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We have had many debates in the Chamber about the importance of keeping communities together and of village halls and community centres, particularly in rural areas but also in many urban ones. They are of
14 Jun 2007 : Column 942
real value to our constituents. The purpose of the amendment is therefore to make it explicitly clear that such halls should not be caught by the Bill.

For a number of years, I was a rural county councillor. I was always amazed by the sometimes bizarre and unusual methods by which people get village halls. Sometimes, farmers give a piece of land and build a village hall for the community. While, effectively, it is the village hall, its ownership might still be vested in a local landowner or prominent member of the community. That is why we moved the amendment.

Such facilities are greatly valued. People often put a great deal of time into painting, upkeep and ensuring that the facilities are available to the local community. It would therefore be a pity if the Bill, a major revenue-raiser of more than £1 billion—the fourth largest raiser of money in the 2007 Budget—were to catch the small proportion of community and village halls that are not registered as charities.

The Minister has a useful opportunity, before the end of play, to set out why the amendment should not be accepted. The amendment would reinforce the good aspects of the Bill, and, as we have heard, charities and sports clubs are covered by it. By slightly broadening the provision, it would ensure the survival of valuable community facilities. The Government should not intend those facilities to be affected by this revenue-raising change. I look forward to hearing his comments.

Mr. Woolas: I appreciate the motive behind the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. I readily confess that my argument is a difficult one, but I shall explain my logic for not supporting his amendment.

The motive of the amendment is to extend to community-owned village halls and community centres the zero-rating liability that the Bill provides for empty properties owned by charities and community amateur sports clubs, where those properties appear likely to be next used for charitable purposes or for the purposes of the club. In essence, the problem is one of definition, as well as of trying to determine where the boundaries of exemptions from rates should lie.

The amendment seeks to protect facilities owned by the community. The hon. Gentleman referred to his experiences as a rural county councillor, and I represent an urban and rural area that has many community and village halls. Once one scratches the surface, however, it is apparent that ownership, and the definition of community ownership, is not always that clear. I remind the Committee that community amateur sports clubs are well defined.

My next argument is that a great many of our village halls and community centres are held by charitable organisations and will benefit from the zero rating of empty properties held by charities. Therefore, that provision does not need amending, and I would have had some difficulty had that not been the case. In addition, the opportunities for charitable registration have recently been improved by the Government.

I remind the Committee of the wide support that the Government are extending to community organisations as part of our strategy of reconnecting with the public, which the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and other measures address. For example, the £30 million community asset fund has
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been announced. In addition, on 7 June, we published the departmental third sector strategy, of which a key proposal, subject to the comprehensive spending review, is to support community-owned village halls, community centres and other such facilities. We want to stimulate and develop enterprise by transferring assets to community ownership and management through the expansion of earned revenue. The Quirk report is about exactly that. We are creating more community-owned assets, which makes the issues covered in the amendment more pertinent, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise them.

Perhaps hon. Members are concerned to ensure that parish councils and other bodies that own community facilities, as well as the community itself, enjoy zero rates liability when the facilities are empty, as charitable bodies will by virtue of the Bill. However, the practical effect of any exemption would always be to remove any incentive for owners of an empty property previously used for a community purpose to bring it back into use. We have concluded that in the particular case of charities, whether they own community facilities or any other type of property, the case for exemption does, exceptionally, outweigh our general presumption that all owners should be subject to empty property rates other than in cases where an exemption is already available. I remind the Committee—again, this is an important point in meeting the hon. Gentleman’s concerns—that properties with a low rateable value of less than £2,200 are exempt.

Michael Gove: I might have misheard but, in trying to follow the Minister’s logic, I fear that I might have misunderstood him. Is he genuinely asserting that owners of community facilities, such as those who are responsible for village halls, would wilfully keep those premises empty and would need the goad of the Bill to ensure the efficient disposition of their assets? It seems bizarre that we would have the situation that he appears to have described.

Mr. Woolas: I do not think that there would be examples of people wilfully keeping premises empty, but I can envisage how a bill landing on a doormat might prompt change if a community asset has not been used for a number of years, perhaps because the committee members or the activists who kept things going have moved on. The general presumption of the policy is to give incentives to owners of empty properties to put them back into use. There is a balance to be struck in the case of charitable organisations that outweighs the exemption, with the £2,200 threshold and charitable status covering many village and community halls.

4.45 pm

It is much more difficult to extend new zero rates to different types of owner, such as public bodies. Here the problem of definition comes into play. We could all invent exemptions for types of owner and types of building: we could come up with a list of worthy causes as long as our arm. The purpose of the regime proposed in the Bill is to give owners an incentive to return their empty properties to active use, whether
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they are vacant city offices or rural halls. We do not wish to subsidise properties to lie empty. The application to public buildings, including parish halls and community halls, creates a very difficult situation in which the definition of a community or village hall would make the legislation unworkable.

As I have said many times, we will examine the issue of exemptions in the summer, and I therefore ask the hon. Member for Poole to withdraw his amendment. I congratulate him on tabling it, because it reflects a real argument that will take place in communities, but I think that, on balance, it is likely to foster circumstances whereby community halls would be allowed to lie empty rather than be put to good active use. Nothing is more visible and more likely to damage a community, whether it is a village or an urban neighbourhood, than an empty hall at the end of the road that is usually covered in weeds and graffiti. We want to return such buildings to use for the benefit of the community, and I fear the amendment would not achieve that.

Mr. Syms: I thank the Minister for the way in which he responded to the debate. The problem is that when certain exemptions are included in a Bill, the question arises of where the boundaries should be drawn, and the arguments are always difficult to deploy.

I have often seen housing developments on the edge of villages or in towns that have included community facilities as some of the planning gain. That leaves the problem of older halls that might need redevelopment and remain empty. A new hall might not be 100 per cent. provided by a developer: it might need new chairs, or redecoration. This tax proposal could well affect the ability to provide first-class facilities for communities that badly need them and that would use them.

I am sorry to tell the Minister that we will press the amendment to a Division; it is one of those afternoons. I hope that, in due course, he will take account of the arguments, particularly in his consultation.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 134, Noes 232.
Division No. 140]
[4.48 pm


Afriyie, Adam
Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Amess, Mr. David
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Baldry, Tony
Barker, Gregory
Baron, Mr. John
Barrett, John
Beith, rh Mr. Alan
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Bercow, John
Bone, Mr. Peter
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Browning, Angela
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burrowes, Mr. David
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Clark, Greg
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Curry, rh Mr. David
Davey, Mr. Edward
Davies, Philip
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine
Evennett, Mr. David
Field, Mr. Mark
Foster, Mr. Don
Francois, Mr. Mark
Fraser, Mr. Christopher
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
George, Andrew
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Gove, Michael

Gray, Mr. James
Green, Damian
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Hammond, Stephen
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harper, Mr. Mark
Harris, Dr. Evan
Hayes, Mr. John
Heath, Mr. David
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hemming, John
Hendry, Charles
Herbert, Nick
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Horam, Mr. John
Hughes, Simon
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Jones, Mr. David
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Kennedy, rh Mr. Charles
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Kramer, Susan
Lamb, Norman
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Luff, Peter
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
Malins, Mr. Humfrey
May, rh Mrs. Theresa
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mercer, Patrick
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Neill, Robert
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
Öpik, Lembit
Paice, Mr. James
Paisley, rh Rev. Ian
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Penning, Mike
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Pritchard, Mark
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Rogerson, Mr. Dan
Rosindell, Andrew
Ruffley, Mr. David
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Scott, Mr. Lee
Selous, Andrew
Smith, Sir Robert
Soames, Mr. Nicholas
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline
Spring, Mr. Richard
Stanley, rh Sir John
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Swinson, Jo
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Teather, Sarah
Vaizey, Mr. Edward
Viggers, Peter
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Walker, Mr. Charles
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Wiggin, Bill
Willetts, Mr. David
Williams, Mr. Roger
Willis, Mr. Phil
Willott, Jenny
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Wright, Jeremy
Young, rh Sir George
Younger-Ross, Richard
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Robert Goodwill and
Mr. Tobias Ellwood

Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Mr. David
Anderson, Janet
Atkins, Charlotte
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Banks, Gordon
Barlow, Ms Celia
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Battle, rh John
Begg, Miss Anne
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr. Joe
Berry, Roger
Blackman, Liz
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brennan, Kevin
Brown, Lyn
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burgon, Colin
Burnham, Andy
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Chapman, Ben
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Ms Katy
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clelland, Mr. David
Coaker, Mr. Vernon

Coffey, Ann
Cohen, Harry
Cooper, Rosie
Cooper, Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy
Crausby, Mr. David
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Engel, Natascha
Field, rh Mr. Frank
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flello, Mr. Robert
Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Goodman, Helen
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Grogan, Mr. John
Gwynne, Andrew
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Harris, Mr. Tom
Havard, Mr. Dai
Healey, John
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Heyes, David
Hill, rh Keith
Hillier, Meg
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hoey, Kate
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jackson, Glenda
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Helen
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Lynne
Jowell, rh Tessa
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Keen, Alan
Keen, Ann
Kelly, rh Ruth
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Knight, Jim
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Love, Mr. Andrew
Lucas, Ian
MacShane, rh Mr. Denis
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mann, John
Marris, Rob
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCafferty, Chris
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
McFadden, Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Meale, Mr. Alan
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, Edward
Moffatt, Laura
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Morgan, Julie
Mountford, Kali
Mudie, Mr. George
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan
Osborne, Sandra
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pope, Mr. Greg
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, James
Rammell, Bill
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reid, rh John
Robertson, John
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Roy, Mr. Frank

Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Christine
Ryan, Joan
Seabeck, Alison
Shaw, Jonathan
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Singh, Mr. Marsha
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Tami, Mark
Taylor, David
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mr. Mark
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Ussher, Kitty
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Wills, Mr. Michael
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Woodward, Mr. Shaun
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Dr. Tony
Wyatt, Derek
Tellers for the Noes:

Tony Cunningham and
Steve McCabe
Question accordingly negatived.
14 Jun 2007 : Column 945

14 Jun 2007 : Column 946

14 Jun 2007 : Column 947

It being after Five o’clock, The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour. pursuant to Order [this day]

Clauses 1, 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen’s Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

5.3 pm

Mr. Woolas: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

In earlier debates on this Bill, my hon. Friends the Economic and Financial Secretaries to the Treasury and I explained why the Government consider this Bill to be such an important piece of legislation. The current policy on the rating of empty properties is based on a set of economic circumstances that simply does not exist in the UK today, and which does not fulfil the requirement for the efficient use of property and the regeneration of brownfield sites to meet our housing needs.

The Government’s commitment to regeneration and to meeting those needs cannot be faulted, and I assure the House that that will remain the case, but I have also made it clear that devoting more than £70 million in tax relief every year to the owners of empty properties in Westminster is simply unjustifiable. Consequently, it is time to reform the blanket relief extended to empty commercial property. In place of that relief, the Government are moving their support for regeneration and renewal towards a brand new, and much better targeted, 100 per cent. capital allowance for the renovation of property in our assisted areas. I strongly believe that that meets the points made by hon.
14 Jun 2007 : Column 948
Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley), Opposition Members and Liberal Democrat Members in interventions and in speeches.

We have introduced this new allowance now, so that owners of unlet property in these areas can take advantage of the new incentive before the changes to empty property rates. Furthermore, we have consulted on a wider application of land remediation relief to a much broader range of contaminated and derelict brownfield sites specifically in order to promote efficient use of our developed land and to help protect greenfield sites. I believe that those two measures allow policy to meet the reasonable and correct objection made by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House that there are different types of market in different parts of the country. That point was made by constituency Members of Parliament as well as by hon. Members speaking on a wider policy agenda. I ask the House to consider the other measures that I have mentioned in the round with this measure. I hope that my hon. Friends, and Opposition Members, will see that the Bill is part of a much wider package of measures, supporting regeneration but also meeting the needs of business and our communities for active property markets and efficient use of land.

We have decided that for charities and community amateur sports clubs there will be 100 per cent. relief from empty property rates. These organisations play such a key role in our society, often leading regeneration efforts, and the Bill offers substantial additional help to them. For the rest of the business community, this Bill will reduce rents and provide opportunities for new companies, expanding companies and companies wanting to join the most successful economy in the G7.

I repeat what I said in the Ways and Means debate and on Second Reading. We have the successful policy of linking business rates—or non-domestic rates as they are properly called—to the retail prices index cap. As that business rate is based on rental value, not capital value, the successful implementation of the policy in bringing rents down over the years will indeed, as the Red Book acknowledges, see a diminution in the revenue that it generates, the more successful it becomes. That is the serious answer that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary gave to the serious objection that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has raised.

This is, of course, a revenue-raising policy. It was a policy announced as part of a Budget package and its process through the House has been unusual. I am grateful to the House authorities for their guidance and advice in this regard. However, it is far from the case that the Bill is simply a matter of raising revenue. It also embodies a policy on land use and properties, and our own Red Book acknowledges that there will be a diminution in the revenue raised. As the cap on business rates exists, the total yield from business rates cannot rise higher than inflation.

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