year, my department issued a consultation document that contained a draft of Clause 1 and set out how we plan to implement this change in the law. As we explained in that consultation, to protect ratepayers from unwanted backdated bills on the 2010 rating lists, we will allow ratepayers to choose whether they want their bill changed before 1 April 2017. We will achieve this by allowing a new right of appeal on the 2010 rating list for those ratepayers affected by Clause 1. I understand that my officials are already working with the Rating Surveyors Association and other professional bodies on the regulations to deliver this new right of appeal on the 2010 rating list.
For the 2017 rating list—about which I think the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, is concerned—the Valuation Office Agency will update the list as it becomes aware, through ratepayers and local authorities, of assessments impacted by the change in the legislation. Keeping an accurate rating list in this way is a normal part of the business rates system. Where appeals on the 2010 rating list mean that the valuation officer believes that the 2017 rating list also requires changes, I assure the Committee that these will be resolved by the Valuation Office Agency as part of its normal duty to maintain the list. Ratepayers will also be able to request a prioritised check of their 2017 rateable value if they believe it has been affected by the ruling.
From the consultation, we have seen widespread support for this approach to implementation. The amendment before us would require the valuation officer to make consequential changes to the 2017 rating list after they have resolved a case on the 2010 rating list. As I have said, it is the intention of the Valuation Office Agency to make these necessary changes. What is more, the requirement of the Valuation Office Agency to correct the 2017 rating list is already captured in primary legislation. That is significant. Under Section 41 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, the valuation officer is required to compile, and then maintain, local rating lists. Therefore, if through the settlement of an appeal on the 2010 rating list the valuation officer concludes that the 2017 rating also needs to be changed, they are duty bound to make that change. I can offer that legislative assurance. With those assurances, I hope the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very helpful reply. From what he has said, I appreciate that making these consequential amendments is a matter of the general duty of the Valuation Office Agency, as it deems necessary. I certainly did not intend to press my amendment at this stage. I will simply say this: resources that are destined to continue being cut year on year as part of a planned resource reallocation are of concern to practitioners who have to deal with the Valuation Office Agency. I hope these cuts will not mean that it is unable to make these sorts of consequential changes. On the basis of the Minister’s reassurance, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 2, line 30, at end insert—
“( ) Any refunds payable by a billing authority by virtue of assessment alterations directly consequential upon this section must be reimbursed to that authority by the Exchequer.”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 2, which is grouped with Amendment 4. In a sense, it is covered partly by subsection (2)(d) of the proposed new clause in Amendment 4 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I will let him speak to that at the appropriate moment.
I fully expect the Minister to say that under no circumstances will the sort of refunds that I am looking for be refunded to billing authorities. As I understood it—perhaps I used a somewhat extreme example at Second Reading and I will not use that one again—it is assumed that immediately after the Supreme Court case of Woolway v Mazars, billing authorities somehow swept into action like avenging angels to deal with all the various assessments that would have qualified under that, and therefore it is supposed that they might have made some sort of gain. I do not believe that has actually happened, or that billing authorities banked this dividend to any significant extent. That is a matter that perhaps warrants further investigation as to exactly what the situation is financially, but they might none the less find, as the effects of the Bill work their way through the system under the 2010 valuation, that they face with some sort of deficit. I felt it was unreasonable that billing authorities should suffer a material loss in that respect, so that is what Amendment 2 would deal with.
I support the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Shipley, on Amendment 4, which is grouped with my amendment, because one of the points made to me by the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation was that there has been very little assessment of the precise impact of much of this. That is a mistake and a lacuna. Local government finance—from what I can gather, not being directly involved with it myself—is in many cases in a critical situation. Budgets are on a knife edge and even seemingly small amounts—we do not really know what the magnitude is of all this—need to be dealt with. I therefore support that amendment, and in doing so I must declare that I am an honorary member of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation, having been, for much of my working lifetime, an ordinary subscribing member. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 4, on which my name appears, and remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The case was very well put by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, a moment ago. I am struck by the fact that this amendment, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and myself, seems to contain a reasonable set of proposals. I am particularly concerned by the noble Earl’s assertion that the professional bodies are saying that there has been little assessment of the impact and that we ought to know more. I have a particular concern about the authorities that are piloting the 100% retention of business rates. I very much hope that they will not be put in a position of having to refund more money than they originally gained. So this amendment—a probing amendment, in my view—seeks to ensure that the consequences of the Bill are well understood and reported to Parliament.
My Lords, I remind the House of my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, goes to the heart of the first part of the Bill, namely the positions some local authorities find themselves in—having to make refunds and potentially being out of pocket. In the 2017 Autumn Budget we heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer announce, following the decision of the Supreme Court, a return to the previous practice, and Clause 1 does just that. Business would further be allowed to ask the Valuation Office Agency to recalculate valuations so that business rate demand would be based on the previous practice, backdated to April 2010.
The Budget papers confirmed that the Government would fully compensate local government for loss of income—but then they had a change of heart and decided that if they had the extra money it was an unexpected windfall. The council would be very pleased about that, but if it had to pay anything back there would be no compensation for the authority concerned. The noble Earl’s amendment would require the Government to do exactly what they said they would do in the first place, and it has my full support.
Amendment 4 in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, would place in the Bill a requirement for the Government to undertake a review of the impact of the provisions in Clause 1. That seems a sensible and proportionate thing to do. The amendment would require the Government to have a review, sets out what it should cover and requires that the Government should lay it before both Houses of Parliament—but nothing beyond that. They would have to do nothing other than lay the review.
I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, responds to this probing amendment and the noble Earl’s amendment he will see the point that we are trying to highlight. We are trying to give the Government the tools to do the analysis to make sure that they have got this right.
My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have spoken on this amendment and for that very considerate point from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that he is trying to help the Government. I shall ensure that that is underlined when I get my copy of Hansard, and I appreciate his general approach on these issues.
I am grateful to noble Lords for raising this matter. The amendments before us would require a review of the impact of Clause 1. I agree with the point made many times by the noble Lord opposite; we probably have rather too many reviews, and this can sometimes get a little top-heavy. However, such a review would require compensation to be paid to local authorities for any refunds made to ratepayers as a result of Clause 1.
To assist the Committee in considering this, I will explain a little about how Clause 1 will be implemented by the Valuation Office Agency. Before I do, I remind the Committee that, as the noble Earl quite correctly anticipated, the Government do not intend to compensate local government for the reductions in rateable value that will flow from the implementation of Clause 1. This is not because we cannot estimate or measure those impacts—although there are considerable challenges in doing that. We are not compensating local government in this instance because the revenue it might have received from the Supreme Court decision in Woolway v Mazars was unexpected. Indeed, all professional bodies involved with rating, including the Rating Surveyors’ Association, viewed the Supreme Court’s decision as a surprise and an aberration: indeed, neither party to the case was arguing for it. It came as a surprise to political parties, too.
The decision disturbed the settled practice of rating as understood by valuation officers and ratepayers alike for decades. Therefore, any additional income was indeed a windfall. The noble Earl seemed perhaps to suggest that, if there had not been a refund or reduction, there was still the prospect of some obligation to repay. That is not the case. If the money has not been expended, there can be no question of any repayment. We are merely returning this windfall to ratepayers—something that I think is widely welcomed. In some cases these ratepayers have also lost small business rate relief as a result of having their property split. We do not believe that it is fair for these hard-working small businesses to be hit by large backdated bills, and we do not believe that it would be right for local government to benefit from revenue accrued in this way.
The amendments would require a review of the impact of Clause 1 and compensation for any refunds under it. Put simply, the impact of Clause 1 is to return the law to what it was always understood to be before the decision of the Supreme Court. It follows that, taken together, the combined financial impact of the Supreme Court decision and Clause 1 will therefore be neutral. So, in looking at just the impact of Clause 1 we are, in fact, looking at only part of the picture.
For those businesses whose rateable values were not adjusted by the Valuation Office Agency following the Supreme Court decision in Woolway v Mazars, there will be no change. The only situation in which there will be a repayment of business rates as a result of Clause 1 is where the Valuation Office Agency has amended rateable values to reflect the Supreme Court decision. That will be reversed.
The Bill will also allow those rateable values to be changed so that they once again reflect the practice of the Valuation Office Agency before the court decision. The way in which this will be implemented in practice by the Valuation Office Agency will be different in respect of the previous 2010 rating list compared to the current 2017 rating list. I will go into that in a bit more detail in a minute. I will ask the Valuation Office, because it does seem reasonable, to publish information as a consequence of Clause 1. I will make sure that any information that is readily to hand is published, that noble Lords receive a copy and that we leave a copy in the Library—because that will not involve any unreasonable burden at all.
Since 1 April this year the Valuation Office Agency has been unable to amend the 2010 rating list, other than as a result of an outstanding appeal. These rules protect ratepayers against very long periods of backdating, but they mean that, in this instance, ratepayers would see the benefit of the Bill in respect of the 2010 rating list only if they still have an outstanding rating appeal. Therefore, we will, through regulations and existing powers, allow a new right of appeal on the 2010 rating list for those ratepayers affected by the Bill. I assure noble Lords that it will be possible for local authorities and the Valuation Office Agency to identify these new appeals made as a result of the Bill and see the resulting change in the rateable value on the 2010 rating list. As I say, I will endeavour to ensure that information on that is passed to noble Lords.
These new 2010 appeals will, in part, provide the information sought in this amendment. However, they will not provide a complete picture of the impact, as some ratepayers will choose to use existing 2010 appeals, some of which may also deal with other, unrelated changes to the property or valuation. Therefore, the resulting change in rateable value will not always be an accurate reflection of the impact of Clause 1 alone—it is not necessarily that straightforward. Nevertheless, local authorities will be able to identify the new appeals on the 2010 rating list and see the resulting change in rateable value, and we expect these new appeals will, in part, give a reasonable guide to the impact of Clause 1 on the 2010 rating list.
I fear that it will be much more difficult to track the impact of Clause 1 on the current 2017 rating list. The Valuation Office Agency will implement Clause 1 on the 2017 rating list in the normal course of its business. For example, it may apply the new rules in Clause 1 in the course of putting new properties into the rating list, when correcting rateable values or when reflecting improvements or demolitions to the property. It may do this following a request from a local authority, following a check made by the ratepayer or using its own notices to amend the rating list. Within these different types of cases and different reasons for altering the rating list, the Valuation Office Agency cannot statistically isolate those which are due to Clause 1 alone. To resolve this, the VOA would have to manually examine each change and each valuation and calculate how much was due to Clause 1. Bearing in mind comments made with some justification about the financial impact of some of this on the VOA, this is not something we would want to do: it would be extremely resource intensive. Since this is an organisation responsible for clearing a backlog of 2010 appeals—something it is doing—implementing a new check, challenge and appeal system and delivering a revaluation in 2021, I am sure noble Lords will agree that we should not add to its burden in this way.
I fully understand that local government and others want an accurate view of the impact of Clause 1. I share that desire and have explained to noble Lords why this is so difficult on the current 2017 list. I hope I have reassured the Committee that some information will be made available in respect of the new appeals on the 2010 rating list that will be allowed once the Bill receives Royal Assent. As I said, I will ask the Valuation Office Agency to publish that information.
With regard to the Government’s stance on compensation, this does not signal any departure from the normal approach to compensating local government for changes to business rates introduced through the Budget. In this year alone, we expect to compensate local government to the tune of £1.5 billion for changes to the business rates system announced in previous Autumn Statements and Budgets. I hope the Committee will recognise that the circumstances of the Mazars Supreme Court decision and Clause 1 are very different in respect of so-called compensation. With all this in mind, I hope the noble Earl will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Is the Minister saying that the Chancellor did or did not say in the Budget that the Government were going to reimburse local government on these matters? I understood that the Chancellor had announced that the Government were going to reimburse local government but then the Government changed their mind.
My Lords, I say this with some hesitation because the noble Lord seems relatively certain about what he is saying, but I think I am right that in the 2017 Budget the Chancellor said that we were not going to reimburse local government in relation to this. I do not think that statement had been made before; or if it had, it was only shortly before. But I think in the 2017 Budget he made it clear that we would not be doing so. But that can be checked. As I say, I might be wrong on that.
That would be very helpful. Does the Minister have any estimate of the amount of money involved for local government? I accept that people have had the benefit of these sums of money for a period of time but, equally, everyone was surprised by the judgment of the Supreme Court. What are the sums of money involved for local government? They may be negligible or huge. We all know that local government is really pressed in terms of budgets and finance, and things are very difficult, with many competing demands. If it was a large amount of money, that could cause problems.
My Lords, from what I can gather—admittedly, it is anecdotal, from speaking to local government and getting a feel for this—this position is relatively evenly spread across the country, although focused more in the urban areas, as your Lordships would expect. Again, I cannot give a precise number but I do not think it is a massive one. If I can give a more precise indication, perhaps I will do that in a letter to noble Lords ahead of Report. I do not think it is a massive number, from what I can gather.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, and the Minister for his response. In defence of any appearance of lack of numeracy on my part, I say in connection with whether or not billing authorities have gained some windfall that the point outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is correct; namely, the budgetary process does not arise evenly or as an even offset or indeed even in a comparable year. But I do not proclaim to be an expert on local government budgeting and finance—thank goodness. I am only a humble valuer and therefore doomed to perdition for having only managed to get an O-level in ordinary maths. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 2.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
3: Clause 1, page 2, line 30, at end insert—
“( ) The Valuation Office Agency must forthwith upon the coming into force of this section publish on its website such advice and guidance as to the provisions of this section, and such means of identification of the hereditament, as to enable a ratepayer by accessing the online Rating Lists readily to check the status of their assessment and whether the provisions of this section apply to it.”
My Lords, this is another tidying-up amendment, which is really to ensure that there is adequate publicity for people wishing to avail themselves of the facility under the Bill, bearing in mind that there are a number of very complex matters involved in business rates. The amendment is intended to ensure that the Valuation Office Agency places on its website adequate,
“advice and guidance as to the provisions of this section”,
and the means whereby a business rate payer can make the necessary identification so that they can ascertain whether—and, if so, how—the provisions apply to this.
The wording is deliberate in setting out the publication process,
“forthwith upon the coming into force of this section”.
The reason why I say so is that at the end of last summer, when we discussed matters to do with business rates, I was given to understand that there would be guidance—for instance, on the question of how fines would be applied for misdeclarations of fact in going through the “check, challenge, appeal” process. I have not seen that information yet and I do not know whether it is available. I am not voicing this as a criticism; I am just saying that because of the particularly time-limited nature of the way in which the provisions will apply—particularly looking back into the 2010 list—it will be important that this information is published in a timely and reasonably prominent manner and, I hope, written in plain English. That is the purpose behind Amendment 3. I beg to move.
My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, I would like to pick up a point from the last group. I failed to address a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on the pilot business rate retention issue. We are speaking to the Local Government Association and others about that. It is not straightforward but we are not convinced that there is any loss. Still, I shall seek to address that in more detail in the letter. I apologise to him for not picking that up earlier.
I thank the noble Earl for moving this amendment, which would require the Valuation Office Agency to publish on its website guidance and advice on the effect of Clause 1. I understand and appreciate the motivation behind the amendment, backed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Business rates can be a complex area and confusing to ratepayers, and of course we support ideas that would give ratepayers more information to help them to plan for their business rates liability.
On Clause 1, I agree that it is especially important that the VOA provide clear guidance to ratepayers on when they may be affected. Clause 1 concerns contiguous properties that are assessed for rating in more than one part, but there are many reasons why a ratepayer may have seen their property split into two or more rating assessments. That will include properties whose rating assessments have split because of the Supreme Court decision in Mazars, but will not be limited to that. Clause 1 will change the law to mirror the practice of the VOA prior to the Supreme Court decision. Those ratepayers may therefore fall within Clause 1. However, there will be many other reasons why a rating assessment may have been split into several parts. A property may have seen physical change requiring it to have more than one rating assessment, for example, or part of the property may have been sublet. These splits are unlikely to be related to the Supreme Court decision, and those ratepayers will not be affected by Clause 1.
It is therefore important that we explain this to ratepayers. The VOA already has clear guidance on its website explaining in simple terms how the law currently applies under the Supreme Court decision, including some clear examples. I assure the Committee that once the Bill receives Royal Assent, the guidance will be quickly changed so that it explains the operation of the new law under Clause 1. I further assure the noble Earl that the VOA will share that guidance in draft with the professional bodies, including the Rating Surveyors’ Association. The noble Earl will therefore have the opportunity to consider this guidance from his expert perspective before it is published. I appreciate that we are very fortunate in having him look at this legislation in some detail because of his professional understanding of it. This, together with the information that ratepayers can already access about their own property on the VOA website, will provide ratepayers with the information that they need to decide whether they fall within Clause 1.
I hope that with these assurances the noble Earl will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his support. The Minister probably credits me with a great deal more expertise than I feel I actually possess, but that is probably because, the more one knows about something, the more one realises one does not know. That seems to be one of the facts of life that one has to face. But I am reassured by what he said in terms of making sure that the information is readily available on the Valuation Office Agency’s website. Obviously, I am aware of some of the advice generally on that website, which for the most part seems to me to be clear. I thank the Minister for the assurances that he has given and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Amendment 4 not moved.
Clause 2: Higher amount for long-term empty dwellings
5: Clause 2, page 2, line 33, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) Section 11B of the LGFA 1992 (higher amount for long-term empty dwellings: England) is amended as follows.(1A) In subsection (1)(b) (maximum percentage by which council tax may be increased), leave out “of not more than 50 as it may so specify” and insert “as specified in subsection (1A)”.(1B) After subsection (1), insert—“(1A) If a dwelling has been empty for—(a) between two years and five years, the percentage is not more than 100;(b) between five years and ten years, the percentage is not more than 200;(c) more than ten years, the percentage is not more than 300.””
My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my entry in the register of interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a councillor in the borough of Kirklees in West Yorkshire.
As I made clear at Second Reading, we are broadly supportive of the measures in this Bill. Clause 2 gives powers to local authorities to increase the financial incentive to owners who have empty properties to encourage those same owners to take action so that their empty property can be brought back into use. This financial incentive can, of course, also be seen as a financial penalty. The purpose is clear: to ensure that the many thousands of long-term empty homes become homes for families once more. As there is a crisis in the supply of housing, we think that penalty is justified. Indeed, local authorities have the discretion as to whether to take advantage of the powers in this Bill, and there are exemptions to safeguard owners where homes are empty for wholly understandable and legitimate reasons.
Nevertheless, we want to explore more variation of the additional powers in the form of an escalator. The proposals in the Bill provide for the power to impose a 100% premium for homes left empty for two years or more. The proposal in this amendment is to increase that premium up to 200% for properties that are empty between five and 10 years, and up to 300% for those properties that are empty for 10 years or more and do not obviously fall within the exemptions already described in the legislation—in other words, to increase the financial penalty or incentive, whichever way you look at it, the longer the property is kept empty. This amendment is tabled to explore the potential of this approach. Can the Minister indicate whether increasing the council tax premium in this way will have the desired effect of bringing more long-term empty properties back into use?
One reason for this approach is because previous government legislation has not been anywhere near as effective as it was hoped to be. The empty dwelling management order of 2006, then amended in 2011, is far too complex and costly for local authorities to implement, except in extremis, so it has been used on very few occasions, considering the extent of the problem of long-term empty properties. Local authorities have tended to use other less legalistic methods of tackling the scourge of empty homes. It is apparent from the statistics of longer term empty homes that more needs to be done—hence the proposals in the Bill and hence our amendment. We support the council tax premium way of doing this, but are proposing in this amendment to extend the variation to take account of the length of time in which a property has lain empty. I beg to move.
I will speak to Amendment 7, which looks at the same issue but with a different point in mind. The intention of tackling the issue of empty homes is laudable. I support the proposals in the Bill—I could hardly do otherwise, having been the Minister who introduced them in the coalition Government. The test of time over the last few years has shown that the escalation proposed here is a legitimate and practical measure and it is a good thing to expand it.
I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend on the Front Bench as well, but this amendment has a different perspective. It is a way of supporting improvement in the energy performance of buildings. The general aim of the Bill is clearly to get homes back into use as quickly as possible. That produces a risk of short cuts and of doing things the quickest and cheapest way possible, in order to avoid the penalty—or, as my noble friend said, the incentive—of the increased council tax payment by getting it done and let or sold as quickly as possible. That is the Bill’s general and laudable aim. The amendment aims to mitigate that risk in the situation where somebody is prepared to increase the energy performance of the home. It limits the additional payment that a local authority can charge if the developer or owner improves the energy performance of a property in refurbishing or redeveloping it.
That is the principle; Amendment 7 is just one simple illustration of how that might be done. The amendment says that there would be a 25% reduction in penalty if the energy performance of the home was going to be increased by at least two energy performance levels. In other words, if it is raised from level E to level C, or from D to B, there would be only a 75% increase replacing the numbers in the Bill. There are clearly plenty of other options. I have played around with a few of them, but just bringing forward the most simple and basic version allows the Committee to consider the general principle. I would be more than happy to discuss with Ministers the best way of introducing this approach before Report. It avoids, or at least lowers, the risk of cutting corners to get work finished at the expense of energy performance. It nudges those doing refurbishment to have more ambition in reaching energy performance without, at the same time, having to look at their back pocket and what might be lost if they take an extra few weeks to do the work.
More widely, this is a plea for joined-up legislation. The Government have decided not to proceed with the Green Deal or zero-carbon homes. On the other hand, they have introduced new rules for energy performance standards for lettings. This is a simple mechanism to produce a good outcome. I urge the Minister to adopt it, if not in the detail which I proposed then on the principle, which we can work on before Report.
My Lords, this is an interesting group of amendments. My amendment in this group is Amendment 6, which simply seeks to increase to 200% the amount of extra council tax that can be levied on an empty property. We all agree that we want to bring long-term empty properties back into use, and these amendments would give local authorities the discretion to use these powers.
Having said that, I very much like Amendment 5, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock; it provides for an escalator, which I think works very well. The longer a property was empty, the more you would potentially pay, and that could be a good incentive to get people to bring their empty property back into use. I also like Amendment 7, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, which would take account of whether people had spent money on their property to make it more energy efficient. The increase would be discounted or reduced to take account of that, and that seems a very sensible thing to do. Amendment 10 is just a tidying-up amendment.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that these are interesting ideas. Perhaps if we could all get together and have a discussion and we brought something back on Report, the Government might support it. I think that there is something here that could improve the Bill dramatically.
My Lords, I have some mixed feelings about the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. In my own mind, I cannot quite get my head round whether this is to be a charge to discourage long-term empty properties as defined in the Bill or, in effect, an escalating fine. It seems to me that the two are slightly different.
At Second Reading, I highlighted the fact that there is a general lack of information about the reasons for long-term vacancy, and the high probability is that it varies quite a lot from one area to another. For instance, in some former industrial cities, whole streets of Victorian housing may have lain empty for some time because no one wants to occupy them.
On the definition of “empty dwelling”, it is a moot point, as far as I can see, as to the ease or difficulty of chasing the sums of money involved, as is the likelihood or otherwise of the “empty dwelling” label simply evaporating. I think that I may have used the example of an itinerant with a van load of cheap second-hand furniture going around populating odd properties that might otherwise be subject to this. The point is made not entirely in jest, because there is no plumbing the ingenuity of people who wish to avoid some impost or other.
Another point is that there is a reputational risk if one is not careful here. I seem to remember that, not very long ago, one local authority was said to be investigating the contents of people’s refuse bins, and I would hate to think of local government being again painted into that sort of scenario. One needs to be careful to ensure that there is a justifiable reason for an escalator.
If we are talking about what is in effect a fine, there would need to be a clear and justified framework as to how that would apply, possibly with provision for making an appeal against the charge. Now, I am not clear what happens about appeals against things like this. I am clear what happens with an appeal against one’s business rate assessment, and I am clear what happens with an appeal against a council tax banding. What I am not clear about is, where something like this comes in by dint of this type of legislation, if someone thinks that it has been unfairly applied, where do they go? I hope that a noble Lord, or a noble Baroness, with better knowledge than I have will tell me what the situation is.
I rather took to Amendment 7 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. As we heard at Second Reading, there can be a number of different reasons why vacancy and long-term empty property status can apply. I think of the minimum energy standards regulations which came into force only a couple of months ago, making it impossible to let a property with an EPC of less than E. I think of the many hard-to-insulate properties—those Victorian properties with nine inch solid walls or suspended floors, where it is difficult to get insulation to the required standard.
In essence, the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is right: there is often a local need to take a differential approach. I would appreciate the Minister saying how differential he thinks that that needs to be, or can be: whether it is endless or will be circumscribed in some way. I think of areas I know well in national parks, where you occasionally come across properties that are long-term empty, but also in former industrial cities, to which I referred. One needs to be careful about that. I do not have a solution, but I simply flag up those issues for further consideration.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate. I am most grateful to those noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, who tabled the amendments on the level of the empty homes premium, as they allow us to discuss the factors we have to consider in deciding the maximum charge on empty homes in setting the framework for local authorities. I reiterate that, once we have set the framework, this a discretionary measure for local authorities: something we are giving local authorities discretion to administer, according to their local needs and personalised or very localised factors affecting particular properties.
I think we all agree that there is a clear case for increasing the cap on the premium that applies to long-term empty properties. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, gave distinguished service in the coalition Government—I think in my current role—and rightly referred to the importance of the issue. We have borne down on it. My noble friend Lord Patten, who is not in his place, referred at Second Reading to how the number has reduced—we have squeezed it very effectively—but there is still more to do.
The debate is about the level to which we should take this charge and the circumstances in which it should apply. These are the difficult judgments we face. We propose through the Bill that owners of long-term empty homes should see their council tax bills double. This is a major step in allowing local authorities to incentivise such owners to bring their homes back into productive use.
One amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would mean that owners of empty homes would be paying triple the level of council tax payable on occupied homes within two years, or within one year if his other amendment were to be enacted. In fairness, that is from the Labour Party manifesto. Perhaps it is all the more surprising that nothing happened in the other place on the Bill: no amendment was proposed, still less debated. That said, it is something we should discuss.
Under the amendments supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, properties empty for between five and 10 years could face premiums of up to 200%, and those empty for more than 10 years could be subject to 300% premiums. I of course understand the rationale behind the amendments, and as homes are remaining empty for longer and longer, the logic of that is obvious: the figure goes up after five years and after 10 years. In addition, empty properties can be a nuisance to local residents, and potentially sites of crime or squatting. I share the concern about the need for robust measures to tackle what may become, and often are, blots on the landscape, to the benefit of those seeking a place to live as well as of local communities as a whole. I think we all understand that.
We have considered whether doubling the charge is enough, and we have to strike a balance in making this judgment. But I have concerns that increasing the cap even further for some or all cases may give rise to problems of principle. The noble Earl discussed whether we are being punitive or whether this fulfils some basic housing principle, and we have to look at that as well. However, as I say, I follow the logic of the argument. Noble Lords will know that the purpose of the council tax system is to generate revenue that councils need to fund local services, including adult social care, children’s services, refuse collection and leisure facilities. I recognise that the level of the premium is, therefore, ultimately a matter of judgment. But one issue that increasing the cap raises is whether we would then be moving, as I say, from the tax being a source of funding to a more punitive type of measure.
The noble Earl asked me how a particular premium being placed on a particular property could be challenged. Given that this is a matter for the discretion of the local authority, provided that it is within the parameters we are setting out in this legislation, it cannot be easily challenged. It cannot be challenged on any of the principles but only on the basis of judicial review where there is misapplication, somebody has shown bias in reaching the decision, or there has been failure to declare an interest where the council has reached such a decision in specific circumstances that would go towards the bona fides of the decision itself, rather than the principle behind it. Therefore, it would not be easily challenged, if at all, and only in those specific circumstances.
To move to a more punitive measure may have unintended consequences. For example, there may be cases where home owners struggle to sell or rent out a property within the two-year limit—although I accept that the longer escalator provision is unlikely to catch people in the same way. Others may face financial or other difficulties because of structural repairs. It is therefore important that we strike a careful balance between providing a strong incentive, which I think we are all in favour of, for bringing empty homes back into use and not disproportionately penalising struggling home owners. I am keen to get that right. The aim is to strengthen the incentive. A universal 100% cap will provide flexibility for local authorities to incentivise the reuse of long-term empty properties, and of course they have a discretion within that.
That brings me to the second major issue raised by this group of amendments and by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell: setting a lower premium cap of 75% within the framework for long-term empty dwellings that are undergoing works to increase their energy rating by two or more levels. Again, I can appreciate the sentiment underlying this amendment—particularly as I was previously in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, as it then was—and the desire to ensure that people making their empty properties more energy efficient receive a measure of relief. I am sure that many local authorities would, like me, see the merits in such considerations. But that is not to say that we should mandate it from the centre. As the noble Lord hinted, there are other admirable principles we could seek to address in the same way—perhaps enhancing in a sensible way the environment that surrounds the building if it has a public use, for example, such as being open to the public. There may be many localised reasons why a particular council might want to give some relief here, and it is best dealt with locally, although that is not to say that this is not a noble principle.
We have always been clear that it is for local authorities to decide whether to use the premium. Most do so—I think only 30 local authorities do not—but that is a matter for local authorities, as is the level of the premium under the maximum level we set. Imposing a rule on local authorities would also add complexity to the administration of the premium. We could undermine its effectiveness if we started to mandate reductions for particular circumstances, noble though those are. I see no reason to change our approach.
It may be helpful to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness to remind them that if an authority wishes to reduce the council tax liability of a property for any reason, including in support of energy efficiency, it has powers to do so under Section 13A of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, quite apart from the area of law that we are looking at today.
In addition, we recognise that home owners may renovate their homes for a wide range of reasons, including for energy efficiency purposes. The two-year period before the premium comes into effect provides an appropriate length of time for such works to be completed, whether they are for energy efficiency purposes or something else. This is one of the reasons why we oppose reducing the qualifying period to one year—if I may anticipate that point.
As I have said, I think we all recognise the benefits of a measured increase in the premium cap. We may not agree on the level of that charge. I understand the argument that has been put in relation to the escalator. Without committing us to adopting it, I am happy to consider it further and discuss it ahead of Report. We still have to consider the risk that we could disproportionately penalise those who might be struggling to bring their properties back into productive use.
I am certainly willing to discuss the escalator without prejudice to an ultimate decision, but the energy efficiency points are best left to local authorities. I can see the strength of the argument put by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, but localised decision is best. With that, I urge noble Lords not to press their amendments.
I thank everybody for contributing to this debate. The escalator idea was a bit of a shot in the dark and it has generated some useful comments. I am grateful to the Minister for responding relatively positively to the idea.
I absolutely support the energy performance amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Stunell. It is a pity that the Minister thinks that it will be too difficult to pursue further. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his supportive comments.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said this was complex. He asked whether the escalator is a penalty and whether the 300% premium that I have proposed for very long-term empty properties goes too far. Right from the outset, it can be viewed as a penalty, because it is not related to service provision or the rateable value or banding of your house in the way that other council tax is. In that sense, it is a penalty—or it could be seen as an incentive because we are trying to bring more empty homes back into use.
Other methods have been tried—I referred to the empty dwelling management orders—and have not been successful in bringing empty homes back into use. There is a scourge of long-term empty properties across the country. My gut feeling is that local residents would support an escalator on the grounds that very long-term empty homes are a blight on their community. I have them where I live. There is such a property at the end of a terrace of homes. Everything is overgrown, with grass and trees beginning to grow out of the gutters. It has not been used for years. Nobody seems to know where the owner is. There is a problem that we ought to try to address, because from local residents’ point of view it is not just the blight on their community but the fact that they are seeing their usually much-loved green spaces built on to provide the homes this country needs, when at the same time they can see properties that have been empty and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. Any measure that will provide greater incentives for owners to bring those dwellings back into use would be generally supported by council tax payers.
I think I have covered all the issues that have been raised. I thank the Minister for saying this is worth considering. As I said at the beginning, this was a bit of a shot in the dark. Let us have a think about an escalator rather than a set time limit, because the longer homes are empty, the worse they become for people who live around them. There should be a penalty in order to get some action to bring such dwellings back into use, so that people can live in them and the community in which other people live is not blighted in that way.
Given all that, and the fact that we are in Committee, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendments 6 and 7 not moved.
8: Clause 2, page 2, line 35, at end insert—
“( ) In section 11B of LGFA 1992 (higher amount for long-term empty dwellings: England), in subsection (8) (definition of a long-term empty dwelling), for “2 years” substitute “1 year”.”
My Lords, this amendment, which has already been referred to, seeks to change the length of time specified in the definition of a long-term empty property from two years to one. As with the amendments in the previous group, it is an attempt to improve the situation by reducing the number of empty properties and get more properties back into use by incentivising owners. It is in that vein that I move this amendment. In short, this probing amendment seeks to halve the amount of time required before a property can be considered a long-term empty dwelling.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who is not in his place, is grouped with mine. It is an interesting amendment because it requires local authorities to determine what constitutes a long-term empty property in their areas. Perhaps we can return to it on Report when the noble Lord is, I hope, in his place. I beg to move.
My Lords, I missed most of the earlier debate and the commencement of this one but I have two or three questions that the Minister might be able to help me with now or, if not, to write to me about. My questions arise after listening earlier to my noble friend Lord Lytton. I know of men, for instance, who care for their mothers who are getting frail and elderly, and I can imagine a man in a rather unattractive rental area in the north who has a property which he vacates so that he can live with his mother and look after her. It is all a bit too much to manage as money is short and there is not much demand by people wanting to use that property. I would not want someone like that to have to pay a fine. Local authorities are very tough on those who do not pay their council tax. I imagine that that may well have been dealt with in earlier debates, and I am sorry that I could not be here for those. However, that is an example of something that might happen.
I guess that this discussion brings up the question of how we make the private rented sector attractive so that there are not areas in the north of England where it is difficult to find people to rent properties.
I am just a bit concerned that we seem to think that all these problems are in the north of England, where I live. I would rather that we were all a bit more careful about how we describe the north of England. There are some wonderful places there in which to live and, like everywhere else, including this great city of London, there are some not so pleasant places in which to live. I hope that noble Lords do not mind me saying that we should not always use the north as an example of an area where there are difficult places to live.
I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention and I very much take note of what she says. I will try to be a bit more careful. There are certain places in this country where it is more difficult to let private property, and that is what I might have said.
What comes out of the debate is the question of how we make private rented property more attractive in those areas where it can be difficult to let. This might be a bit off the board but, as there are not enough properties to buy, it seems very important that rental property is made a more attractive option. I believe that the Government had been thinking of introducing new tenure arrangements so that tenants could have a minimum of three years’ security of tenure. If the Minister can say what progress there has been on that, or perhaps write to me with the information, I shall welcome hearing from him.
It also occurs to me that the private rented sector might benefit from some sort of arm’s-length body to oversee security of tenure and fair rents so that the winds of politics do not intervene in the market too much, making long-term investment unattractive and putting people off becoming tenants. That is another issue on which I would be interested to hear from the Minister, and, again, he might like to write to me about that rather than respond now. The Government are introducing an ombudsman with responsibilities in these areas, and people might have recourse to him or her if they experience unfair treatment. Perhaps the Minister can respond on that as well.
Finally, I might not have declared my interest as a landlord, as listed in the register.
I thank noble Lords very much for their contributions. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, is not in his place at present but he lobbed in a hand grenade, as it were, before departing the scene. I appreciate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and will try to address some of the suggestions from the noble Lord, Lord Bird. He is always worth listening to on this area in particular, but he always has some innovative ideas.
I am grateful to noble Lords for raising the question of how the legislation will apply. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is suggesting a one-year vacancy. I am also grateful for the cross-party support that we have received in both Houses for the measure that we are bringing forward, and I appreciate the points about possible refinements.
We are not seeking to alter the circumstances in which the premium is applied. Ninety per cent of local authorities applied a premium in 2017-18, and we are not aware of widespread concern that the two-year period is inappropriate. I feel that one year might be far too short a period in many circumstances. There are some exceptions where the premium does not apply, one of which is people going into social care, which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised. However, situations that are not exceptions include that of people who might be adapting a property and trying to sell it. I fear that in those circumstances a year would be too short a period, and I have no doubt that there are other situations where that would be the case as well.
I understand the rationale for decreasing the qualifying period at a time of great concern about empty properties, but I remind the House that we have squeezed the number of empty properties down to a low level—a level that it has not been at for a long time, if at all. We have to make a judgment about how long the timeframe should be. I know from correspondence that the department has received that some home owners take longer than expected to sell or rent out their properties in a challenging local market. In such circumstances, retaining the two-year qualifying period therefore strikes the right balance. I understand the point that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, made about his desire to strengthen the incentive.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, would allow councils to decrease or increase the qualifying period as they see fit. Local authorities would be given complete freedom to remove the requirement that a property be substantially unfurnished in order to be considered empty. I am happy to address those points. Although we should support giving councils as much discretion as is reasonable, the noble Lord’s amendment could lead to a confusing situation where the property, depending on where it is located, could attract premiums after just a few months or after quite a few years.
The principle of specifying that an empty property is one which is substantially unfurnished is well understood, and we will come on to amendments addressing that issue later. The risk of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, is that it would give local authorities an open door to extend that definition to types of properties that are not genuinely empty. Premiums could be applied to furnished properties that are periodically occupied either because they are someone’s second home or a job-related home or simply because the owner is away on holiday. I know there are views about second homes and properties that might be considered to be underoccupied, but this legislation is about long-term empty properties, which is a different matter. The design of the system already provides the right balance of flexibility for local authorities.
On the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the impact of these provisions, I remind the House that local authorities have a discretion they can apply either in relation to excluding properties along the energy-efficiency line suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, or in terms of something highly personalised which relates to a particular property and the person in it. That is why it is best left to the local level to determine this issue.
The noble Earl also asked about the private rented sector and three-year leases. We are committed to dealing with this issue, which has strong support from the sector, and we are making progress. He will be aware that the private rented sector has grown significantly, and continues to grow. We are putting in place a framework that will apply in a reasonable way, with tenant fees proposals—which we will be looking at shortly—and that addresses the control of deposits, requires client money protection and so on. I will cover that in the normal write-round letter that I will issue to pick up the points made by the noble Earl.
With the comments I have made about how we are not persuaded of the need to alter the minimum period from two years to one year or anything below two years, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to withdraw his amendment.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I am happy to withdraw my amendment at this stage. This amendment and those in the previous group were designed to explore whether we have got this right. I may wish to come back to these amendments—particularly those in the previous group—on Report, but I am happy to withdraw this amendment given what I have heard from the noble Lord.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
11: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Definition of long-term empty dwelling
In section 11B of the LGFA 1992 (higher amount for long-term empty dwellings: England), after subsection (8) insert—“( ) The Secretary of State must by regulations provide guidance to billing authorities on how to determine whether a dwelling is “unoccupied” or “substantially unfurnished”, under subsection (8).””
My Lords, this amendment seeks definitions of the terms “unoccupied” and “substantially unfurnished” dwellings. On the face of it, the descriptions pose no difficulties of interpretation—but in practice that is far from the position. Is a dwelling unoccupied if it is used for, say, all but two or three weekends in a year? Does that usage enable the property to be classified as, for instance, a second home? What does “unoccupied” mean? Under the Bill there would be a significant financial cost to the owner if the dwelling is deemed to be unoccupied—one that a homeowner might well challenge if there is no clarity as to the definition.
There is a similar fog around the meaning of “substantially unfurnished”. There must have been calls for clarity from the local government sector, because in September 2014 the DCLG, as it then was, sent a letter to local authorities headed:
“Council Tax Information Letter: Council Tax—Definitions of Empty Homes and Second Homes”.
In my view, the letter does little to clarify the definitions. It states, unhelpfully, that it,
“outlines the current situation and the Department’s informal view on these matters”.
In other words, the descriptions provided have no basis and are open to challenge. For instance, it states:
“There is a misconception that the premium”—
on council tax—
“is easy to avoid by simply placing some furniture into a property. We do not have evidence that this is the case. ‘Substantially unfurnished’ is not defined in council tax legislation, but is used for the purposes of the empty homes discount regime and the empty homes premium”.
So it says that, while there is no evidence that people are putting furniture into property, “substantially unfurnished” is not defined. I am seeking a definition. If these penalties or premiums on council tax are to be raised significantly, local authorities require further guidance on what “substantially unfurnished” means.
The letter further states:
“Local authorities will have formed their own views on the definitions”—
which of course may result in a multitude of definitions of “substantially unfurnished”, and that could lead in turn to disputes. I quote again from the letter:
“A property which is substantially unfurnished is unlikely to be occupied or be capable of occupation. A property which is capable of occupation can reasonably be expected to contain some, if not all, items from both of the following categories: furniture such as bed, chairs, table, wardrobe or sofa, and white goods such as fridge, freezer or cooker”.
Noble Lords will recognise that properties which are left unoccupied often contain such items as are listed, as they are nowhere near as valuable as they once were and so are not worth removing.
The letter goes on to explain further checks that can be made. For instance, it suggests that,
“it will be reasonable for the local authority to cross-check with the electoral roll, or ask for evidence, such as utility bills showing usage of services, driving licence as proof of address, or receipts or other proof of moving costs”.
Of course, that means that the owner can be traced—but in my experience of properties in the neighbourhood where I live, certainly long-term empty properties, that is often not the case. I am sure that the Minister knows that many property owners now live abroad and are difficult to contact. Certainly, my experience of the electoral roll is that it is not a sure test of occupancy in either direction.
In our view, the Government have a responsibility through regulations to provide guidance to billing authorities on how to determine whether a dwelling is unoccupied or substantially unfurnished. The financial cost to an owner of a dwelling that has been classed as unoccupied could be significant, so natural justice demands that local authorities have that legal guidance. Failure to provide such guidance may result in local authorities not using the powers provided for in the Bill, for fear of a legal challenge and the inability to get the supporting evidence. This would undermine the whole purpose of the Bill, the direction of which I support: namely, to try to get empty homes back into use by families, whether in the relatively short term or the very long term, and to cut the need for the building of even more homes on greenfield or green-belt land. I beg to move.
My Lords, this part of the Bill is about empty dwellings. My noble friend Lady Pinnock asked some important questions about the meaning of “unoccupied” and “substantially unfurnished”. I want to address a crucial, related issue: second homes that are substantially, although not completely, unoccupied. The Minister may be aware of a parliamentary petition to close the loophole that allows second home owners to pay business rates rather than council tax. The petition states:
“In England, second home owners can avoid council tax by claiming to be a business if they say they are available for letting for 140 days a year—they do not have to actually let at all. As their rateable value is below £12k, they also qualify for 100% small business rate relief—so pay nothing”.
In Southwold on the Suffolk coast, where many houses are second homes, research by Liberal Democrat colleagues suggests that this loophole may cost the local council about £500,000 a year in lost revenue. Crucially, second home owners in England only have to say that their properties are available for letting to qualify as a business, even if they are not actually let.
However, in Wales—the Minister will know that many good ideas come out of Wales—it is a requirement that any house designated as a business, rather than being liable for council tax, must be let for a minimum of 70 days. In one sense, that number is comparatively low, amounting to just over two months a year. However, it is a very important figure because it effectively prevents a second home owner avoiding paying council tax by registering the house as a business and then falling below the small business threshold.
In discussion on the Bill, the Member of Parliament for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, asked:
“Will the Minister also use this opportunity to ensure that those who own second homes are contributing their fair share through council tax, and that they are not able to sidestep that by opting to pay business rates and then claiming eligibility for small business rate relief?”
Dominic Raab, the Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, replied:
“We have also made changes on holiday homes in the context of council tax and stamp duty. We will keep the point she raises under due consideration”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/4/18; col. 649.]
Indeed, the Government have done that, but I hope that they will review this issue in much greater detail because the impact of both the reforms I mentioned—council tax and stamp duty—has been limited. I also hope that, when the Minister said that the Government would give it due consideration, it was not an attempt to push the issue into the long grass, but rather an acknowledgement that the department is indeed giving it due consideration.
Returning to Suffolk for a moment, I want to pay tribute to the work of local campaigners there for what they have undertaken so far. The Suffolk coastal communities embrace some of the largest proportions of second home owners in the United Kingdom. This impacts on the cohesion of these communities and pushes up house prices, reducing the available housing stock for local people.
I want to acknowledge that many second home owners do pay council tax. They can contribute to community life and they might hold a property as part of their future retirement plans to live in the area. However, business rates relief exists to help struggling businesses, not second home owners. Will the Government look at this issue in much closer detail and order an urgent review of the whole system? It is not that I am against second home owners: I am not against them. However, it does seem to be unfair that people who can afford two homes are subsidised by people who cannot afford to own one home.
My Lords, I support the comments that have just been made. As the former Member of Parliament for Suffolk Coastal and as someone of whom, if you asked him where he really lived, the answer would be in Suffolk—although not coastal Suffolk—I am the owner of a second home. It is a situation in which I am happy to pay my council tax in full, as I do in my small flat in London. That is how we operate, and I think that is right. One just has to recognise that there are circumstances in which people have to work in one place and live in another, and that is absolutely acceptable.
I emphasise the point about the coastal communities of Suffolk, which I represented for so long. I saw the change; it was fascinating. Southwold was but latterly added to my former constituency—as they moved me closer and closer to the sea, people said that they were trying to tell me something. It has very largely become a place of second homes, and so has Aldeburgh and, increasingly, many other villages round about. It is a real problem for community cohesion; I understand that, having committed myself to the view that people should be allowed to have—and very often need—a second home. However, I do not support the idea that people can avoid their proper contribution to the community by using what has elegantly been referred to as a loophole. It is worse than that, because they are telling a direct lie. They are not running a business; they have no intention of running a business. They are trying to get the business rate and then not to pay it because they have the small business special arrangement. Of course, however, you can be a small business even if you do not let anything. It is not difficult. We could all be a small business if making nothing were the purpose of being a small business. With my family, I own and run small businesses, but we intend to make a profit, otherwise there is not much point in us doing it. However, to run a small business in order not to make a profit and to get the profit from the community is entirely unacceptable.
I want to make some difficult comments. I have now been in one or the other House of Parliament for a very long time. It does not matter which Government are in power—or which mixture, as sometimes it is a coalition—when they want to avoid dealing with something, they always promise the most careful consideration and the most urgent assessment of the real issues that may well arise. They warn that there may be other unintended consequences, meaning that one should not move too quickly. Sometimes they suggest that, although they have looked at it, they have not found quite the right answer, but the House can be assured that such an answer will be found, but not yet. I say to my noble friend, whom I respect enormously, as he knows—I have told him so from time to time—that Wales is right on this. Wales is right on quite a number of things in the climate change committee. I have to remind the United Kingdom Government how much better in some things Wales and Scotland are at moving on climate change. It is not surprising that Wales is right on this.
We have to deal with this for a reason that is not just about equity—although that is very important—or the resources of Suffolk Coastal District Council; I do not have to declare an interest there because I live in the Mid Suffolk District Council area. That reason is social cohesion, in the sense that it annoys, upsets and very often angers people that their neighbours are not paying what they are paying for local services. I do not think it is acceptable or reasonable and it seems something very simple to change. All we have to do is what the Welsh have done. It would be jolly nice to acknowledge that the Welsh got there first and that we in the rest of the United Kingdom are following suit.
My Lords, briefly, I endorse the comments made in the debate so far, particularly those from the noble Lord, Lord Deben. He is absolutely right. Suffolk is a beautiful part of the world. I know that as well as him; I spend a fair bit of time down there. It is a wonderful place. He is absolutely right that people should not be allowed to pretend to have businesses and to take advantage of these things to avoid paying what they are supposed to pay to provide for local services. That is completely wrong. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate he can give us some comfort that the Government will look at this. It is totally out of order. If someone lives in an area they should contribute to the services provided by the local authority.
I thank noble Lords very much indeed for what has been an interesting and diverting debate on this amendment. I will seek to deal with all the points that have been made. I will deal with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, relating to the definitions of “unoccupied” and “substantially unfurnished”; then I will seek to deal with the issues relating to second homes brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, reinforced by my noble friend Lord Deben and briefly addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy.
The definitions are clearly important to the successful operation of the premium. Indeed, they are already important to its successful operation because it already uses these terms. It is something that more than 90% of local authorities are already doing. In so far as I can see, none of them is having difficulty interpreting these terms. If anyone can come forward with some issue they feel needs addressing I would be very happy to look at it. It is of course right that local authorities must understand the meaning of these terms and that they are applied consistently across England, as I said on an earlier group of amendments. I certainly share that view.
It might assist noble Lords if I explained a little about these terms. I do not want to repeat what the noble Baroness said about the information letter of 2014, although the more she said the more I felt that we have covered these points. You cannot produce a 100% reliable definition by saying how many cups and saucers you can have left in a cupboard or how many forks and spoons can be in the drawer. To say that these furniture items would normally be there—a bed, chairs, a table, a wardrobe, a sofa, and white goods such as a fridge, freezer or a cooker—is as good as it gets for guidance.
I think that the noble Baroness said at one stage that it was not always possible to have utility bills and that some people were overseas and so on. If that is the case, it will be very difficult for them to reinforce the fact that the property is being used. That is the whole point: these people might seek to have their property as occupied so that they do not have to pay the empty home premium. If they cannot establish it, because they are overseas or so on, that seems absolutely correct. As I say, I am very happy to engage with the noble Baroness and others to look at this issue if they can bring forward evidence that local authorities are having particular difficulties with this. However, in the light of the letter and in the light of case law, I do not think that this is an issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, referred to an issue extraneous to this legislation but very germane. I thought at first that there must be some by-election pending in Southwold from the fact that he seemed to be focused on the Suffolk coast—I am happy to see him shaking his head. I know he does not indulge in some of the ploys that some of his colleagues in the Liberal Democrats and others may indulge in from time to time; I am sure that all parties do these things. No, I accept that this is a serious issue. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to the beauty of Aldeburgh and Southwold and that is certainly true. We have these issues also in Cornwall—in St Ives, and Mevagissey has just held a referendum on this. I understand it, but what can I say? If I say we are looking into this matter and considering it, I am then told that I cannot be taken seriously because that is what noble Lords at the Dispatch Box always say; but we really are taking it seriously and my honourable friend Dominic Raab is taking this forward because it is an issue.
I am very grateful for the compliments to Wales, which is, as so often, leading the way. I think that Scotland was ahead of Wales on the smoking ban, but we were certainly out there on the carrier bag levy, the first Children’s Commissioner and many other issues. We should certainly look at what Wales is doing. Since I have been in this job, one thing I have done is to set up a devolved administration forum which meets in the different capitals of the United Kingdom to gain experience from what is happening elsewhere and to exchange ideas. It has been very valuable in testing whether something works: we have exchanged views on all these issues. It has been useful on Grenfell, on Windrush and elsewhere.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, explained what could happen. It is not complicated to do; the question at issue is probably simply whether the law in Wales is working effectively. At 70 days proof of letting, that ought to be easy to demonstrate, because evidence will have to be produced. I hope that the Government will speak urgently to the Welsh Government and assess what evidence they have, and, as a consequence of that, possibly organise a meeting of all parties involved in this issue to see whether legislation could be introduced in both Houses which would help to solve this problem. To help this along, I plan to table a set of Written Questions later this week, because securing an even better evidence base than we have at the moment would be helpful. This is not a problem just of east Suffolk, parts of Cornwall and one or two other places. I think it is quite a general problem now, or at least it seems to be, in many parts of the country which are attractive holiday areas.
I thank the noble Lord very much for putting down lots of Questions: my officials will be doing cartwheels at the news. However, there is a serious point behind what he is putting forward and I absolutely accept that this is a national issue. Our officials will certainly be speaking, if they have not already—I suspect they may have done—to Welsh and Scottish officials to see what is being done there. We are taking it urgently. I will cover this in more detail in a letter: it is certainly very much on the radar though I had not expected that it would come up in this context—and I should have. I will make sure that we get some more detail in the letter and I thank noble Lords for raising this. I realise now that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, who is not in his place, raised a similar issue in Questions today. I could not quite understand what he was getting at but I understand now and I apologise to him. We will make sure that he gets the letter as well.
Given that, and the fact that I and my department take this seriously, I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, to withdraw her amendment.
I thank everybody for a really interesting and stimulating debate. My noble friend Lord Shipley raised some issues. I am glad that my proposal has gained support because this affects all areas of the country that have large numbers of second homes, including in the north—the Lake District, for instance. We have all noted the new definition of “seriously considered”. I look forward to this being seriously considered.
I brought the definition of “unoccupied” and “substantially unfurnished” to the attention of the Committee because, with the rise in the premium, it is more likely that there will be challenges from owners that their homes are furnished and all the rest of it. Therefore, it would be helpful to local authorities to have more definite clarity on this, rather than an information letter. I think that could be achieved. I know that from time to time the department sends guidance notes to local authorities, which have greater import than information letters. That would give them something to fall back on if they are challenged, as I think may well happen. Those are the reasons for my endeavours this afternoon but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
12: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Impact of the charging of a higher amount for long-term empty dwellings
(1) Within 24 months of the date on which this Act is passed, a Minister of the Crown must undertake a review of the impact of the provisions contained within section 2.(2) The Minister of the Crown must lay the review before both Houses of Parliament.”
My Lords, the previous couple of debates have highlighted why this amendment is needed. We have talked about the effects of the Bill—although it is a small Bill—particularly with regard to council tax payers and empty properties. I think it is worth having in the Bill a clause that enables the Government to review—my amendment suggests within 24 months—what has happened in respect of Clause 2 and the impacts of the decision. My amendment also requires that after the review a report is laid before Parliament.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Thornhill, have tabled a very similar amendment. Subsection (2) of their new proposed new clause suggests that,
“the Minister may also consider the impact of any penalties imposed on persons for failing to register their dwelling as empty”.
I am happy to support that as well. Considering the debates we have had on the previous groups, having a mechanism whereby the Government can look at the effects of the Bill, small though it is, is a good thing to do. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I fully support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I thank the Minister for the very detailed and informative letter he sent all of us after Second Reading; in particular, his response to my comments on fiscal incentives and deterrents with regard to empty homes. I really appreciated that and took on board what he said. Perhaps he will indulge me by allowing me to hang on to the one measure that he did not elaborate on—that is, the matter of penalties.
It is probably little known that councils actually have the ability to levy a civic penalty on an owner for not informing councils that their home is empty. It is not surprising that it is little known; the maximum penalty for doing so is actually £70, so it is no surprise that it is rarely, if ever, used, and that the general public are oblivious to it. In fact, I suspect that if we talked to the general public we would find they believed that by informing the council that their home was empty they would actually pay less or no council tax, so that shows that we have a long way to go. As the average council tax, the band D monthly payment, is now around £165 a month, a penalty of £70 is nothing—it is neither a penalty nor a deterrent. So this is a small matter but I feel that the two should have been taken together. If we are going to, justifiably and rightly, hike up council tax premiums, the penalty that goes with not informing the council should send the same level of message—£70 is, frankly, derisory.
I see both these measures—the penalty and the increased premiums—as really important in motivating councils to move this up their agenda. I say this with a degree of experience in local government, particularly in district councils where this is not a priority, largely because of costs. At Second Reading we heard a lot about powers not being used because of costs, but I think that together these two things would encourage councils to publicise the need to not leave homes empty, and to make it a publicly unacceptable issue so that people would be enraged by it and want us to do something about it. If there were to be a review, would we also review penalties in this regard, as I feel that it would be a missed opportunity if we did not? I beg to move.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, for their contributions on this group of amendments that relate to how we seek to address the penalty point just covered by the noble Baroness and the issue of the review, which was raised by the noble Lord.
The amendments would require the Government to review the impact of the increase in the maximum permitted level of the empty homes premium. I pause briefly to say that I think I am going to organise a list of all the things that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has asked us to do reviews on. I know that he very often says that we have so many things out for review and then we have a critique of that, but we have had a couple of issues today at least where he has asked for reviews. I am only teasing.
I think the noble Lord’s issue has been that there are so many of them that there is a bit of a logjam. Anyway, we could perhaps debate that on some other occasion.
The amendment tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Thornhill, would also require the Minister to determine whether the review should also consider the impact of any penalties on council tax payers who fail to tell their local authority that their property is empty. The review would need to be undertaken within two years of the legislation being enacted, with a report laid before both Houses of Parliament.
I am afraid that the Government are unable to accept the amendments. First, the Government are clear that the use of the premium and the consideration of its impact and enforcement are best undertaken by local authorities. As I have said, we are giving a discretion to local authorities; some local authorities do not apply the premium at all while others apply it in its totality. We have provided local government with complete discretion on whether to introduce the premium. Noble Lords will recognise that local government has been running the empty homes premium now since 2013, with a steady year-on-year growth in the number of councils making use of the power. Fewer than 30 councils have no premium in place at all. That gives a very clear indication that councils across the country consider this to be a useful power to drive behavioural change in owners of long-term empty properties.
In considering the Bill’s proposal to increase the maximum level of the premium from 50% to 100%, I have been struck by the widespread support from across the House—admittedly with variations, but there has been support for that increase. There is clear confidence that this is a sensible step to take. Given that, I am not persuaded that we should introduce uncertainty into the process by committing the Government to a review within two years. That could be perceived as demonstrating a lack of faith in the measure which, of course, is not the case.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Thornhill, incorporate within the text of their amendment calling for a review a suggestion that it might consider the impact of penalties on those who fail to register their dwelling as empty. It may be helpful to the House if I briefly explain that there is actually no requirement for empty homes to be registered with the local authority.
Councils have the flexibility to determine the level of premium, reflecting the circumstances of their area. They can also apply discounts to the council tax bills of individuals, or groups of people, as they see fit. Councils will make reasonable efforts to determine whether properties are empty and meet the requirements of their scheme, then issue a bill accordingly. Council tax demand notices are required to include a statement requiring the council tax payer to inform the council when they believe that the premium does not apply, or applies at a different amount. That is when a penalty of £70 may be payable—when a council tax payer misleads or fails to provide information when requested to do so. It is therefore somewhat different. The level of the penalty, which was set in 2008, is intended to facilitate the smooth operation of the system, rather than to be punitive. I accept that, on the face of it, it appears low, but the Government have no current plans to increase the penalty, nor am I aware of any suggestions from the local government sector that the level is inappropriate or should be changed. However, I am very willing, ahead of Report, to engage with local government if it feels that this should be looked at.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, very much indeed for her contribution at Second Reading and now. I know that she comes with great experience in Watford, and as a department we listen very carefully to what she has to say. I am sure the noble Baronesses will be encouraged to hear that some councils provide incentives for owners of empty properties to provide notification of them, typically by offering a council tax discount for a short period. That helps to ensure that the council has relevant and up-to-date information on properties that might later become liable for the premium.
These procedures are well established and effective, and contain a number of safeguards for taxpayers. Furthermore, they are administered by those in the locality best placed to consider their impact and make any necessary changes. I entirely appreciate the desire of the noble Lord and noble Baronesses to ensure that the implementation and impact of the change to the empty homes premium are reviewed. However, I assure them that this is what councils across the country should be doing as they make annual decisions about their local council tax regime. I am very willing to engage on the issue of the penalty, if there is evidence that local government is finding that it is hampering them. In the circumstances and in the light of what I have said, I appeal to the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendment 13 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.