Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No. 2) Bill, 30.09.20
This week I joined colleagues in calling for greater flexibility in the way that business rates are deployed. I am fortunate enough to represent a constituency that has a great diversity of businesses and very vibrant high streets, where we have seen banks become coffee shops and sports clubs become children’s soft play areas. The challenge of online versus bricks and mortar retailing, the changing nature of the high streets and our ability to keep it vibrant on behalf of our communities demonstrates the importance of this flexibility.
David Simmonds CBE MP:
The reform of business rates and revaluation has been in a holding pattern for many years, and those of us who have spent time in local government will be conscious that the expected impact of that reform on local authority finance has been hotly debated. I think that we are still of the view that business rates in their current form are the worst possible solution to financing local government, with the exception of all other available choices. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) made that point strongly in describing the hard choices we need to make in identifying alternative sources of finance. It seems clear that, in the Treasury, the business rates billions remain a key building block of our national budget. As a consequence, there has been a long-held reluctance to tinker with them, for fear of the wider impact on the bigger fiscal picture.
Business rates have been in existence for a long time. For many of our citizens, they used to walk in lockstep with residential rates, long abolished. Even today, the variation in business rates income at local authority level is reflected in the grant funding—the traditional revenue support grant that was the basis of most local authority funding—and in things such as school funding. When schools were first set up as a local authority responsibility, local authorities funded them according to their incomes from business rates and domestic rates, and that differential has been carried forward into the funding rates of our schools today. That long-standing impact and the fiscal picture across government of linking day-to-day expenditure on these services to the income we can rely upon coming through business rates remain in place. That goes to the heart of the point that a number of colleagues have made about the need for reform, but we need to address it as part of that complex formula.
I would like to add my voice to the request from many colleagues for greater flexibility in the way that business rates are deployed. I am fortunate to represent a constituency that has a great diversity of local businesses and very vibrant high streets. Many of those new businesses have grown up to take the place of more traditional activities, some of which have seen their departure mourned by local residents, and others perhaps less so. For example, a sports club has closed and been replaced by a children’s soft play area, because the baby boom means that there is now a much greater market for that kind of activity. The bank that I used to be responsible for is now a bookshop and coffee shop on Pinner High Street, reflecting the fact that our high streets can remain vibrant.
This is not about saying that the Government or the local authority need to pick the businesses that they think should be winners on the high street. It is about reflecting the fact that the challenge of online versus bricks and mortar retailing, the changing nature of the high street and our ability to keep it vibrant on behalf of our communities means that we need flexibility.
Kevin Hollinrake MP:
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He alluded to the point I made earlier. If we had a business rates system that purely provided discounts for retail premises, what would we do with premises that were not retail and became retail or were retail and became another business category?
David Simmonds CBE MP:
My hon. Friend reinforces the point robustly. I declare an interest, as a father of young children. The development on our high streets of more community-focused business opportunities, due to there now being many more young children in my part of the world looking to access soft play, clothing retail and other things, is a reflection of the fact that our communities change—they are vibrant. That is what their nature should be, and those market forces are a welcome part of responding to the changes in our communities.
When we see challenges that come along, whether they reflect the national economic position or indeed wider issues on a local level, we need to be able to respond effectively. A really good illustration of that is the impact on the local authority that serves most of my residents and Heathrow airport—the London Borough of Hillingdon. Heathrow is the largest single payer of business rates within the Greater London area, but the challenge for the local authority that collects those business rates is that the revenue it collects and the proportion retained locally is far less than the cost to the local authority of dealing with the consequences of having the airport in its local area.
That brings me on to my final plea to Ministers as we begin to look to what the future of business rates may be beyond this revaluation. Too often, there is little or no upside for local authorities in supporting the development and growth of businesses, because so much of the money goes into the central pool and the community sees the disbenefits such as congestion and pollution—sometimes, in the case of airports, in the form of air pollution—and needing to provide services to people such as refugees and those who find themselves stranded at the airport. All those are direct costs to local taxpayers as part of the statutory frameworks; they simply are not met by the share of the income that lands locally.
We need to have a much broader discussion about how we ensure that local authorities that see these opportunities to develop local businesses, jobs and a vibrant local economic strategy can see the benefit of doing that coming directly into their local community. In the United States, for example, it is a very common part of considerations of any infrastructure development that local politicians can say to the local community, “Yes, you will have to put up with a downside, but you will see this enormous benefit as a consequence of this development or this project going ahead.”
We need to see this as part of a much broader and more strategic review of the way in which we fund public services in this country. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) pointed to the impact on local authorities of a reduction in revenue support grant. That is part of this complex picture, but over the same period, we have seen significant growth in levels of business rate income that have been retained by local authorities. When the Ministry makes its calculation of spending power, the reduction in spending power does not simply reflect a reduction in the revenue support grant: it then needs adding back into it the additional revenue that is coming from other sources.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton explained so clearly, this is not simply a matter of being able to offer everyone out there who would like to see a reduction in their business rates such a reduction, because if we do that, we need to decide which other taxes will go up to pay for it. We must make sure that we consider that decision fully in this House before it is made, because we have a responsibility to local authorities and residents to make sure that the services we commit to provide for them are financially sustainable.