HC Deb 23 January 1997 vol 288 cc1138-43
Ms Armstrong

I beg to move amendment No. 38, in page 20, leave out lines 21 to 23 and insert— '(a) on the day concerned the hereditament is

  1. (i) within a settlement identified in the billing authority's rural settlement list for the chargeable financial year, or
  2. (ii) is designated by the billing authority as being used for purposes which are of benefit to the local community'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 29, in page 20, line 29, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 21 and insert 'any conditions prescribed by the Secretary of State by order are satisfied'. No. 30, in page 21, line 37, leave out '(ii)'.

No. 31, in schedule 2, page 23, leave out lines 2 to 23 and insert

'any conditions prescribed by the Secretary of State by order are satisfied'.

Ms Armstrong

In many senses the amendment brings us back to the debate on the definition of a general store and a post office which kept us busy for some time in Committee. We simply want the Government to think about the matter.

As it stands, the Bill makes it clear that to be eligible for mandatory rate relief a hereditament must fulfil several key conditions. It must be situated in a rural settlement with 3,000 people or fewer; it must be used as a general store or post office; it must be the only general store or post office within the settlement; and it must have a rateable value below an amount prescribed by the Secretary of State by order.

In Committee, we discussed in detail what was a post office or a general store. The argument about that definition relates to where such a facility may be located. We were concerned particularly about urban areas where relative social exclusion and social deprivation have meant that the role of the urban post office or general store is now similar to that of the village post office or village general store. The Government went some way towards trying to meet those concerns in Committee, for which we were, and are, grateful. They made it clear that the Secretary of State intends to designate rural areas even when they may fall within the boundary of a metropolitan district and be on the edge of a much larger conurbation.

In Committee, several of my hon. Friends raised that issue and were grateful for the Government's response. However, there remains the problem of urban estates that may be at the edge of a conurbation, but be isolated because their residents do not move from the estate very much. In Committee the Minister said that that issue could be tackled through the use of the single regeneration budget.

I have been considering the matter and I do not believe that the SRB is designed to help struggling general post offices or general stores in an urban area. The SRB is important in terms of raising an area's economic status and improving it generally. There is no doubt that, if that happens, the ability of the general store or post office to survive will improve, but the size of the SRB fund means that there is no chance of every estate with such a problem being able to use it. In addition, the SRB programme is designed to tackle much more comprehensive situations than the sort of problem that the Bill seeks to resolve.

I understood what the Minister was trying to say, but he did not give an adequate answer. I shall not seek to press the amendment to a vote, but I ask the Minister to recognise that the responses that we have received so far are not sufficient. Problems exist on some bleak and desolate urban estates that are similar to those of a rural village. It is the responsibility of the House not to forget that problem when we tackle similar problems in rural areas. It is in that spirit that I have moved the amendment.

Mr. Rendel

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to amendments Nos. 29, 30 and 31, which go to the heart of the decision on how discretionary or mandatory relief should be given to local businesses. I think that all hon. Members are aware of the needs of small businesses in rural areas and of the benefit that the Bill may bring to some of our smaller rural communities, but the way in which that benefit is to be given has to be questioned. The aim of my amendments is to enable all the rate relief to be given on a discretionary basis rather than the mandatory basis contained in the Bill.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Government's decision to make some of the relief mandatory is that, in other areas of their business, they have been keen to try to ensure that where Government money is handed out it is targeted on those who are most in need. That has happened in the past with discretionary rate relief and, more recently, with the Government's benefit legislation. It seems odd that in this instance the Government are moving away from targeting the rate relief on those who are most in need and moving towards a generalised policy of giving rate relief of at least 50 per cent. to certain types of business even if some of them do not need it.

Once again, we come back to the important principle of subsidiarity, which lies at the heart of my amendments. In Committee I said that it was odd that the Government should go for a half-and-half policy; my point was not properly answered. Half the rate relief for post offices and general stores is to be mandatory and the other half is to be discretionary.

8.15 pm

In Committee, the Minister said that it was not a half-and-half policy; he said that businesses that were most important for rural villages would receive mandatory relief, but less important businesses would not, but that was not the half-and-half aspect to which I was referring. I was making the point that the Government cannot make up their mind about the best way to give rate relief, even to those businesses that they consider to be the most important in rural areas—small post offices and general stores. They cannot decide whether rate relief should be given on a mandatory or discretionary basis. I see no logic behind this half-and-half system, where some of the relief can be left up to the discretion of the local authority and some of it has to be decided here in Westminster.

The one criticism of the amendments that has been made, and which may, if not properly understood, concern some smaller local authorities that may benefit from rate relief, is that some of them simply would not have the money to give discretionary relief. It is clear that the Government will set aside the money in their future Budgets as soon as the rate relief system is introduced. That money can be distributed in a number of ways. If the mandatory part of the Bill were removed, it would be possible for the Government to decide, in next year's rate support settlement, that some of that money should be used directly to enhance rate support for those local authorities that are expected to pass on rate relief on a discretionary basis. If that is done, there is no reason to assume that any local authority will be worse off as a result of using discretionary powers. The discretionary powers will be properly available to them, as will the money to use them. Therefore, the small businesses that need the rate relief will receive it.

I firmly believe that local people know best where to spend the money. I was happy to hear that that belief was strongly supported by two Conservative Members who spoke on new clause 1. If councils believe that the right way to use the money that they will have in future is to give discretionary relief to local businesses, they will do so. If they do not believe that, they should have the right to choose how best that money should be spent. Some authorities may have greater needs for the money than rate relief for small businesses. It is their choice; they are in the best position to know. Some local authorities may give much more discretionary relief than the Government currently envisage.

By making part of the rate relief mandatory, the Government are showing that they do not trust local government to support vital rural businesses in the way that all hon. Members would like them to be supported. It is a case of, "We know better than them." The Government are saying that they know better than local authorities where the rate relief is needed, but that is not true, and I was happy to have the support of two Conservative Members on that issue. The amendments provide a touchstone to show the commitment of parties in the House to the principle of subsidiarity, of devolving powers to the lowest level, and of trusting local authorities to take the right decisions for their people because they are in the best position to make the right decisions. Because the amendments go to the very heart of the principle of subsidiarity, I shall do everything I can to force a Division on them tonight.

Mr. Curry

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) for the way in which she introduced her amendment, saying that she wanted to extend further the debate about isolated shops. She was effectively talking about estates that are rather remote from cities.

I hope we agree that, in practice, the relief scheme might be of little assistance in such cases. Generally speaking, in villages, there are unlikely to be a range of social problems affecting the environment in which a shop operates—basically, it is a question of numbers. In urban areas, there are far more likely to be adverse factors arising from the broader environment in which a shop operates. Such factors may include a deficiency in purchasing power, social problems, vandalism and crime—in short, the sort of problems that we have seen in city challenge areas.

Whereas in a village one can address the specific problem of a shop in terms of a deficiency in its financial buoyancy, in urban areas one has to look mainly at the general environment. In such areas, the sort of schemes I spoke about—the single regeneration budget schemes, of which there will shortly be 500 throughout the country—can be of assistance. If the hon. Lady would like to discuss how SRB schemes or other Government programmes can incorporate the sort of problems she raised, I should be happy to oblige her. Such programmes have to be developed, and each succeeding round brings its own lessons. When discussing such issues, I can wear my urban regeneration hat as well.

As for the points raised by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I recall that when I was in the Committee on what became the Housing Act 1996, the Liberal Democrat spokesman spoke at great length about how wicked was our intention to do things by order and through secondary legislation. He said that everything should be on the face of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman is now saying that it is terrible that everything appears on the face of the Bill, and that discretionary powers should be used. That would give my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment gargantuan powers.

The hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that, under the amendment, the Secretary of State would have to prescribe the conditions that have to be fulfilled before the relief was exercised. I know that my right hon. Friend will be deeply touched by the hon. Gentleman's confidence in him, but, for once, my right hon. Friend believes that this responsibility and power should be expressed clearly and defined by Parliament. The purpose of the Bill is simple, easy to administer, easy to deliver and easy to understand. Local authorities have made it clear that there will be no problem applying it.

The village shop and post office in the circumstances that we have described represent a clear and definable case for assistance. We should extend mandatory assistance to them so that they can be sure they will receive that assistance. The measure is an indication of our willingness to address the real concerns affecting those areas. I am, therefore, not willing to transfer that assistance into a discretionary relief. We have tried to be precise in our intentions, and our action has been welcomed. If we were to accept amendment No. 29, we would remove certainty, clarity and simplicity from the Bill, so I cannot commend it to the House.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 29, in page 20, line 29, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 21 and insert 'any conditions prescribed by the Secretary of State by order are satisfied'.—[Mr. Rendelj

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 97.

Division No. 51] [8.23 pm
Ashdown, Paddy Rendel, David
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Skinner, Dennis
Carlile, Alex (Montgomery) Tyler, Paul
Foster, Don (Bath)
Lynne, Ms Liz Tellers for the Ayes:
Maddock, Mrs Diana Mr. Archy Kirkwood and
Nicholson, Miss Emma (W Devon) Mr. Chris Davies.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Butler, Peter
Ancram, Michael Carrington, Matthew
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Cash, William
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Channon, Paul
Baldry, Tony Clappison, James
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Biffen, John Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Coe, Sebastian
Bowis, John Congdon, David
Brandreth, Gyles Conway, Derek
Browning, Mrs Angela Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Currie, Mrs Edwina
Curry, David Merchant, Piers
Davies, Quentin (Stamf'd) Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Dover, Den Nelson, Anthony
Duncan, Alan Neubert, Sir Michael
Duncan Smith, Iain Nicholls, Patrick
Dykes, Hugh Norris, Steve
Eggar, Tim Ottaway, Richard
Elletson, Harold Paice, James
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Pickles, Eric
Evans, Nigel (Ribble V) Portillo, Michael
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Redwood, John
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Roberts, Sir Wyn
French, Douglas Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Fry, Sir Peter Spencer, Sir Derek
Gill, Christopher Spink, Dr Robert
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Sproat, Iain
Goodlad, Alastair Steen, Anthony
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Stephen, Michael
Harris David Sumberg, David
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Sweeney, Walter
Hurd, Douglas Townsend, Sir Cyril (Bexl'yh'th)
Jenkin, Bernard (Colchester N) Tredinnick, David
Kirkhope, Timothy Trend, Michael
Knapman, Roger Twin, Dr Ian
Waller, Gary
Kynoch, George Waterson, Nigel
Lamont, Norman Watts, John
Legg, Barry Whittingdale, John
Leigh, Edward Widdecombe, Miss Ann
Lester, Sir Jim (Broxtowe) Willetts, David
Lidington, David Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Lloyd, Sir Peter (Fareham) Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfld)
Lord, Michael Wolfson, Mark
Luff, Peter Wood, Timothy
MacKay, Andrew Young, Sir George
Maclean, David
McLoughlin, Patrick Tellers for the Noes:
Malone, Gerald Mrs. Jacqui Lait and
Matlow, Tony Mr. Bowen Wells.

Question accordingly negatived.

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