Previous Section Index Home Page

5 July 2006 : Column 900

The alternative investment market is generally regarded as something of a success story. We would like to make REITs a success story, too. Therefore we would like to know why the Government are reluctant to consider expanding the REITs concept to AIM. We hope that they will concede that point this afternoon, but if they do not, will they at least reassert the position—as given by the former Economic Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), and repeated in Committee—that, at the very least, they intend to keep this matter under review once the regime is rolled out from January 2007?

I suspect that REITs will at some point be expanded by being listed on AIM. We shall see when that happens. We have put down our marker very firmly in this debate. If the Government do not take this step, I suspect that we will when we become the Government.

Julia Goldsworthy: I do not intend to rehearse all the arguments that we had on this issue on Second Reading and in Committee. However, let me state that the whole point of real estate investment trusts is that they offer a regulated, low-risk way for individuals to invest in the property market. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is right that early indications suggest that there might be a question about where the balance lies in terms of the development of REITs and what proportion of them will be commercial REITs as against residential REITs. At present the balance is heavily in favour of the commercial sector, but as the Economic Secretary pointed out, it seems that some residential companies are hesitantly setting out their stall and looking to develop in that way.

Given the way in which the self-invested personal pension scheme was put forward and then withdrawn, it is important that we allow these regulations to go ahead as was suggested in the consultation with the industry, which was very constructive, and let them bed down. At that point, we can look at where the imbalances are, and at ways to overcome them. That is when we should reflect on whether the proposals in amendment No. 130 are required or appropriate. The Liberal Democrats are relaxed about this issue. We would rather see how the REITs regulations bed down over the first couple of years, and how the companies in question bed down in the London stock exchange, and then, if there is a problem, look to AIM.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I wish to address my remarks to amendments Nos. 64 to 68. The substantive amendment is amendment No. 65; the others are consequential, renumbering subsections in clause 106.

The Minister and others will know that I and my party are very supportive of the concept of real estate investment trusts. Like many, we believe that they offer a route into property investment for the vast majority of people, who do not have the means to purchase a second property outright, or for those who do have the means but who simply wish to avoid managing such properties themselves. We also believe that if REITs are local and highly focused residential trusts, they have the opportunity either to complement the existing local authority sector or housing association and private
5 July 2006 : Column 901
residential rented sector, or to provide additional rented properties in areas where there is little provision, or none at all.

However, the Bill as it stands will force all REITs to be listed on the stock exchange. We believe that that requirement alone might prevent the creation of the smaller, local, highly focused residential trusts that we would like to be created, along with the inevitable larger commercial ones.

As we know, the minimum entry level for a stock exchange listing is £750,000, plus another £750,000 for fundraising, plus 2 to 5 per cent. in commission, and advisory costs of some £250,000. Fundraising on the stock exchange can be for any amount. We also know that the typical value of a stock exchange-listed company is £100 million upwards. If one combines those costs with the other rules—that 75 per cent. of a REIT’s commercial activity must come from rentals, and that 90 per cent. of the rental income must be returned in dividends to investors—there is a very real danger, to which the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) alluded, that REITs will focus solely on high-end commercial and retail properties that already offer a guaranteed high rental income. It is also likely that, to cover the listing costs and to meet all the other rules and obligations, such trusts will purchase property rather than seek to develop it.

Our view is that to encourage smaller, more focused residential trusts to deliver rented housing, the entry bar should be far lower than the stock exchange listing requirement in current legislation. For example, the minimum entry cost for introduction to the alternative investment market is about £300,000. Fundraising accounts for another £300,000, and there are similar commission levels of 2 to 5 per cent.; however, the ongoing advisory costs—some £50,000—are far less than the £250,000 figure.

In AIM, companies tend to be in the £10 million to £150 million range, with fundraising costs in the of £2 million to £20 million range—the kind of figure that a small, locally focused residential trust might seek to raise. Further down the range is the off-exchange market, with a minimum entry figure of £30,000, fundraising costs of about £100,000 and similar commission levels, but with ongoing advisory costs of some £10,000. Ofex caters for businesses up to the £20 million mark—not a tiny sum—whose fundraising costs are in the £300,000 to £4 million range. Of course, there is also the opportunity for any business or trust to be financed privately.

So, given the other conditions applying to REITs—not least the residency qualification—there seems little logic in forcing a REIT to be quoted on the official list; indeed, in the light of the associated costs and the typical size of businesses on the list, there is almost a disincentive for local residential trusts to be created. Our amendments would eliminate that requirement from the Bill by deleting subsection (5) from clause 106, thereby removing the condition that a trust company’s ordinary shares be listed on the stock exchange. The only argument previously posited in favour of full listing is that it would perhaps give confidence to investors and to those seeking to rent a property from such a trust.
5 July 2006 : Column 902
However, a given individual or business will take the decision to invest or rent after applying the correct degree of scrutiny and due diligence.

Although a full listing indicates a large company with deep pockets, a small, privately funded trust—or one whose shares are traded on AIM or Ofex—could prove to have better local knowledge, equally experienced management and excellent internal management systems. In short, there should be no assumption that a stock exchange listed company is always a better option than one that is not listed.

The key point is that although I welcome the creation of the REIT regime, the Government should not limit the creation of highly focused local residential trusts through the mechanism of a stock exchange entry and its associated fundraising costs. We have great hopes that REITs will complement the existing social and for-profit rented sector, but that opportunity would be enhanced by a more liberal approach to the regime’s operation from the outset. I suspect that the Government have some sympathy with that argument.

We want a commitment from the Government that they will move as quickly as possible to liberalise the REITs regime, in order to ensure that the hoped-for benefits in the residential sector are brought to fruition, and that REITs do not simply become players in the high-end commercial property market. I hope that, when the Minister sums up, he can guarantee, or at least hint at, the fairly speedy liberalisation of the market. Should that not be forthcoming, we will—should you allow us, Madam Deputy Speaker—press one of our amendments to a vote.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) on for his eloquent advocacy of amendment No. 130. I was delighted to hear that his arguments have struck a chord in other parts of the House. I agree with what the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) said towards the end of his remarks about getting a healthy residential market on its feet.

I want to speak briefly to amendments Nos. 60 and 61, and I refer again to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. Although it is not a registrable interest, I was also a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association, although the impact that I made may have faded by the time the Economic Secretary signed up a few years later. This is the fourth and penultimate time that I will speak in the Finance Bill proceedings on real estate investment trusts. Let me summarise where we are. There is a background of an all-party consensus on the need for a new investment vehicle to promote investment in residential property, attracting long-term institutional funds, broadening the market, giving a wider choice for those who want to rent and enabling private and institutional investors to get exposure to the residential property market that they do not have at the moment.

When the Government took office, there was an all-party consensus that we needed an initiative. The Government took the debate forward and I give them credit for that. We had the Kate Barker report and then, in March 2004, the Treasury consultation paper. In paragraph 1.14, it said that a REIT

5 July 2006 : Column 903

a REIT structure. The paper went on to say:

the private rented sector—

It continued:

Finally, it stated that the Government were keen for a REIT

There is no disagreement on either side of the House about those objectives. The debate in Committee was about whether those objectives would be achieved with the regime that is before us. We had a constructive and, by and large, consensual debate. We established that there was domestic harmony between the Economic Secretary and the Minister for Housing and Planning on the approach to REITs and that the framework for our debate was what the Chancellor said in his Budget speech:

I want to bring one or two points from the debate to the attention of the House. The Economic Secretary was asked what went wrong with the previous initiatives and he replied:

I suspect that he meant me—

There is some concern that the new regime may have the disadvantages of the regime that he criticised in that debate. He went on to say:

I will come to that in a moment.

The debate spanned a morning sitting and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh said, a rather warm afternoon sitting. Again, I want to pick up on some of the key points of that debate. The Economic Secretary said that he fully supported the

We probably pushed him right to the limits of his negotiating powers by extracting from him a general undertaking that if things did not go as he hoped, he would have another look at the matter. He did not go quite as far as we all wanted, but at the end I withdrew the relevant amendment, saying:

5 July 2006 : Column 904

I remind the House that there is enormous potential here. I understand that there is a proposition to build the Olympic village through a REIT. There is also the possibility of using REITs to provide student accommodation and other opportunities. However, the key question is whether we will have the correct regime. My amendments Nos. 60 and 61 approach the problem from a slightly different angle from the one that I moved in Committee. They would amend clause 112, which introduces the entry charge, or conversion charge, which is the entry tax that must be paid to become a residential REIT.

5.15 pm

It is worth bringing to the House’s attention the fact that the entry charge, or conversion charge, was not a feature of the regime initially proposed by Kate Barker, who focused on residential REITs. The conversion charge came on to the radar when the concept was extended from residential REITs to commercial REITs. By converting to a REIT, a quoted company will avoid capital gains tax liabilities, so to defray any possible loss of revenue, the Government decided to introduce a conversion charge to compensate the Treasury for the prospective loss of finance. I have no difficulty with that as a concept. In my view, the charge was set at a generous level, and the Minister explained how it was calculated. When the announcement was made, the market was pleasantly surprised.

Although a conversion charge might be appropriate for a commercial REIT, I argue that it is wholly inappropriate for a residential REIT. We have established that no quoted residential property company is likely to convert, so a residential REIT will have to start from scratch. In an earlier intervention, the Economic Secretary referred to 17 housing associations that are forming a consortium with a possible view to converting to a REIT. If one examines the model that that consortium will have to follow, one realises that there are severe disincentives to adopting the REIT structure.

The first thing that will happen when a housing association wants to put its residential properties into a residential REIT is that it will have to pay capital gains tax on any profit from the disposal of those properties. That will crystallise a capital gains tax liability that would not have been there otherwise. Capital gains tax will have to be paid on any properties transferred from the existing portfolio to a residential REIT. Secondly, stamp duty at 4 per cent. will be payable by the REIT vehicle on purchase, and, thirdly, the REIT will have to pay a 2 per cent. charge on conversion. Those are serious disincentives before any new supply is created. If the objective is to establish a more benign fiscal regime, it is absurd to start by expecting a residential REIT to pay three taxes that it would not have to pay at the moment.

I shall outline what has gone wrong. The original regime was aimed at residential REITs, but that has been transferred to cope with commercial REITs, so that regime is simply inappropriate. The Economic Secretary is frowning, but those three taxes—capital gains tax, stamp duty and the conversion charge—will be payable before a residential REIT gets into the business of providing new homes, which is the object of the exercise. In a sense, the commercial property companies have become the cuckoo in the nest. The
5 July 2006 : Column 905
nest was originally designed for residential REITs, but the cuckoo has come along and displaced the original occupant—the residential REIT. Unless the Minister makes a concession today or at a later stage, I am worried that the hurdles that will confront— [Interruption.] I will happily give way if the Minister is about to indicate that he will accept my amendments, or indeed waive some of the taxes to which I referred.

Ed Balls: Is the right hon. Gentleman really saying that the British commercial property sector, which is renowned nationally and internationally for its efficiency and strength, is a cuckoo?

Sir George Young: I am slightly sorry that the Minister has taken so seriously the analogy that I was trying to convey to the House. In Committee he displayed traces of humour, which we enjoyed. I am sorry that that is the best response that he can produce to the rather serious case that I am making, which is that the regime—or the nest, if he does not find that reference offensive—most appropriate for the commercial sector is not appropriate for the residential sector. There is an offshore alternative to UK REITs, which the Treasury should not ignore.

I hope that the Economic Secretary will reflect on the fact that there are some serious hurdles to overcome before the residential REIT gets going. I also hope that, when he winds up the debate he will exhibit some flexibility—and possibly some humour—in his response to my case, which I have made against the background of the model that will be used by the very housing associations that he mentioned earlier.

Mr. Newmark: I, too, would like draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. In common with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the Economic Secretary, I was a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for not registering that interest before.

The objectives are quite simple—they are first, to stimulate an onshore REIT market and, secondly, to achieve the Government’s and the Chancellor’s aim of having a REIT market that stimulates residential housing. Those are the two aims that we want to achieve.

When I read that Paul Herrington, head of UK property investment at Foreign and Colonial, believes that the Chancellor’s proposals for REITs are welcome, it has to be a good thing. He thinks that the proposals

and that changes need to be made to the Finance Bill. He recognised REITs’ importance as an alternative asset class and went on to argue:

He continued:

Rob Marris: He said that?

5 July 2006 : Column 906

Mr. Newmark: Yes, he did.

As the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has said:

Next Section Index Home Page