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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Does the 1992 Act require one commissioner for the whole country or individual commissioners for each separate authority? If there were more than one commissioner, they may have different interpretations of property values in their area. How can we be sure of achieving consistency?

3.45 pm

Mr. Forth: My perusal of the Act has not elicited that information, but I guess that, sadly, the reference is a general one. Section 21 states:

We can infer a national approach from that provision, but section 22 states:

There is therefore a trickle-down from the national approach with which the commissioners are taxed to the local level, so we are getting into the nitty-gritty of the amendment and the Bill. The 1992 Act provides the infrastructure for the Bill and the amendment.

Mr. Francois: May I echo my right hon. Friend's concern about the fact that certain documents were not available earlier? The Bill refers to the Local Government Act 2003, copies of which were not available in the Chamber when we began our debate. On investigation, I discovered that it was available in the Vote Office. That is important, because the Bill repeals schedule 7 of that Act. Paragraph 52 (4) of the schedule states:

I hope that that reassures my right hon. Friend.
 
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Mr. Forth: I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned section 22B of the Local Government Finance Act, as I have a copy of that provision in my hand. As always, he and I are working in concert. As was said in an intervention, section 22B says that the listing officer

to ensure that the list is accurately compiled. Such phraseology is worrying.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I raised this matter in an intervention. There has been much speculation in the press because, for the first time, listing officers may enter people's houses to take photographs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is unacceptable? An Englishman's home should be his castle.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I would not want the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to be tempted down that road. The availability of the Act, too, is not quite as crucial as he has suggested. I am sure that hon. Members know where to find these things in the House of Commons.

Mr. Forth: I was simply referring to section 22B of the Local Government Finance Act, which I had in my hand. I thought that I was on safe territory, but these days, who knows?

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has identified a tension in the Bill. The listing officer can take such steps as are "reasonably practicable" to ensure accuracy. That is where the process that he described comes in. Indeed, it is where the heavy-booted tax inspectors come in.

Mr. Greg Knight: Is not the way in which the revaluation is undertaken in one billing authority, two billing authorities or nationwide relevant to the amendment? I favour a pilot scheme for revaluation in my own area, but I would not if I thought that regulation-ridden, form-filling, pen-pushing nincompoops were going around with cameras photographing my constituents' properties.

Mr. Forth: Indeed. My right hon. Friend knows all about his constituents' dwellings. Accuracy is important and there is a contradiction in section 22B. It refers to steps which are "reasonably practicable", goes on to talk about "the time available" and ends with a reference to accuracy. In many circumstances, the three requirements could well prove contradictory. The practicality is one thing and the timing another, but where does that leave the accuracy? Those contradictions have not been resolved, and even the amendment does not resolve them.

Labour as well as Conservative Members need to ask themselves to what extent they want to keep faith with the new mantra of localism. The practice has become popular among politicians of constantly reasserting how strongly they support the concept of local decision making, whether in schools, hospitals, local authorities or anywhere else. On the face of it, that is one of the attractions of the amendment. In some ways, it seems to move us in that direction by providing an opportunity for much more local decision making than has been
 
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available hitherto in this great valuation exercise. That in turn, however, poses a number of questions, some of which have already been touched on today.

The most fundamental of those questions is whether we believe that, in the whole business of valuation of properties to establish a tax base, a national approach is preferable to a local approach. I must admit that, having listened to the debate so far, I have not yet made up my mind. I can see both sides of the argument, which is rare for me. As many of my right hon. and hon. Friends pointed out, there must surely be a strong case for saying that, because this is potentially such a local matter, we must give priority to the local decision-making element that the amendment would allow. Many examples have been given, ranging from new build to demolition.

The new build case is clear. My expert friends have observed that, with new build, the valuation tends to be at current market rates, if I have understood them correctly. Some doubt has been raised about the effect of demolition, however. It could perhaps move us in either direction. While demolition in a blighted area that was then cleaned up and made into a community facility would undoubtedly enhance the area, I am sure we can all imagine other circumstances in which the effect would be the reverse.

Anne Main: I am glad that my right hon. Friend is exploring the anomalies. The Lyons report does not refer to assessment triggers such as whether a house is in a conservation area. In my constituency the small, modest two-bedroom cottages are in a conservation area, while the big five-bedroom houses are not.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend has, typically, given a good example of problems that feature throughout the valuation exercise, and with which we must all grapple. That is part and parcel of the important debate about the extent to which we believe that local circumstances and variations should override any other consideration. Again, on the face of it the argument is appealing, but I have my worries. I shall say more in a moment about the malign political influence that has already been touched on.

Mr. Hoban: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth: I do not know whether my hon. Friend wants to talk about malign political influence, but I give way to him.

Mr. Hoban: Perhaps, in a way, I do want to talk about malign political influence. May I return to wholesale demolition and its effect on the charge base in an area? If it reduces the charge base, will not large equalisation payments be made to the local authority to enable it to provide services?

Mr. Forth: That worries me as well. Underlying much of the debate is the assumption that a beneficent Government, aware of the process described by my hon. Friend, would automatically compensate for it from central funds. I am not sure that we can make that assumption. Indeed, a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends have said that we must not make such assumptions about Governments, especially this Government. We have seen ample evidence of the
 
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Government's ability to move central funding so as adversely to affect the constituents of Conservative Members, so we have to be very careful about that.

Mr. Francois: There is another issue associated with demolition. With a relatively large-scale demolition, such as that of a big 1960s council estate, when modern properties are to be built, working with a housing association, the people who live on the estate first have to be moved out and found somewhere to live. In the jargon, that is called decanting. Then rebuilding begins, and gradually people start to move back into the new properties as they are built. That process can take several years, so at what point do we revalue? Presumably that will happen when the process is complete, so demolition could be going on for several years, and people would then have to wait for revaluation when the estate had been rebuilt, which could take a long time.


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