Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gwilym Jones: I think that the hon. Gentleman and I have similar outlooks in that respect. We both want to see the best use made of existing housing. We have put in a considerable investment--about £1 billion--since 1990, and in the coming year we shall invest another£180 million in renewing Welsh housing stock, but we should make the best use of existing stock. We are very aware of the pressures on other green-field sites, as I have described in connection with business uses.

The hon. Gentleman raised other specific points, and I well appreciate his concern for Project Aries, which represents a positive initiative to produce practical solutions to assist the development of renewable energy in Wales. The Principality has a range of renewable energy sources, such as hydro, wind, landfill gas and biomass, which could be harnessed to assist the economy and the environment, through lower emissions. I welcome the project's aim of involving key organisations and individuals interested in renewables, and to identify ways of reconciling differences between them.

The project is now coming towards its conclusion, but I am pleased to see that work in that area will be taken forward in the new ALT-INVEST project, which is intended to stimulate private investment for the most promising renewable energy source schemes. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman will wish to study that.

I am sure that we are all equally concerned that road building should be part of a sustainable transport policy. Decisions to proceed with new road schemes are taken only after careful assessment of all realistic alternative solutions to the problems identified. Every effort is made to avoid areas of natural beauty or scientific interest, and if that is not possible we try to minimise the effects.

31 Jan 1996 : Column 974

Environmental impact assessments are undertaken for schemes costing over £1 million, and for all schemes affecting national parks, and areas such as sites of special scientific interest.

The Secretary of State's trunk road priorities and plans were published in "Roads in Wales: 1994 Review", which identifies three major strategic routes--M4, A465 and A55--on which resources will be focused. The document stresses that the A40 in Mid Wales and the A5 on the mainland are not to be developed as major routes for long-distance heavy traffic.

In the public transport sector, Wales has seen many improvements to its local rail services. South and west Wales have new links to the north-west, the midlands, the south coast and to London's Waterloo station, to connect with Eurostar services to the continent. There have also been improvements in local services in mid and north Wales. The Government's rail privatisation programme should see even more. Indeed, in being awarded the InterCity franchise into south Wales, Great Western announced its intention to provide extra services on that network.

Recently I announced the go-ahead for a range of transport measures, including new rail links to expand and improve rail services between Cardiff bay and the south Wales valleys, new bus priority schemes, and substantial cycle ways along both the north and the south Wales coasts.

All aspects of energy policy are clearly relevant to sustainable development. On the one hand, energy is an essential input to economic activity, while on the other, the production of energy can have major environmental effects through local pollution caused by emissions and through climate change caused by global warming. I have referred to actions related to carbon dioxide emissions from energy production, and we are also encouraging energy efficiency. The Government are actively promoting that policy in both the supply and demand sides of the energy industries. For example, new legislation will come into force this year requiring local authorities to identify means of improving the energy efficiency of residential accommodation.

In Wales, the NHS is working towards a 15 per cent. reduction in energy usage, and the Welsh Office has reduced its energy costs by 18 per cent since 1991. The Government are seeking to encourage new and renewable energy sources which have the prospect of being economically attractive and environmentally acceptable. Sustainable development, however, is an issue that goes wider than the environment. It is a matter of harmonising development and environmental protection. Development is needed, but it brings its pressures, and we are addressing such issues in Wales within--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

31 Jan 1996 : Column 975

Charity Shops (Business Rate)

1.30 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I draw the attention of the House to the entry in the Register of Members' Interests which shows that I am an unpaid adviser to the British Shops and Stores Association.

I want this short debate to explore the status of charity shops, particularly as far as their business rate status is concerned. I had some difficulty in finding a title for the debate that would apply solely to one Minister, because the position of shops generally, and charity shops in particular, on business rates is part of a wider picture--the fate of town centres, and the pressure which traders feel they are under. It is not simply a matter of business rates--although, to be fair, that is regarded by most traders as the most significant matter--but also the effect on their business prospects of out-of-town shopping centres, parking restrictions and the like.

In many town centres, traditional trading communities are finding it increasingly hard to trade in a way which is traditional and conventional, while enabling them to be able to offer service to the public. There is no doubt from the representations that I have received that some traders--I would have to say, most traders--believe that the status of charity shops has a part to play as well.

Perhaps it should not be necessary--but, in this day and age, I am afraid it is--to emphasise exactly what one is not doing, as well as what one is doing. Let me make it abundantly clear, however, that I am not launching an attack on charities or charity shops. I am not saying that their role in society is anything but good. I want to emphasise that I am not attacking charities, which have a unique place in British life. There are a whole range of fiscal measures in terms of income tax, corporation tax and VAT that make it abundantly clear that charities have--and, I dare say, will always have--a unique position in our national life.

That is recognised not only by the Government, but by people up and down the land. One only has to see the amount of work that is given freely and voluntarily by members of the public to charities to know that, in a uniquely British way, charities play a part in our national life that is wholly for the good. Therefore, in no sense are my remarks to be taken, or deliberately misconstrued, as an attack on charity shops.

What concerns the traders who have made representations to me is more fundamental than that--they are concerned that measures designed specifically to help charities, particularly in relation to business rates, are being used to help organisations that are, in all but name, fellow traders.

The position in law is straightforward enough. Section 64(10) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 requires a charity shop to fulfil two conditions to be exempt from business rates. It must be wholly or mainly used for the sale of goods donated to a charity, and the proceeds of the sale of the goods, any deduction of expenses, must be applied for the purpose of a charity.

Despite having made an immodest living interpreting the law in the past, I do not know what that means. One understands what "wholly" donated means, but what does "mainly" donated mean? Does it mean that 51 per cent. of the produce in a shop is sufficient, or 80 per cent? I suspect that that ambiguity lies at the heart of the current problems.

31 Jan 1996 : Column 976

If a charity--let us call it Charity Ltd.--has a number of shops in a national context, it is possible that the charity as a whole may purchase only a tiny number of goods directly for sale. But if the goods are found in one particular shop, it may well mean that the trader next door finds that he is trading in commodities against someone who is in a totally different position.

This is not an isolated problem. It has not been raised with me on only one occasion--it is a matter of great concern locally. The matter has been discussed in the past by Teignbridge district council and Newton Abbott town council, while it has been raised with me by the chambers of commerce from Teignmouth and Newton Abbott. I dare say that that can be replicated up and down the country.

If one goes to Newton Abbott, within a few minutes of walking around the town centre one sees shops representing some of the great charities in the land--the Red Cross, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Rowcroft hospice, Cancer and Leukaemia in Childhood, Imperial Cancer Research, the British Heart Foundation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Barnardo's.

In Teignmouth in my constituency, one sees charities such as Yugoslavian Refugees, Oxfam, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, Rowcroft hospice, the YMCA, the Children's Society, Holiday Services for the Disabled and the RNLI. The idea that we are talking about one or two shops is a mistake.

The difficulty is that one must rely to an extent on anecdote, and I must rely on the information that traders have given me. I am told that, if one goes into some charity shops, one does not see the traditional bric-a-brac or second-hand goods. One is looking, to all intents and purposes, at premises selling new goods. One shopfitter recently told me that the best contract he had had all year was from a charity shop. He said that he wished "other local traders", as he put it, were able to give him such good work, but they were unable to do so.

One might think that some charity shops are buying in the majority of goods to be sold on in a way that directly competes with businesses next door that simply do not have the advantage of having at least 80 per cent. relief on rates, with the potential to applying for a further20 per cent. relief from the local authority.

What can be done? I suspect that part of the problem depends on the meaning of "wholly or mainly". In a letter in September 1994, my hon. Friend the Minister of State said:

That is like defining the functions of an archdeacon by saying that an archdeacon performs archdiaconal functions--it is true, but I am not sure how greatly it helps.

It would be asking too much of a local authority to carry out an audit on each and every shop that applies for an exemption from business rates. One runs into a problem right away--an authority may discover that a local shop selling a high proportion of bought-in goods is able to say that it is a part of a greater organisation, and the authority's considerations may not apply. It seems to me that it would be very difficult for a local authority to have to make such judgments.

31 Jan 1996 : Column 977

The effect of this ambiguity should not be underestimated. If premises are in all but name local traders, we must consider what the effect can be if they do not have to pay the uniform business rate. They will be in a position to pay higher rents, but those directly competing against them do not have the benefit of not paying UBR. Therefore, circumstances would be conceivable in which local traders were simply priced out of the market.

The question that must be considered is, in a sense, even wider than that which the Minister will answer today. We live in a time when, for reasons to which I have referred, town centres are under unique pressure. Traders in those centres are also under pressure, and society must ask itself whether its intention is that we prefer one class of trader over another by giving one unique privileges.

It must be said that there is nothing wrong with trying to earn a living by selling goods in a town centre. There is nothing wrong with being a charity, either, but if one trader--uniquely--is in a better position than another, questions must be asked.

Lest anyone imagine that I have got it wrong, and that charities never see themselves in that light, I can do no better than quote that excellent publication the Mid-Devon Advertiser, which recently carried an article about charity shops. The main point of the article is not relevant to this debate, but it contains observations that are.

It explains that a certain charity shop was notreaching its targets, and quotes a voluntary worker--understandably, the staff are not paid--as saying:

"Hear, hear", many might say. The article then quotes a man described as a chief executive of the charity's shops division as saying:

The man said that the shop was

That says it all.

Next Section

IndexHome Page