22 May 2023
Peter Aldous welcomes business rates reform, but Bill can be improved

Peter Aldous welcomes the Bill but tables a series of amendments to improve the Bill and make business rates more effective and fair including moving to annual valuations, abolishing the duty to notify which will be a onerous burden and abolishing downwards transitional phasing, which can penalize businesses whose property values have fallen.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

I shall start off where I left off in the Bill’s Second Reading debate. By way of background, the Bill is to be welcomed, although it is important that it is viewed as the start of the process of fundamentally reforming business rates and not the endgame. It probably would have been preferable to have heeded the advice of the Chartered Institute of Taxation and for the Government to have brought forward a new consolidated business rates Bill, rather than to amend the Local Government Finance Act 1988. That would have sent the message to businesses both large and small that real change was on the way. However, we are where we are and we must ensure that, ultimately, this Bill paves the way to reducing business rates to an affordable level, putting the business rates system on a long-term, more easily understood footing and removing those barriers to regional growth.

We must have in mind the ultimate end goal, which should be to get the uniform business rate multiplier back down from in excess of 50p in the pound to the more affordable 30p in the pound, which is where we started when the system came in in the early ’90s. To get to that, we need annual valuations, the abolition of the multitude of complicated reliefs and to digitalise the Valuation Office Agency. The Bill moves us in that direction—although perhaps a little too tentatively. Moreover, the duty to notify, which takes up much of the Bill, adds a bureaucratic burden on businesses and there are some unintended consequences that we should avoid. We must have in mind the need at all times for increased transparency. The amendments that I tabled have those considerations in mind.

Any adjustments to the business rates system should be guided by two principles: reducing the regulatory burden on businesses and, as I said, reducing the uniform business rate multiplier. We should look at the Bill with those considerations in mind and aim to move towards a sustainable system that provides a long-term revenue stream that businesses can find bearable, which has not been the case so often in recent years.

A properly functioning property tax system is critical to achieving a vibrant and sustainable economy. For most of this century, an outdated and unresponsive business rates system has placed enormous strain on many businesses, particularly those in the retail and hospitality sectors. Moreover, that strain has not been shared equally across the country. That illustrates how the current system is a hindrance—a logjam—to levelling up. We need non-domestic rates to be more responsive to changes in the economy so as to ensure that the system does not place an undue and unfair strain on businesses. If we can achieve that, we shall be more able to attract long-term investment into our towns and cities, and we shall be better placed to meet other vital policy objectives such as revitalising our high streets and achieving our net zero aims and goals.

Clause 5 relates to the frequency at which revaluations take place.

As I have mentioned, we need to move to the end goal of annual valuations, so that business rates are more in line with the economic outlook. I have tabled amendments 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 with that objective in mind. To achieve a responsive business rates system, valuations should be carried out as regularly as possible. The Bill is a good first step, and increases valuations from every five to every three years, but it should provide the flexibility for a future Government to require more frequent valuations —ultimately, every year. Annual revaluation could bring bills more in line with commercial property values, rather than lagging many years behind. Even with a three-year list and a two-year antecedent valuation date, occupiers will be paying business rates bills in early 2026 that are based on valuations from nearly five years beforehand.

Annual revaluations are essential if the Government are serious about modernising the business rates system. They take place in countries as diverse as Hong Kong and the Netherlands, and thus there is no reason why they should not take place in England and Wales. To conclude on this issue, the enormous administrative burden placed on ratepayers by the new duty to notify would certainly not be worth the distress and inconvenience it will cause if it does not ultimately result in the introduction of annual revaluations. In that context, I urge the Government to give full consideration to these amendments.

Clause 13 sets out the requirement for ratepayers to provide information—this is the new duty to notify, which, as drafted, places an unnecessary burden on businesses. Amendments 13, 14 and 15 have the objective of reducing that burden and imposing penalties on the Valuation Office Agency.

Amendments 18 and 19 relate to clause 19, and would ensure that guidance is made available to business ratepayers before the duty to notify comes into effect. The new duty to notify will place an onus on all ratepayers to provide the Valuation Office Agency with any information that they reasonably believe could impact on the business rates valuation. This is an enormous additional ask, not least for the 700,000 businesses which, up to now, have not been subject to business rates and might be completely unaware of what is proposed. The duty requires ratepayers to notify the VOA of changes to their properties within a 60-day window, and carries the risk of financial sanctions and even imprisonment if they fail to comply.

As a former chartered surveyor, I cannot see how such a burdensome duty on all commercial property occupiers—including, as I have said, current non-ratepayers—can be justified as necessary to administer a move to three-yearly revaluations. This duty might be bearable for businesses if it assisted the VOA in administering the move to annual revaluations. For small businesses, it will cause more pain than the gain that will be derived from moving to three-yearly valuations.

The new duty will leave many ratepayers wondering what might qualify as a notifiable change. The VOA is yet to publish any guidance; thus many businesses will take no chances and will notify the VOA of any changes to their properties. The VOA will hence be hoist with its own petard, as it will be flooded with paperwork.

As I mentioned on Second Reading, many businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises without any rating expertise, will turn to rogue rating advisers for help. Business rates advisers do not require a licence to practise, and many unscrupulous operators will see the new duty to notify as an opportunity to take advantage of small businesses.

While the ratepayer has a short period in which to notify the VOA of any changes to the property, as the Bill stands, the VOA has no such obligation. It can, in effect, respond to notifications at its leisure. I therefore propose a reciprocal provision that places on the VOA a 60-day timeframe in which to respond to notifications, with rebates to the ratepayer equivalent to the fines set out in clause 13 that accompany a failure to comply.

Clause 6 is a short and simple but nevertheless extremely important clause, which gives effect to the removal of downwards transitional phasing, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on 17 November last year in his autumn statement. That was a positive step, but clause 6 as drafted does not permanently remove the threat of downwards phasing, which is a punitive tax that unfairly penalises occupiers whose rateable values have fallen. It is wrong to force those whose property values have fallen to subsidise those whose property values have risen.

The clause as it stands simply removes the requirement for transitional phasing mechanisms to be revenue-neutral. That means that the Government no longer need to fund any upwards transitional mechanism with a corresponding downwards transitional mechanism. However, that means that a downwards mechanism can be easily introduced by a future Government without any parliamentary scrutiny. Amendments 11 and 12 would plug that loophole and permanently abolish downwards transitional phasing. If any future Government want to reintroduce it, they should come to Parliament and make the case for it, rather than bringing it in through the back door.

Amendment 16 would delete clause 14, which, from my perspective, is inequitable and unfair to businesses. As it stands, clause 14 exempts Government legislation from qualifying for the pursuit of a material change of circumstances. That would remove a vital check on Government and would allow future Governments to legislate with impunity at the expense of businesses right across the country, leaving them no recourse to challenge legislation that interferes with their ability to do business.

A material change in circumstances gives ratepayers recourse to pursue relief on their business rates when circumstances outside their control hinder their ability to do business. Clause 14 exempts Government legislation from being a qualifying reason for a material change in circumstances. I anticipate that the Government have included this clause because they want business rates to be a predictable source of revenue, even if their own legislation or action undermines the very rateable value of the properties occupied by businesses.

During the covid lockdown, to prevent the spread of the virus, the Government forced a number of businesses to cease trading. However, instead of accepting that there had been a material change of circumstances for those occupiers and allowing appeals to be launched, the Government introduced a locally administered compensation scheme. With clause 14, the Government are seeking the freedom to introduce any legislation at any time that might alter the rateable value of a property. That is both unprecedented and wrong.

Clause 14 can be viewed as a power grab that sets a dangerous precedent and tells occupiers that they will have to accept the detrimental impact of legislation on their ability to do business, with no legal recourse. Amendment 16 would delete clause 14, restoring the ability of ratepayers to claim a material change of circumstances, regardless of how the change in circumstances arose.

Amendments 4, 5, 17 and 25 would amend and add to clauses 1 and 14 and part 1 of the schedule. They address a niche issue, albeit an extremely important one. The out-of-home advertising industry includes adverts on billboards, walls, digital posters, street furniture, bus shelters, buses and railway stations, which we see every day as we go about our lives and probably take for granted. The industry provides an important form of income for local authorities, and it is estimated that almost half the revenue generated goes back into local communities. These amendments would abolish the liability to non-domestic rating in respect of advertising rights.

The removal of business rates on advertising rights from the rating lists would have three advantages. First, it would increase the value and level of services provided by local authorities. Secondly, it would remove a competitive disadvantage to growth that impacts the out-of-home advertising industry, but that does not apply to its rivals—broadcast, print and online media. Thirdly, it would reduce the high level of inefficiencies relating to advertising rights applied through the Valuation Office Agency, local authorities and the out-of-home advertising industry.

As drafted, the Bill will directly and adversely impact the industry’s ability to invest in local communities. That runs contrary to the Bill’s objective of reducing barriers to business investment. In 2023, business rates charged on advertising rights are an antiquated, out-of-date and ineffective tax. Advertising rights are the only remaining right attracting liability for non-domestic rating. The liability to non-domestic rating in respect of sporting rights was abolished by the Local Government and Rating Act 1997. Amendments 4, 5, 17 and 25 would remove that anomaly.

In conclusion, I have enormous respect for the Minister and for his co-sponsor of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Although Treasury Ministers are not currently present on the Front Bench, I am mindful that the Bill has been drafted from a Treasury perspective, gathering in all that money. That is incredibly important—don’t get me wrong—but I suggest we also need to look at the issue through the prism of business.

Whether large, medium-sized or small, businesses need confidence, certainty and a fully reformed business rates system that takes on board some of the amendments I have put forward. A fully reformed system will mean that businesses will know where they stand, and business rates will not be the elephant in the room. People will be able to invest in, build on and expand their businesses with a degree of confidence, leading to increased profits. What that will do—joy to the Treasury—is increase taxation. The Bill makes a start and provides an opportunity for us to turn the vicious circle of business rates into a virtuous circle.