D&S column: protecting a vital part of our rural economy

MANY of you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s precious little else going on in Westminster at the moment other than Brexit. 

I am not suggesting the issues surrounding our withdrawal from the EU are not the most complex faced by any Government in recent times but I wanted to take the opportunity to report on some of the other matters the Government and I as a Minister have been getting on with. 

In my own department – the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – I’ve been piloting a piece of legislation through the House which will protect a crucial part of our rural economy and launched an initiative to make sure all our local councils work as efficiently as possible and serve their taxpayers in a modern consumer-friendly way. 

The legislation - the Non Domestic Rates (Nursery Grounds) Bill which is its rather dull-sounding name – puts right a court ruling from 2015 which made all plant nurseries (where plants or trees are grown in the initial stages of their life) subject to business rates. 

It has been longstanding Government policy dating back almost 100 years that most agricultural operations, farms and related land, as essential part of our rural economy and vital for food production, are exempt from paying business rates. Unfortunately, the courts decided to reinterpret a piece of this policy to exclude plant nurseries from the exemption and subject them to business rates. My rather technical piece of legislation is necessary to return the policy to where it was before the legal case. 

When the Bill completes its passage through Parliament and receives Royal Assent, the small number of plant nurseries who had started paying rates will be entitled to a full refund and no plant nurseries will pay going forward. 

A fortnight ago at the big Local Government Conference, I launched a Digital initiative to help local councils be more innovative and customer friendly in delivering the services we use week-in, week-out and to save money by re-organising their “digital plumbing”. 

Backed with £7.5m of Government money, the Digital Innovation Fund will help local councils progress on this journey. Forty organisations also signed up to a new Digital Declaration committing them to best in class standards. 

Across the country, there are large variations in how councils perform. Some are doing an excellent job. For instance, my own local council, Hambleton, has an excellent self-service website which enabled me earlier this year to renew my green bin licence in what seemed like just seconds. 

Other councils at the forefront of digital innovation are launching apps to enable tenants to pay their rent from their phone or to report fly-tipping, or sending reminder texts to householders telling them which bin to put out. 

But others are still at the early stages of their digital journey. For example, putting forms online which are so complicated someone needs to ring up to find out how to fill it in, buying expensive, outdated, inflexible IT systems or using physical machines to run their IT rather than much cheaper solutions in the cloud. 

A few years ago, one council found that every time someone came into a council building, it cost them nearly £14. But when they rang up it was £4 and if they did it online it cost just 30p. By moving transactions online, they saved £3 million in just three years. 

The Fund will be used to help local councils take full advantage of the technology now available to deliver user-friendly services to all their residents. 

I spent part of my business career living around Silicon Valley in California, seeing firsthand how technology can improve our lives; so, it was a personal pleasure for me to be able to launch this new initiative for the local councils I am now represent in Government.