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Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2018


Clause 2: Higher amount for long-term empty dwellings

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: 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” 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 thank the Minister for a very constructive discussion in recent days about the second part of the Bill and the proposed escalator, and for the helpful discussion and explanation that we have had on the first part, about the staircase tax. I am very grateful for the Minister’s letter sent earlier this week, which explains the issues that have to be addressed with valuation lists going back a number of years.

We proposed the escalator in Committee, and the conclusion reached here after all-party discussion has been extremely productive. Broadly speaking, a dwelling that has been empty for between two and five years can attract a 100% increase if a local authority decides it wishes to do so. Between five and 10 years of that property being empty, the percentage could, at local authority discretion, increase to 200%. After being empty for more than 10 years, the percentage could increase to 300%. I welcome the Government’s agreement to those figures.

Of course, there is a view, to which I subscribe, that the penalty could well be higher if those who live overseas buy properties to leave empty as investments. That is a particular problem in London. Clearly this amendment will help, but it does not solve the entire problem because to get to 300% requires 10 years to pass. I hope that the Minister will do what we discussed in Committee, which is to review this legislation very carefully over the next two to three years. We may well find that there is a gradual decrease in the number of long-term empty properties, but that the decrease is not as great as we would like it to be. There is a case for a penalty of 500% for those who have deliberately invested in property to leave it empty. There is a world of difference between that and properties which are empty for two years because of delays in probate, family disagreements or other reasons. Local authorities now have the power to do something about it, and as long as the Government are going to keep closely under review whether the figures of 100%, 200% and 300% are working effectively, we are content with outcome that the Minister has agreed with us. I beg to move.

My Lords, Amendment 2 in this group is similar to the amendment I moved in Committee, but it is not exactly the same. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the general background to this proposal. There are 20 million homes in England and they are responsible for more than 30% of the country’s carbon emissions. We have the worst housing stock in Europe as far as energy efficiency is concerned. Measures are in hand to improve the stock of new homes, but with 200,000 new homes a year it will take 100 years to replace the housing stock we have at the moment. At 300,000 homes a year, it will take only 66 years. Of course, both those dates are well past 2050, the date by which the Government have undertaken that there will be a substantial carbon reduction, but that can be achieved only if the energy performance of the housing stock is improved. Improving the energy performance of the existing housing stock is clearly essential. It is obviously an important government priority, and my amendment assists them in reaching that target.

By far the best time to improve the energy performance of any building is when it is not occupied. An empty home, which by definition is not occupied, is exactly the right place for energy improvements to take place. Whether the home is for sale or rent, then is the moment to strike. The Government have introduced proposals to make sure that rented accommodation achieves certain minimum standards of energy performance. However, for every step forward on energy improvements for homes, the Government have taken some steps back. Zero-carbon homes—a clear commitment of the coalition Government—have been abandoned, the Green Deal is no more and my Question to the Government about the application of the energy performance directive has been responded to in a very bland and potentially problematic way. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, responded last week:

“The outcome of negotiations with the European Union … will determine what detailed arrangements apply in relation to EU legislation, including the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, in future once the UK has left the EU”.

That left one reader of that response completely baffled. He said that,

“it seems to suggest that we can at present have no certainty about what if any directives will apply in eight months’ time. Can this be right?”.

For steps forward there have, unfortunately, been steps back or, at the very least, hesitations in the way forward as far as this goes. Certainly, things are not moving forward at pace in other directions. I asked the then Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, about publication of the biennial review on progress in sustainable buildings, which was due in early 2017. She replied that it would be published in early 2017, as required by the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004.

After an interval of time, I put another Question down, to ask Her Majesty’s Government when the next biennial review would be published and why there had been a 12-month delay in publication for a review scheduled to have been published in early 2017. In other words, a biennial review had not been published at the start of this year. The Answer I got from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, on 8 March was:

“The Government is working to publish shortly the next biennial report under the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004”.

We are now pushing into July, and I can tell him—and I expect he can tell me—that it has not yet been published. I imagine that he will be able to tell me that it will be published shortly. I hope he might be able to make it even shorter than shortly, but I am not sure he will.

I want to put to the Government that I am really being very helpful with the proposal that I am bringing forward. It is positive and helps them to put something in that biennial report about the way ahead and the fact that things are improving, at least to this small extent. It is at nil cost to the Treasury and nil cost to the public purse in any of its forms, except that it might remotely be claimed that a possible gain for local councils’ council tax will be somewhat reduced—but that is in the context of it being increased in any case by the overall proposals in the Bill. Of course, it has a good chance of being taken up, because what does it say? It says that if the reason for the delay in bringing an empty home back into use is that works are being done to raise the energy performance level by at least two levels, there will be a rebate on the charge.

In Committee, the Government, again in the form of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, were kind enough to say that my amendment was a noble concept, which of course is the bureaucrat’s kiss of death. It goes alongside being imaginative and brave. The only meaningful “but” that the Minister introduced was that it was the wrong way to fetter local authorities’ discretion and a breach of the principle of localism. Some of us, on this side at least, wish that the Government carried the admirable principle of not fettering local authorities’ discretion into other policy areas, for instance, the capital spend on social housing or, indeed—perhaps relevant to this policy area—the prohibition on them introducing higher standards of energy performance in building regulations for new stock. Nevertheless, an accusation that the amendment was, as originally worded, restricting on local authorities was a potent criticism, especially to me as somebody who steered the Localism Act on to the statute book.

Hence, the version in front of your Lordships today is different. The amendment would insert “normally”. It says that normally the percentage increase shall be 75%. That gives local authorities a clear steer about the intention, and what their duty is, but it does not compel them. I believe that this revised amendment entirely meets the only credible reason that the Government gave in Committee to oppose the original amendment. I look forward to the Minister taking a more open approach than last time to this amended version and turning it from a “noble concept” into a practical reality.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his clarification on the first part of the Bill and the non-domestic rating. Nobody has been beating a path to my door since the last time we discussed the Bill, and I take it from that that this is as good as it gets. I thank him very much for clarifying that.

I would like to make a couple of comments on the amendments that we are discussing, starting with Amendments 1 and 3. It seems that we do not fully know the reasons for long-term vacancies. What concerns me is that the amendments have the potential to make a blunt instrument. I always think that legislation is about as blunt as it gets, but this risks making it blunter still. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about overseas owners; there is such a problem in certain areas, just as there is with certain other reasons for people deliberately holding property vacant.

We have to be clear whether this is some sort of fine or sanction for a socially reprehensible practice of deliberately keeping property empty, or whether it performs a legitimate housing stock amenity consideration. Is it something aimed at preventing the deterioration of neighbourhoods through some sort of social objective? In that case, I suspect that there are other measures. We need to be clear about how this is to be used if it is not to fall rapidly into some sort of disrepute. If it is used as a means just to bolster revenues for a billing authority, we would probably collectively feel that it was not quite the right way in which to do things. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA; no doubt I will get a dart or a brickbat from that quarter if it thinks that I am speaking out of turn.

Either way, at the levels of escalation that we might be talking about, the question is whether we leave things to the sole discretion of billing authorities with a challenge, as I understand it, only by means of judicial review. Other noble Lords will correct me if I have got that wrong. If that is the case, I would regard it as a very significant impediment, because of the cost and time involved in embarking on that course of action—to challenge the views of a local authority by saying that no reasonable authority could have reached that decision, which I understand is the test. As an alternative, I suggest that we need to introduce a properly, but doubtless locally, codified method of application, exemptions and, possibly, appeals. In that case, a lot more needs to be sitting somewhere in the Bill—perhaps the Government will produce regulations or something like that—which is not in it at the moment. I leave your Lordships with those thoughts.

I absolutely get the purpose that sits behind Amendment 2, moved so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I would hope that the rationale behind saying, “We’re improving the energy efficiency of the Bill”, is not going to be capable of being spun out as some sort of pretext to prevent the core principle behind this, which I accept—namely, that there should be some sort of escalator—from kicking in at all. I think that would be a mistake.

I have a concern about the word “normally”. I seem to remember that it has rather unfortunate antecedents. I am probably going back about 30 years here, but I recall that there were a series of measures whereby it was suggested that “normally”, or something that sounded rather like it, was insufficiently clear or distinct in how it would be applied. The question was whose norm and who would be the judge of that. So, while I support the noble Lord, I am not absolutely sure that “normally” will be sufficiently targeted to achieve what he wants. With that, I will listen with great care to what the Minister has to say.

My Lords, I apologise for being late. I was watching the screen avidly and then, all of a sudden, it turned to this item of today’s business. I remind noble Lords of my interests as a councillor and as another vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I thank my noble friend Lord Shipley for moving Amendment 1 in his name, my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and giving ample expression to our proposal for adding the premium to be paid on council tax, to be dependent on the length of time for which the property is left empty. In doing so, I shall speak to Amendment 3, a technical amendment in the names of the same noble Lords that supports the principle of Amendment 1.

In Committee, when we first moved an amendment relating to an escalator in the premium on council tax, the Minister was kind enough to give us some warm words of encouragement in response. Subsequently, a couple of weeks ago, we had a meeting where we discussed that. I thank him for saying the Government would be willing to support the principle of the idea but that there may be some necessary refinements when it came back at Third Reading. I am very pleased that that has happened, because it shows how this House can work in making amendments to Bills and trying to improve them before they become full legislation.

The basis of our amendment is, of course, a premium of 200% after five years and 300% after 10 years for those properties that are empty for 10 years or more. Any financial incentive to get more properties into use by families and individuals who desperately need a hand is one that we can all support. At the same time, it stops empty homes from being a blot on their communities—and we all know examples of that. The third reason is that it means that, if we can bring empty properties into use, we do not have to release so much greenbelt land to developers.

Obviously, I support what has already been said. I end by supporting what my noble friend Lord Stunell said about focusing attention on the energy ratings of properties. Here is an opportunity to improve the energy ratings of many homes while they are empty. I do not know about other people, but where I live there is a lot of Victorian terraced housing with very poor energy ratings. The families who tend to live in them are those who can least afford high energy costs. I hope that the Government will, even if they are not going to accept the proposal today, go away and think about how many homes—probably millions—in the industrial towns and cities of this country are quite poor in energy rating terms, and how we can improve the energy performance of those buildings. Here is a way of doing it, albeit a small way in terms of numbers. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give warm words in response to it, as he did to the amendment on the escalator in Committee.

My Lords, I was reminded by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and my noble friend Lady Pinnock that I did not declare when I spoke earlier that I am a vice-president of the LGA. For the completeness of the record, I do so now.

My Lords, I will further add to that by declaring my own interests as a vice-president of the association, and also as a serving councillor in Newcastle. I rise to present the views of these Benches in the absence of my noble friend Lord Kennedy, who is en route to Birmingham for the Local Government Association conference.

I have had some experience of dealing with, or attempting to deal with, the problems of empty houses in the ward I represent in Newcastle. It has been impossible, eventually, either to persuade the owners to do the necessary work or, in one case, to acquire the property. While I certainly support the amendments before us, and I understand that they are likely to receive a reasonably warm response from the Minister, it occurs to me that perhaps the aspect of acquiring properties is a matter that should be given further consideration. It is an alternative approach that might well result in a quicker resolution of the problem, and enable the availability of a usable home, than simply collecting money by way of an incentive, as it were, for owners to do something, which may not be all that effective. I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate whether the Government will look again at the powers of local authorities to acquire in these circumstances, and whether these need to be enhanced, particularly in terms of the timescale involved. On the ground, it would probably make a greater difference than these measures, welcome though they are as an additional arm in trying to deal with this situation, which is, at a time of housing shortage, really quite disgraceful and should not be tolerated.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate on Report. I shall, if I may, give the Government’s response and then try to pick up some of the points that have been raised by noble Lords during the debate. I am grateful, first, to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, obviously is, for moving the amendment, to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for speaking on behalf of his noble friend Lord Kennedy, who is on his way to the LGA conference.

I turn first to the amendment relating to the escalator. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, were kind enough to say that his amendment has received government support as well as support from the Labour Benches—we have obviously involved the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in discussions on this, and others as well. This would mean that properties empty for between five and 10 years could face premiums of up to 200%, and homes empty for more than 10 years could be subject to 300% premiums. I stress that that is a matter of discretion for local authorities, which is written through all of this legislation. It is something that I and the Government have not been keen to depart from. It is a matter of localism—the noble Lord, Lord Stunnell, used that word several times.

I indicated in Committee that I had some sympathy with the suggestion that was brought forward and that I would reflect on it. The Government have reflected carefully on the arguments advanced by noble Lords at Second Reading and in Committee, and accept that there is a strong case for even higher premiums than those originally mentioned for homes that have been empty for an extended period of time. While we are unable to accept the amendment as it is currently drafted, I hope that noble Lords and the noble Baroness will be pleased to hear that we intend to bring forward a government amendment with the same effect at Third Reading.

Properties that have been empty for more than five years are likely to be few in number. I say to the noble Earl that this is not a revenue-raising measure: the intent is to free up properties for housing where they have been empty for a protracted period of time and to improve the amenity of a given area. It is not about raising a significant amount of revenue: I do not think that it will. It will raise some, but not a significant amount. However, such properties are often a blight on local communities and a nuisance to local residents. I accept that a strengthened incentive of a 200% or even 300% premium may prove more effective in such difficult cases, and could therefore ultimately bring benefits to the wider local community.

As I have mentioned in previous debates, we have to strike a balance in making this judgment, and ensure that no one is subject to the tripling or even quadrupling of their council tax bill without due consideration to the particular circumstances of the case. In relation to points first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about the broader social issue of property that people buy intending to leave it empty, I accept that that concern goes well beyond this targeted piece of legislation. I do not disagree with the general thrust of what he said at all. We will no doubt want to look at that. It will rightly remain up to local authorities whether and how to implement any higher premium based on local circumstances. That is important. Local authorities will know their circumstances best and how to target the premium in whatever way they want within the general broad framework that we have set out. We must ensure that higher premiums are applied fairly, but that will be done through the mechanism of the local authority.

We will, however, take the opportunity to revise the guidance issued in 2013 on the use of the premium to ensure that the additional powers are exercised with due consideration to issues facing low-demand areas and cases of hardship. We will have the benefit of today’s and earlier debates to look at when we consider how that is best done. We will also look to ensure that home owners have sufficient notice to prepare themselves for this change. That is something that I have shared with the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Kennedy. We anticipate that the higher premiums would come into force in 2020 for 200% premiums—anything that had been vacant since 2015, could in 2020 attract that higher premium—and in 2021 for 300% premiums, so that anything that had been vacant since 2011 could then attract that 300% premium. We are not convinced that local authorities have reliable statistics about empty properties longer ago than 2011, but they should have them from 2011 onwards because of current policy. That is a further consideration but not the only one. We were wary about the retrospective effect of this provision and felt that we should give appropriate notice, which noble Lords will understand.

I now turn to the second amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. As the noble Lord indicated, there was a similar amendment in Committee. This is slightly different with the insertion of the word “normally”, but that should not disguise the fact that this is still a directive to local authorities with the addition of “normally”. I hesitate to throw compliments the way of the noble Lord so I had better not call it a noble concept, but I admired the way that he sought to indicate that this amendment was different from the one in Committee. I am tempted to say “nice try”, but I am not convinced that it is different in kind.

The current system allows local authorities to take into account such considerations. Indeed, if they want to, they can go further than the noble Lord’s amendment and be more generous. There is nothing to prevent them exercising their discretion in this way, as well as for other good reasons—this is not the only good reason, although it is undoubtedly one. However, fundamentally these sorts of decisions are best made locally by those who know the challenges and demands of a given area. As already mentioned, it should remain a matter for local authorities to decide not only whether to charge a premium but the exact rate at which it should be charged.

I shall try to pick up the other points that were made. First, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, made a point about probate. I think that property that has not yet had probate is exempted anyway, although I accept that thereafter the period would kick in, so it is a relevant point.

In relation to most of the rest of the questions raised, I am afraid that I cannot read my own writing. I have made a note that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, made some good points but I have not put what they are—nor should that be a surprise to anybody because he always makes good points. However, we will pick up the good points that require an answer and respond in writing.

My Lords, it is an affliction that lawyers, along with doctors, bear, so I understand the point that the noble Lord is making.

To sum up, we accept that there is a strong case for a higher premium, and I thank noble Lords who worked with us on the so-called escalator. I am pleased to say that the Government intend to bring forward their own amendment at Third Reading to the same effect. On the second amendment, although the Government recognise and understand the positive sentiment behind the noble concept of reducing the premium, it is a matter that we feel is best left to local authorities, as they have that discretion. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will agree not to press their amendments on the basis that I have outlined.

Does the Minister have any news whatever on the biennial review of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act, as required by statute and now 18 months overdue?

My Lords, I had not anticipated that the noble Lord would go in that direction—more widely than the debate. I hope he will accept that I will pick up that point and try to get an expeditious response to him, but I cannot give him any assurance beyond the fact that it is something that we realise is due. I will write to him and copy the letter to other noble Lords.

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for what he has said and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendments 2 and 3 not moved.