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Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion, because he brings me to the timing of such activities, although I shall not myself get to that point quite yet. The "timeline" is, I think the modern phrase, and it is relevant.

Already we can see emerging a kaleidoscope of criteria on which the matter could be judged. There is the question, "How local do we get?" We have not explored that thoroughly yet, although it was touched on earlier. Are we talking about district authorities, counties or regional authorities? The amendment leaves all that open. We could have individual billing authorities, an undefined

or, indeed, all billing authorities. Those are all options under the amendment. Who is to decide? I shall come to that rather later in my meanderings, but at this stage we shall leave it as an unanswered question.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: With large-scale demolitions, it is important to get some of the original tenants and owners back to the area to keep the community together. If they thought that their council tax would be increased as a result of a local revaluation, might that not be a disincentive for them to move in the first place?

Mr. Forth: Indeed it would, if people had that information available. However, the process by which that would come about—indeed, the very predictability of it—would depend on the factors that we are now debating with regard to the amendment, the Bill and the underpinning Act. The flow of the sort of information that my hon. Friend mentions would depend on who had the flexibility, and who made the decisions about the nature and timing of the revaluation. Until we can resolve such matters, the innocents will not have the information that they require. That should worry us all very much.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): When my right hon. Friend mentioned individual billing authorities or adjoining ones, he used the dread word "regional". Given the nature of so much guidance from the Government, would it be possible for a valuation
 
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officer to consider a group of adjoining authorities in such a way as to cross the magic Government office line, which the Government seem to reluctant to do?

Mr. Forth: One problem with the amendment is that it deliberately leaves that open, which gives rise to the danger that my hon. Friend points out. By using a phrase as vague as

the amendment may leave too much flexibility, for the reasons that he describes. I shall come back to that thought later, because I do not want to get distracted. [Interruption.] Not half.

Mr. Francois: I thank my right hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way again. Without wanting to get too bogged down in demolition, may I remind him that there is another important facet? To continue my example, if someone wants to knock down an old housing estate and redevelop it with a housing association, that often involves tenants voting for a transfer—say, from the council to the housing association. For the redevelopment to go ahead, the tenants have to vote for it positively. I have been involved in such cases.

In the real world, the tenants want to know what the additional costs will be—first, what will happen to their rent, and secondly and increasingly, what effect will moving into the new properties have on their council tax? That can affect how they vote in the ballot, and thus whether the whole redevelopment goes ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that having such information available could be important in allowing the redevelopment of some of the worst estates in the country?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is right and he displays yet again his intimate and profound knowledge of these matters, but I am not sure whether that takes us in the direction of localism or of national decision making. He poses a very fair question and I suspect that the answer could be found in either of the two options that I am just beginning to explore.

4 pm

We have touched on the tempting potential allure of local decision making in this context, but I am not sure that that necessarily determines the issue; I am worried about anomalies and relativities in a national context. If we are too quick to accept the local solution offered in the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley, there is a danger that even bigger distortions could be created. Once we allow too much local decision making in this crucial area of valuations and listings, we immediately lose control of the relativities that are so important to the whole process.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Forth: I shall give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I do so because he claimed—he is of course correct—
 
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that he is one of only three people in the country who understand any of this. For that reason, we are honoured to have him with us today.

Mr. Gummer: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the danger—if it exists—is less than it might otherwise be, given that the revaluation would have to be done within a fixed maximum and that the difference between different local authorities would therefore be maintained? The point that he makes would be much more powerful were it not for that fact. There may be reasons why problems remain—perhaps he would like to adduce them—but I am a rather keen on a bit of variety within those limitations.

Mr. Forth: I of course accept, hesitatingly, my right hon. Friend's guidance on this issue for the reason that I touched on, so perhaps it is now resolved more or less completely and we can move on.

Mr. Bone: At the start of this debate, I was considerably confused as to whether to support the amendment; thankfully, on listening to the speeches the situation is much clearer. My Wellingborough constituents are fearful of any revaluation, and the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) would allow for an earlier revaluation than they want, so, unfortunately, I cannot support it, because it would make revaluation easier, rather than more difficult.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend touches on one of the key issues, which I shall now consider, if I may; it will not distract me from my main argument.

Anne Main: My right hon. Friend touched on localism, so let us consider the very small picture. A large supermarket retailer has bought a considerable number of properties and a small industrial area in a blighted part of my constituency. This situation has been ongoing for several years and under a local system, local people would be pushing the council for a devaluation on the ground of blight. A very local system could lead to the sending of very mixed messages.

Mr. Forth: That illustrates well the inherent dangers. When we vote on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley, we will have to weigh up the various factors and decide in which direction we want to go.

Mr. Scott: One problem is that, in areas such as the Thames Gateway, which takes in a number of different authorities, too much localism could lead to completely different revaluation results. A wider approach would need to be taken in such areas.

Mr. Forth: I think that that would depend on the trust that we place in the integrity of the valuation process, a point to which I shall return. First, I want to consider an issue that has been raised a number of times and which we need to discuss in some depth, so that we can establish which is preferable: a central bureaucracy that runs matters nationally; a much more localised approach; or, as we have speculated on throughout this
 
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debate, a staggered approach involving a small, compact, expert unit working sequentially, thus potentially saving money.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making a typically thoughtful contribution, but I do not want him to get away from the interesting point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). Does my right hon. Friend think that this amendment would lead to revaluations taking place sooner? That is an important issue and I should be grateful for his views.

Mr. Forth: I want to deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), which highlighted what many of us see as an omission or lacuna in the amendment, as it still leaves the discretion with the Secretary of State. The initiation of the valuation process must be a local decision, but the amendment does not allow that. It goes halfway, and then stops. Although my hon. Friend's local people may be anxious for a revaluation in the cause of fairness—or not—they would have no say if the amendment were adopted. The local decision makers would not either, as the matter would rest with the Secretary of State.

As so often happens with this Government's legislation, the Secretary of State will decide everything. The Government pay lip service to local decision making but in the end, according to the Bill, matters will be

I shall explore that later.


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