Wednesday 4th March 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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HM Treasury
Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con)
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4 Mar 2020, 4:43 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered VAT on listed properties.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I apologise again to the Minister, whom I seem to drag to Westminster Hall on a fairly regular basis on tax issues. This debate is about VAT on listed properties, which come in all shapes and sizes. They can be modest country cottages, terraced houses, farmhouses and former industrial buildings being brought into some other type of use. They are spread across the entire UK.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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4 Mar 2020, 4:45 p.m.

To that list, I add churches, which are also listed buildings. Does my hon. Friend think that the grant scheme is adequate and properly replaces VAT in the way that it is carried out?

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 4:45 p.m.

The listed places of worship grant scheme has been in place since 2001. It has been taken up by 89% of churches; one third take up the scheme every year; and most churches, over the cycle, have used it six times. It is working quite well, but obviously it is not as clean as a pure exemption. I will come on to analyse that further.

Listed properties are owned by the normal cross-section of the population. The beautiful town of Sandwich in my constituency is home to more listed properties than any other town in the country. It is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in England. I want to do everything I can to help to preserve it and the other great medieval towns across our country.

Philip Dunne Portrait Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)
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4 Mar 2020, 4:46 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate for those of us who represent areas like Sandwich that have a high preponderance of listed buildings. There are more than 3,000 in my constituency. They are often in rural areas where properties are remote, isolated and, in many cases, hard to heat. I hope that he will talk about the opportunity to reduce VAT to, say, 5% on renewable energy initiatives in listed properties, which the Minister might want to take into account in the forthcoming Budget or the comprehensive spending review later this year.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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My right hon. Friend makes an important point for people who have older properties, which are expensive to heat. We have ambitions to be carbon neutral by 2050, so the current regime of charging full VAT on trying to do the right thing for the Government’s other ambitions seems somewhat perverse.

Philip Dunne Portrait Philip Dunne
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4 Mar 2020, 4:47 p.m.

My hon. Friend will remember that it was introduced by the EU. We had to reduce the previous concession as a result of an EU directive. Now we are free from EU directives, we may be able to be more liberal in our interpretation of VAT laws.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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We are branching into another area, but my right hon. Friend is correct. Just a few months ago, we were forced to raise the rating on small renewable units from 5% to 20% because we lost a European Court of Justice judgment. That is quite perverse in the current environment.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)
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4 Mar 2020, 4:48 p.m.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was a missed opportunity in 2008, when the ECOFIN conference in Helsinki agreed that VAT could be reduced to 5% on labour-intensive industries, which include building repair and renovation? Despite the best efforts of hon. Members, successive Governments have refused to take advantage of that opportunity, which would have been of great benefit to areas such as his constituency and mine, where there is a high concentration of listed buildings, very low incomes and a reduced ability for people to renovate their houses.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 4:48 p.m.

I was not aware of that ECOFIN conference. Any country under the EU VAT regime has always had the ability to reduce VAT to 5% on items, but the problem is that it is a ratchet, so once VAT has been implemented on something, it can never return to zero. That has been a feature and problem of our VAT membership. We have had various discussions about that in the main Chamber on the so-called tampon tax.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams
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That particular dispensation was for labour-intensive industries and, at that time, certain countries reduced their VAT. For example, France reduced VAT on restaurant meals; Italy reduced VAT on building renovation and repair; and Belgium reduced VAT on bicycle maintenance and repair. The reduction in Italy was an alleged example—a rare or perhaps unique example—of the Laffer curve in operation in that, when VAT was reduced, receipts to the state increased massively as people moved out of the dark economy.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 4:49 p.m.

The hon. Member shows his great wealth and breadth of experience of international VAT matters, and I stand educated.

I want to do everything that I can to help preserve our great medieval towns. Listed properties are not grand ancestral piles; a huge majority are very modest properties that are owned and loved by normal people. Private listed property owners are protecting the vast majority of Britain’s built heritage out of their own pocket, but the costs for doing repairs and renovations have risen sharply in recent years.

Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con)
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4 Mar 2020, 4:50 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great challenges with climate change and pollution is tackling some of the problems with the heating and insulation of such properties? If they are listed, there are features that have to be protected in the process, so it is an expensive business. It is very much in the national interest that these changes should be made, and it is only right that the Treasury should consider whether previous concessions could be reintroduced.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 4:51 p.m.

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. There have been certain schemes over the years for wood pellet-type boilers, and grants have been available, but he highlights the unique features of older properties. It is often not feasible or possible to put in a cheap, efficient gas boiler, which other property owners might be able to do.

I turn to the obvious desire to insulate homes and make them more energy efficient. It is a very reasonable desire, because a lot of listed properties are draughty and old and do not have modern insulation. They are expensive to heat, which adds to the costs of being a listed property owner.

Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald
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4 Mar 2020, 4:52 p.m.

My hon. Friend will be aware that North East Hertfordshire is one of the constituencies that has a high number of listed properties, many of them modest. Does he agree that the situation in urban areas is different from that in rural areas? If someone lives in a rural area with a significant number of listed buildings, there has to be some sort of level playing field to try to help them make the relevant changes.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 4:58 p.m.

My right hon. Friend makes a perfect point about country living, as opposed to living in towns, because cheaper piped gas is often not available. People might have Calor-style units in their garden, or they might rely on solid fuels such as coal. We had discussions, dare I say, with the Government last week and advanced various measures that I cannot say I fully agree with at this time.

In 2012, we got to the point where the zero VAT rating for authorised alterations to listed properties was removed. The owners of 500,000 listed buildings across the country, 98% of which are privately owned, then suffered a potential increase of 20% in anything that they do to keep their properties in a good state of repair. As listed property owners often say, an individual never really owns a listed property, but is merely borrowing it.

Before the 2012 Budget, the zero VAT rating was available as long as people had applied for the proper listed property consent with the local authority. As hon. Members know, such consent is often costly to obtain and requires input from specialists, including architects and building control, the navigation of the local planning system and a variety of interpretations by conservation officers. All of that is on a scale that is wholly different from that of people who do not live in listed properties, and such requirements all add costs—even before having the bespoke works required.

The all-party parliamentary group on listed properties, of which I have been the chairman, is currently being re-established. It has evidence that the addition of VAT reduced the number of recorded works being carried out to protect and maintain listed properties by some 30% in the first four years, between 2012 and 2016. There was a notable and recorded drop in applications for proper conservation works. One can only guess what was happening. Were people simply not bothering to go through the process? Owing to the extra cost, were they simply deciding to make do with where they were? There was a full 75% drop in applications over just three years, subsequent to the change in the VAT rules.

These works will be of ongoing economic benefit, often creating a new home where one did not exist before or converting an older property into a business premises. They are positive goods that would perhaps take pressure away from new builds on green spaces. I have spoken to many listed property owners who face financial hardship. Many have been forced to sell their home as a result of costs increasing by 20%. It has to be said that a tax on listed buildings is not a tax on the wealthy, but a tax on attempts to protect our cultural heritage.

I secured the debate to join thousands of listed property owners in calling on the Government to introduce a form of VAT relief. Preferably, let us go back to where we were: a reduction from the 20% rate back to zero, which would be a great place to be. That will be possible in the post-Brexit world, but we are currently in our implementation period, so 5% could be achieved at the Budget next week.

Maintaining listed buildings has a lot more in common with other kinds of building work that has a lower rate of VAT. Some energy-efficient measures qualify for the 5% rate—obviously a restriction was introduced recently, which seemed rather perverse. Converting houses into flats, and renovating empty properties that have lain empty for two years qualify for a lower VAT rate of 5%. The Government and Treasury quite rightly want to encourage bringing such properties into use, and that nudge effect is advanced through the lower VAT rate.

Of course, the biggest anomaly of all—a correct anomaly, in my view—is that we have had a zero VAT rating on new builds since we became a member of the EU. There is a long history to this type of debate, going back to the 1940s. We had the Town and Country Planning Acts 1944 and 1947, which implemented the listing system that we know today. Even back then, the Government knew that they were imposing upon listed property owners a new range of probably unwelcome regulations, and that they had to give something in return. The something in return was a zero VAT rating or, before 1972, sales tax exemptions for this type of work. It is essential that we have a lower rate of VAT on listed properties, because we want to give people the opportunity to make the necessary improvements to this country’s built heritage.

In the 2012 debate—that year’s Budget did not go down too well, because there were quite a few VAT measures in it—the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that the reason for the change was to prevent an exemption for a

“big swimming pool in a listed Tudor house”.—[Official Report, 18 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 319.]

That was a fairly thin argument, because I do not think it was taken up by too many of the 500,000 listed property owners. If such behaviour was going on, we could have exempted that from the zero VAT rating in isolation.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams
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Perhaps I can reinforce the hon. Member’s point by declaring an interest. When I bought my listed house some 20 years ago—very cheaply, I should say—it came with a name from my children. They called it the pizza house, because it came with added mushrooms growing out of the walls. It certainly did not have a swimming pool, but I, like everyone else, had to pay 20% VAT on the renovation. I think that strengthens the point that he is making.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 4:59 p.m.

The hon. Member makes that point well. Such properties need significant renovations that are not the norm when buying newer-type properties. We need to make listed buildings properties that people want to own, to spend money on, and to do the right thing by maintaining them. Maintenance costs for those properties can simply huge, so offsetting some of that cost would make a meaningful impact.

What is VAT there for? It was always designed to be a tax on consumption. Painstakingly maintaining a national heritage asset should not be considered consumption, but action in the national interest. Not only is the economic cost of the work often more expensive than other work, the VAT is an additional tax for doing the right thing. Removing the VAT does not give money back to the owners; it simply means that the Exchequer does not gain a little bit from the maintenance of the fabric of the nation.

Across the country, the built environment of our great towns and cities drives tourism and the continuation of many historic building skills. Government policy in the national policy planning framework, as well as guidance from Historic England, state that heritage protection must enable buildings to stay in active use and alterations can support that. If owners make changes to their properties without any impact on historic features that is considered a positive outcome, as it enables the continued use of such properties. The old way of removing VAT by zero-rating the renovation was simple, easy and reasonable. There is no reason not to return to that pretty simple scheme.

Hon. Members have mentioned energy efficiency. The type of energy efficiency required of older buildings is vastly different from more modern buildings. Materials are likely to be different, and the skills required to make such properties more energy efficient are different. We do not want those listed properties to fall out of use, and support would help to keep them in use. As has been accepted within other parts of the VAT code, renovations can be at a lower rate of VAT if properties have been out of use for two years, so reductions are not unusual.

Works on listed buildings are often carried out by tradesmen who specialise in conservation work. They are often small local businesses, rather than big corporates, so a reduction in VAT would increase correspondingly the amount of activity and would be a boost to a small and declining sector. Cutting VAT would encourage investment in skills in those types of artisanal works, and could encourage more young people into a sector that struggles to recruit. The increased taxable profits in those businesses would benefit the Treasury in corporation tax and income tax receipts. Cutting VAT would prime the pump in that whole area.

It is estimated that, through tourism, heritage across the country contributes £31 billion of value added to the economy. Those homes make our towns desirable places to visit, whether they are in Sandwich or in the constituency of Bath, which is represented in the Chamber. Who benefits from that tourism? Local businesses. There is not much in it for the public, who are busy maintaining their own properties rather than attracting tourists.

An interesting example is the Isle of Man, which has been through a similar process, following an argument similar argument to one that I am advancing. The Isle of Man has reduced VAT on such repair work to 5%, but only for the labour element. Some 96% of the Isle’s construction firms have reported increased workloads; 43% have reported taking on more staff; and 40% reported that their clients were having work done that they would otherwise have put off or not had done at all. There was a significant move away both from the owners having a go and carrying out work with which they are not fully conversant, and from rogue traders and cash-in-hand deals, which are not too far away from most street corners. The Isle of Man scheme was meant to be an experiment but, owing to its success, it is now permanent.

The Listed Property Owners Club keeps vast records on activity in the listed property market. There has been a drop in listed property applications to local councils and in works being undertaken. Figures from Historic England show that cost was one of the biggest reasons for works not being carried out. The numbers are significant: in 2017, 30% of people said it was just too costly and that they were not going to do the work at all. Another reason is that specialist local skills are dying out. In 2017, 17% of people could not get works done because they simply could not find a qualified trader. Historic Houses suggests that £1.3 billion of outstanding work to listed properties is being put off or not carried out at all. That is money that people would want to spend if they could afford it and if VAT were reduced.

I have not been quiet on this topic. I corresponded with the Minister just a few weeks ago, and I can anticipate some of the arguments that he may make in response. He might say that the rationale for the removal of the zero rating was to restore or to address a VAT anomaly, but we already have anomalies, with zero-rated new builds and the two-year lower VAT rate for bringing a property back into use. He might say that it was unfair that some people got a relief, while others did not. We are not talking about normal properties, however. We are talking about unique skills, because very expensive bespoke repairs are often required.

Getting new PVC windows done is VAT-able, but there are a vast number of companies that can do that and it is a cut-throat industry. The approach to a listed building is different, because it will often need bespoke wooden frames made at three or four times the price. That is an anomaly, and I am asking for an exemption from VAT on those bespoke works. Even without the VAT, those bespoke works would still be far more expensive than most standard products that are taxed at the 20% rate.

The old VAT relief used to nudge people towards the painful experience of applying for listed property consent, because saving 20% on a repair bill was seen as a good thing. That made sure that conservation works were up to the proper local standard, because there was an incentive. A worry is that people are undertaking inappropriate repairs to their properties to save money and, because enforcement by the local authority is highly unlikely, they are willing to take that risk. That is not a good place to be; I want to encourage people to do the right thing with their properties.

Another scheme that has been running for a very long time is the listed places of worship scheme, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Through Government grants, the scheme pays for the VAT that listed places of worship suffer—that could be implemented in lieu of a full zero rating. The scheme seems to work, and 89% of such places have used it. Over the period, many churches have used it five or six times, and a third of all churches use it annually. The Treasury might say, “It’s complicated and cumbersome”, but 13,000 applications have been managed effectively. It seems to work—if that is a method HMRC will consider—but the simpler method would be to go back to what we had before, which was zero rating if the proper listed property consent had been granted by the local authority.

To summarise, we can achieve what I would like to achieve by two means: either we go back to where we were before the 2012 Budget; or we go to a scheme akin to the listed places of worship grant scheme—so by means of a grant, which might make it targeted and would certainly prevent the swimming pool in the Tudor mansion. Now we are not so bound by rules on VAT, we have an opportunity. We can create our own framework that is right for our country, and I would like the Treasury to be part of people doing the right thing—improving, maintaining and repairing their properties. I have heard no great reason why the perceived anomaly was an anomaly at all, given that many charitable institutions receive VAT relief and other building works have a variety of VAT reliefs. We could push training, skills and profits into declining trades, and unleash a lot of pent-up expenditure into a market that is part of the good fabric of the country. Next week, I will be delighted to hear about some movement of support.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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4 Mar 2020, 5:12 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this debate, which is very relevant to my constituency. I have already had many discussions with relevant bodies, in particular the UNESCO world heritage site body, on the need to get to net zero. I am especially worried about listed buildings in the context of the climate emergency.

That is an important issue, particularly for my constituency. With about 5,000 listed buildings, Bath has the highest concentration in the UK other than here in Westminster. The Bath and North East Somerset—or BANES—Council has the highest number of listed building consent applications, at 700 last year. In Bath, the wish to continue and maintain our built heritage is very much alive, but there is a burden on those who own the buildings. I am very much aware of that.

That situation is not a coincidence. I am proud that Bath has been a pioneer in protecting buildings of interest since the 1880s. Listed buildings and how to maintain our built heritage is very much a Bath issue. As the buildings age, the challenges of preserving them have grown. In addition, we now face the challenge of the climate emergency, so the urgency of upgrading listed buildings has only grown.

The housing stock in this country is our largest producer of carbon emissions and millions of homes will need to be made much more energy-efficient over the coming decades if we are to have any chance of achieving net zero. That poses a significant enough task for most homeowners but, for those who own the 2% of total housing stock that is listed, the challenge is greater and more expensive, as we have heard. This debate has to be about not the swimming pool, which might add value to a property, but the maintenance of heritage and tackling the climate emergency.

Listed buildings are likely to be older and therefore less insulated, and to have less efficient heating systems than other properties. Coincidentally, though, older properties keep cooler, so if we look at the climate emergency and overheating, sometimes the listed building might provide an answer. Previous generations knew well how to keep cool. I have the privilege of sometimes being invited into beautiful properties in Bath, and have talked about the shutters that still exist in some of the older buildings. Previous generations knew how to use shutters effectively. It is important to work with people who own listed buildings and are interested in the history of how we used to live, and for people to put their mind to understanding the history and often the benefits of what previous generations knew about healthy living.

If the Government are to take their net zero obligations seriously, financial support and incentives are vital to reduce carbon emissions from listed buildings. The simplest way, and a necessary first step, for the Government to ease this financial burden is for VAT relief to be extended from simply covering alterations to applying to all renovations and improvements in listed properties, especially where aimed at reducing carbon emissions and getting to net zero.

Extending VAT relief would help the thousands of private owners of listed buildings in Bath and beyond to preserve important historical properties and to tackle the climate emergency. I do not want to argue with the hon. Member for South Thanet about whether it was worth leaving the European Union so that the 2%, the listed building owners, can get VAT relief, but it would be somewhat perverse—or hypocritical—of the Government not to use their freedom to look at VAT relief on listed properties in this country. Britain attracts thousands—millions—of tourists every year because of its wonderful built heritage. We need to ensure that we preserve it and, at the same time, to take our climate change and net zero obligations seriously.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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4 Mar 2020, 5:16 p.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher.

I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for securing this debate, which is on an issue that is overdue for some action. I certainly hope that the Government will take it on board.

The SNP has argued for a reduction in VAT for energy improvement measures in homes. We asked for reductions in VAT for more modern buildings, those affected by the cladding scandal. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a strong argument to do that for listed buildings as well. Research by the Federation of Master Builders demonstrates that cutting VAT for energy-efficiency improvements, for example, would significantly boost the UK economy and generate thousands of jobs, bring empty properties back into use, improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock, reduce the incidence of fuel poverty, and protect consumers and legitimate businesses by significantly reducing the competitive advantage of rogue traders.

The hon. Gentleman went into some of the history of the measures we are debating and how they came about. In 2012, when the then Chancellor proposed levying VAT on listed properties, the Scottish Government Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop—I note she is still in her post, despite the UK Government being on their fourth Chancellor since then—said in a written answer to a parliamentary question in Holyrood:

“The UK Government’s proposal is clearly a deeply regrettable step in the opposite direction from the approach that the Scottish Ministers advocate.

Maintaining the VAT relief on alterations to listed buildings, and reducing the VAT rate applicable to repairs and maintenance, would be important positive steps which would stimulate economic activity in a sector worth around £2.3 billion gross value added”—

to Scotland’s economy alone—

“a significant proportion of which is attributable to construction activity.”

At the time, she wrote to the Chancellor,

“urging him to withdraw from this policy”,

but, as we know, that is not always taken on. However, there is always an opportunity for the Government to reflect on the error of their ways—perhaps they would be wise to do so.

There are many arguments around the subject, and rationales about Tudor swimming pools and the like have been given, but this is not about people in big mansions getting their houses repaired. The reality is that half of listed properties in this country are occupied by people at the very low end of the socioeconomic distribution. This is not necessarily about attacks on the wealthy or just about protecting glorious listed buildings; this is about the homes that people live in.

There are 1,840 derelict sites and buildings in Glasgow city; 126 of those are in the listed buildings at risk register. It is no surprise that many are concentrated in areas of higher deprivation. People in those areas are three times more likely to live near vacant derelict land, but they are the same people who benefit most from having those buildings repaired and brought up to standard.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams
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There is a particular issue where there is a high concentration of listed buildings in poor condition and low incomes. The market in general has a chilling effect on the provision of specialist labour, as the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) mentioned. There is a more general effect of the amplification of housing deprivation when one compares the many hundreds of thousands of new builds, particularly in urban and suburban areas in the south-east, which are free of VAT, with buildings such as those in my constituency, where 20% VAT is paid.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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4 Mar 2020, 5:22 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is correct; it is a perverse incentive that a building could be perfectly fixable, but it is more cost effective to demolish it and build something new. We want to incentivise people to keep those buildings. In Glasgow, huge swathes of the city have been demolished and replaced with newer and less adequate buildings, which in turn have been demolished, rather than investing in the original buildings. In the areas where we still have a dense tenemental stock, there would be a real benefit to incentivising people to repair those buildings and keep them, because they are fundamentally good and we should have them for the future.

Within the city of Glasgow there are 25 different conservation areas. In my constituency there is Central, Park, East and West Pollokshields, Dumbreck, Strathbungo, Bridgeton, Hazelwood, Walmer Crescent and St Vincent Crescent. They all have different characters: the working-class neighbourhoods of Bridgeton have a beautiful cross, which would see the benefit of further repairs. It is very different in character from West Pollokshields, where there are bigger houses.

All those areas need repair and maintenance, because times have changed since the Victorians built them. They need continual maintenance and repair to avoid dramatic tenement collapses, which do happen on occasion in the city. That is because, despite the best efforts of organisations such as the Glasgow City Heritage Trust, which pays out building repair grants, development grants and grants that go towards those traditional skills, they are just papering over the cracks of a larger problem of the maintenance of tenement stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has also made the argument in the House that we need to look at these issues and find ways of tackling the burden on cities. Reducing that 20% VAT rate as low as we can would have a huge impact on our ability to deal with that.

The social cost of derelict and damaged buildings is huge. They are deeply uninspiring for people who live next to the sites and look out on them. They are a drag on aspiration and motivation, and they often serve a visual reminder to many people of a distant, out-of-touch Government who neglected the industrialised communities over generations and left them to rot. The Scottish Government have made some progress in reversing the situation through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which gives community groups the option to repurpose derelict buildings for the good of the people who live in those communities. The funding to do so comes from the Scottish Land Fund. Those are community-led, focused actions, instead of the top-down approach that has often failed communities and left them behind.

From a policy perspective, investment in high-deprivation areas makes economic sense. People in those areas are much more likely to spend their money locally, and repurposing buildings to create jobs or businesses has a high multiplier effect. Will the Minister look at the issue from that point of view, as a good endeavour to incentivise people in those areas?

There are plans afoot in my constituency to refurbish the old St James Primary School in Calton, to provide a brand-new primary school—a much-needed facility that will, if it goes through, specialise in Gaelic education, to become the next Gaelic school in the city of Glasgow. The building was built in 1895 but, sadly, stood derelict for 10 years after it was closed by the Glasgow Labour administration. At the time, I was a councillor fighting to save it, because it was very much the heart of the community. Without it, the community has no hub—all people see when they walk past is a derelict building with trees growing out of its roof. The council at the time said that it was too difficult to run and too expensive to repair: too expensive to get the energy efficiency measures that were needed; too expensive to fit a boiler to replace the old coal boiler that the janny had to haul coal into. Making the VAT rate for those kind of improvements more incentivised would be a good thing to do.

In addition, there is a lot to do with identity and the importance of those buildings in communities. I urge Minister to take action. As hon. Members have said, the excuse of the EU is finished with, sadly—I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on that. As the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) said, some of this has been of our own making, but it is now up to the Government to put that right.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Lab/Co-op)
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4 Mar 2020, 5:33 p.m.

I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for securing today’s debate, and for his work in the all-party parliamentary group on listed properties to highlight the issues faced by people who own such homes. This interesting and well-informed debate has made it clear that the treatment of construction work is one of the most complicated areas of VAT law, where there is a lot of confusion that produces, no question, a lot of transaction cost and issues for people interested in trying to repair their homes.

It has cropped up a little in the debate that there are still certain circumstances in which the 5% VAT rate applies to construction work on listed properties. VAT relief may be possible for VAT-registered contractors on a conversion of a non-residential property into a dwelling; where a domestic property has been empty for two years prior to the work; for conversions where the number of residential units changes and becomes more intensive; where there are changes to introduce mobility aids for the over-60s; and for changes linked to a social purpose, for example if social housing is put in listed properties. Zero per cent. VAT also applies to certain kinds of work for disabled people. All those reliefs are targeted; they ensure that properties do not go unused and can be properly adapted for elderly and disabled people.

The debate has been about whether we need a targeted change in relation to repairs to listed properties. On a bit of a tangent, there was a little discussion about VAT on the installation of energy-saving technologies. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) in that regard—she was spot on. The comments by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) about the listing system in Bath and what it has achieved were very interesting, but I question whether a high cost for introducing energy efficiency and renewable energy is unique to the listed sector.

Others mentioned their personal circumstances; I live in an ex-council property that cannot have cavity wall insulation because it does not have cavity walls. The only thing that could be done would be to clad it in brick, which would be pretty expensive. I will not say that that is of the same complexity as many of the changes that might be needed in listed properties, but we need to look at energy saving overall.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds
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4 Mar 2020, 5:27 p.m.

I am not implying at all that the hon. Lady would be against broader changes for other housing, if that is why she wants to intervene. I know that she is a champion of those schemes in Parliament.

When it comes to this specific relief, I share the concerns of the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Glasgow Central about the impact of the changes on low-income areas—also picked up on by the hon. Member for South Thanet—and the lack of a level playing field between new build and existing listed buildings. Again, because of the existing relief system, if they have been lying unused for a couple of years, or if they are conversions from industrial use, they would already be covered by reductions.

I have a question for the Minister about another aspect of the current regime: I understand that there is a zero VAT rate for substantial reconstructions of listed properties if they proceed from a shell. I would like him to tell me whether HMRC has done any work to consider whether that might have led to the kinds of activities that, sadly, are too well known to us as MPs, whereby a listed property ends up having a strange fire at some point and its insides are gutted. It would be interesting to find out whether HMRC has done any work on that.

There have been a lot of changes to VAT over recent years. Any further changes need to be extremely well evidenced and justified. VAT is the third biggest revenue raiser of the different kinds of tax. We need to consider the dead-weight from proposals of this sort and whether they are appropriately targeted. I accept that reducing VAT probably would be an incentive for additional repair work, but we need to consider whether that is the right mechanism. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for South Thanet compare this proposal with the system for churches, which does seem to be appropriately targeted. We would need to look at that in relation to questions about, for example, repairs in low-income areas or among people who do not have the means to make such changes.

On the hon. Gentleman’s comment about the reduction in the number of firms that can carry out specialised repairs to listed properties, we have seen a reduction in the number of small building firms generally. It could be that that is correlated with what has happened more broadly in the economy. That is a worrying development whatever part of the building trade it occurs in, but we may need to parse the reasons for that reduction, which may be tied to the general state of the property market and the recovery from the financial crisis.

Finally, I am sure the Minister is sick of me saying this, but we need a better evidence base generally for whether tax reliefs perform what they were set out to do. We have figures for about only 111 of the around 326 tax expenditures that are set out by the Government; it is likely there are more that are not covered. Bodies such as the International Monetary Fund state that we should have as much scrutiny of tax reliefs as we have of spending proposals. I think that is sensible. Although I accept that applying for a grant scheme requires bureaucracy, claiming many of those tax reliefs requires an accountant, which is an additional cost for people. We must consider carefully whether the proposed relief would be appropriately targeted.

Again, I congratulate not just the hon. Member for South Thanet but all Members who participated in the debate. I found it illuminating, and I hope that the Minister provides answers to some of the questions that were posed.

Jesse Norman Portrait The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)
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It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I think the debate has shown that this topic is of great interest in different parts of the country and to different parts of our community. There is widespread interest in it throughout the House, but also in parts well outside it. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), who is indefatigable and is learned in matters of tax, for calling the debate, and all other hon. Members who contributed to it.

My hon. Friend is known for his expertise in tax. I had suspected he was a Burkean in matters of preservation of our assets, our national heritage and the priceless inheritance of previous generations, and it was good to hear that Burkeanism in action. I salute him for it. I also salute him for his timing; he managed to secure the debate in the lee of a fiscal event that is due at some point in the not-too-distant future. I have found the debate engrossing.

I think we all agree that listed buildings are an integral part of the shared history of our British life and culture, and that they greatly enrich that history. The Government absolutely recognise—as, I know, does every Member of the House—the importance of protecting and making the most of that UK heritage. It is important not merely socially and culturally but economically.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government released a heritage statement in 2017 setting out many ways in which they support this sector. It is important to remind ourselves that the Government write a cheque of £80 million or more towards heritage organisations. The listed places of worship grant scheme was discussed at some length. That and the UK heritage organisations do valuable preservation work. We also have Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund to fund and support general advice and assistance for the conservation of heritage, including listed buildings.

The Government recognise, however, the very specific challenges faced by private owners of listed properties in planning regulations. That is why the Government introduced measures to streamline the listed buildings consent regime in 2013, including by removing the need for specific applications for minor works to listed buildings and giving local authorities the power to grant a general consent.

My hon. Friend highlighted several mechanisms by which the goal he seeks could be achieved, one of which is to extend the reduced rate—or possibly a nil rate—to more goods and services, and so to reduce the up-front costs associated with the refurbishment and renovation of listed buildings. As he pointed out, we have some experience of a comparable relief in the past. Previously, approved alterations to listed buildings were zero-rated when used for residential use or by a charity. That relief was introduced to reduce the costs associated with restoring or enhancing the unique character of a listed building or prolonging its active life.

Importantly, however, that is not actually what happened. The majority of work carried out under that relief was for extension purposes rather than for maintenance, and the relief did not deliver the original point and purpose of the legislation. I am afraid that, in so doing, it deployed large amounts of taxpayers’ money in ways that were not contemplated by Parliament when it passed the legislation. That is why that legislation was withdrawn as part of the 2012 Budget.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Would not it therefore make sense just to define a little more what the VAT relief is for, rather than scrapping it for everybody?

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman
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4 Mar 2020, 2:15 p.m.

Of course those are two entirely separate things. To remove a relief is to remove a very blunt and general instrument that is, by its bluntness and generality, open to abuse. In this case, it had the contradictory effect of potentially disincentivising repairs, because people focused on extensions, which was directly contrary to the purpose of the legislation. However, as has been recognised with the listed places of worship fund, there can be scope for a more targeted intervention through funds rather than tax reliefs. That is the other option we were given by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet.

As my hon. Friend knows better than probably any other Member, VAT is a broad-based tax on consumption, and the standard rate of 20% applies to the vast majority of goods and services. There are exceptions to the standard rate, but they are strictly limited by domestic law as well as by fiscal considerations. Hon. Members will appreciate that we are not short of requests for VAT relief in the Treasury. We have VAT reliefs for repairs and improvements, but of course that includes repairs to damage caused by floods or by the desperate events that have necessitated re-cladding of buildings for health and safety reasons. In total, we are presently dealing with about £40 billion of requests for relief, many of them triggered by the recognition that we are leaving the EU and seeking to exploit that fact for other purposes. We must place this proposal in that category.

It is estimated that introducing a relief for the repair and maintenance of all buildings would cost the Exchequer something like £4 billion a year. We do not have an estimate for listed buildings, but, as was pointed out, there are more than 450,000 of them in the UK, so such a relief would undoubtedly be very substantial in quantum. Of course, that is a constraint on what we can do.

Let me address the remarks by the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), who was commendably direct and straight about what exists: the 5% rate for the recovery of properties that have been empty for two years. She is absolutely right to point out the target issue versus the dead-weight cost, which I also highlighted. She is also right about our concerns, reflecting wider considerations on the state of the economy, and the need for a better understanding of the factual base for reliefs. Perhaps I can give her some comfort.

As the hon. Lady pointed out in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who is no longer in his place, there is a relief available for the installation of energy-saving materials on residential properties, whether listed or unlisted. As she mentioned, we have measures to incentivise the use of listed buildings for residential purposes, as well as to increase the overall number of dwellings. Those measures cover listed buildings, so there is scope to support them in some circumstances.

I turn to some of the specific points made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out that the relief is not directly comparable to its predecessor. The question of targeting is therefore central to what we have discussed. There is fairness, because listed and unlisted buildings are treated in the same way. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said that the task for us all is to protect the homes that people live in, and of course an enormously larger number of people live in unlisted homes than in listed homes. The tax system tries to respect and acknowledge that intuition. It would be difficult to narrow the scope of a relief. Therefore, if one was to go down the path of a fund—my hon. Friend could raise that for a future fiscal event—such an approach could be a much closer fit and be accommodated within existing planning frameworks.

A point was made about anomalies. Of course, the tax system is full of anomalies and the question in many ways is which anomalies one seeks to eliminate—my hon. Friend wryly chuckles. Many of those anomalies exist in the nature of reliefs, and it would be an odd Financial Secretary indeed who wished to resolve an anomaly by creating another relief.

As a Government, we are committed to supporting the preservation of historic buildings and homes and the social and cultural contribution they make to our shared history. It is boilerplate but important to say that the Treasury keeps all taxes under review and is always willing to hear the case for what can be improved and refined. Even though we do not, at this time and for the reasons given, plan to change the VAT treatment of renovations or repairs, I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 5:43 p.m.

I thank all Members who took part in the debate. I want to clarify one area: the Minister said that a lower rate of VAT applies to certain energy-saving measures, but, according to my understanding of the types of properties under discussion, that is available only to those in receipt of a broad range of benefits. I understand that the lower rate is not available to those not in receipt of benefit.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds
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4 Mar 2020, 5:43 p.m.

My understanding is that there is still a reduction but it relates to the labour-materials ratio in the cost of the overall installation. There is a question about how many schemes fit within that, and the answer is possibly not very many.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay
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4 Mar 2020, 2:15 p.m.

I thank the hon. Member, who has clarified that it is a complicated area. I thank the Minister for his comments. Dare I say it, but I think I will be disappointed next week.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered VAT on listed properties.

Sitting adjourned.