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Catholic Church criticises ‘provocative’ law on religious services

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The Catholic Church is taking legal advice following the publication of a new Covid-19 statutory instrument that is “draconian” and the introduction of which it said it considers to be a “breach of trust”.

He was responding to a new regulation making it a criminal offence to attend certain types of events or gatherings.

The regulation appears to encompass religious services other than weddings or funerals, but is not focused on religious gatherings.

The Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, said the new statutory instrument was introduced and published in a “clandestine” manner.

In a statement issued by the Catholic Press Office, he said the Catholic archbishops had not been aware of the new law until Friday, when it was published, having been signed on Monday of last week by the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly.

This was despite reassurance to church leaders on Thursday from the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, that he understood the importance of faith and worship for the Irish people.

“We will seek an immediate meeting with Minister Donnelly and we request the suspension of this harsh and unclear statutory instrument,” Archbishop Martin said.

Speaking on RTÉ radio, Mr Donnelly said he would be “very, very happy” to meet the Archbishops and insisted churches were not being targeted. The new regulation was about indoor gatherings that are high risk, he said.

The new regulation, statutory instrument 171 of 2021, which came into effect last Tuesday, is on the Gov.ie website.

It is not specifically aimed at religious services but does appear to include religious services other than funerals or weddings.

Archbishop Martin said he only became aware of the new law on Friday and had since consulted his fellow archbishops.

“We consider the publication of this statutory instrument, together with associated penal provisions, to be provocative and formally enacting a potential infringement of religious freedom and of constitutional rights.

“The precise provisions are unclear and at first reading appear to be draconian, going further than the restrictions we have been co-operating with throughout the pandemic to date.”

Co-operating fully

Archbishop Martin said that together with other churches and faith communities, the Catholic Church had been co-operating fully with public health messages for more than a year now, he said.

At the same time the bishops had consistently impressed on the Government that people of faith value highly their spiritual well-being and consider the public practice of their faith as essential.

This was something which had not been sufficiently recognised in statute, the archbishop said.

“It is highly disappointing then, that despite the reassurances of the Taoiseach to church leaders only two days ago that he understood the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland, this statutory instrument was introduced in a clandestine manner and without notice or consultation. We consider this to be a breach of trust.”

On Wednesday in the High Court it was stated that the State had confirmed to businessman Declan Ganley, who is taking a case against the State in relation to the restrictions on public worship, that taking part in prohibited services was a criminal offence.

Darren Lehane SC, for Mr Ganley, said that his side, in line with the court’s direction, had written to the State querying whether its position was that attendance at, and celebration of, public Masses, other than funeral and wedding Masses permitted under the relevant regulations, was a criminal offence.

The State had replied in the affirmative, the court was told. Catherine Donnelly SC, for the State, confirmed that this was the State’s position.

Mr Ganley, a practising Roman Catholic, claims that as a result of the restrictions, he cannot leave his home to attend Mass and that this is in breach of the State’s guarantee of the free practice of religion in Article 44 of the Constitution.

The case has yet to go ahead and was adjourned last Wednesday to later this month, for further mention.

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Crackdown on second home and holiday let tax dodgers

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The Government is cracking down on second home owners who claim their properties are holiday lets for tax purposes.

Communities secretary Michael Gove is set to close a tax loophole which has allowed second home owners to avoid thousands of pounds per year in taxes, without proving that the property was ever rented out. 

The new rules will target those who register their holiday lets as small businesses, meaning they are eligible for business rates instead of council tax.

But the majority pay no business rates at all under the system, because they have ‘rateable values’ of under £12,000 based on the property’s rents, size and usage. 

Crackdown: Those registering second homes as businesses could fall foul of new rules

Crackdown: Those registering second homes as businesses could fall foul of new rules

A second home can be registered as a small business if it will be available as a holiday let for 140 days or more in the coming year.  

However, there is currently no requirement to provide evidence that a property has actually been let out, leaving the system open to abuse. 

This has caused anger in areas that have lots of second homes, such as Devon, Cornwall and the Lake District, as some locals believe property owners are not paying their fair share towards council services.

According to Ray Boulger of mortgage broker John Charcol: ‘Some 97 per cent of the 65,000 holiday let properties in England have rateable values of under £12,000, which means they qualify for small business rates relief and pay no rates at all.’

The new rules aim to change this by ensuring that only those properties which are actually rented out for 70 days per year, and available to rent for 140 days, get the tax break. 

Kurt Jansen, director of the Tourism Alliance said: ‘It makes a very important distinction between commercial self-catering businesses that provide revenue and employment for local communities, and holiday homes which lie vacant for most of the year.’

This is Money explains how the new system will work, and how second home and holiday let owners can make sure they are following the rules. 

Locals in UK holiday spots have expressed anger at second home owners, who they say are not contributing their fair share to the community and services via council tax payments

Locals in UK holiday spots have expressed anger at second home owners, who they say are not contributing their fair share to the community and services via council tax payments

What do the new rules say? 

The rules are based on the amount of days a property is rented out in each tax year. 

To qualify for business rates instead of council tax, the new legislation will require second home owners to prove their property will be available for ‘commercial short term, self-catering rentals’ for at least 140 days in the coming year. 

They will also need to prove that, in the previous year, it was available for letting for 140 days and actually rented out for at least 70 days. 

This is designed to prevent second home owners from registering their properties as small businesses, and then not actually renting them out.  

‘We will not stand by and allow people in privileged positions to abuse the system by unfairly claiming tax relief and leaving local people counting the cost,’ said Gove when he announced the policy. 

‘The action we are taking will create a fairer system, ensuring that second homeowners are contributing their share to the local services they benefit from.’

Anger among locals has increased since the start of the pandemic, as wealthy people snapped up UK holiday lets when travelling abroad was not allowed. 

Exempt: As they are assessed differently to bricks and mortar properties, caravans being used as holiday lets will not come under the government's new second home tax rules

Exempt: As they are assessed differently to bricks and mortar properties, caravans being used as holiday lets will not come under the government’s new second home tax rules

What counts as a holiday let?  

The business rates rules for holiday lets only apply to buildings, or self-contained parts of buildings, that would otherwise be assessed for council tax. 

Caravans will not generally be subject to the rules, as they are usually assessed for business rates under a different system to bricks and mortar buildings. 

When it comes to counting the days that a property was rented out, the government says that only days where the property was occupied at the end of the day should be included.

So if a property was let out from Friday evening to Sunday morning, it would have been let for two days for the purposes of meeting the holiday lets criteria.

Is this definitely going ahead, and when will the rules come into force?

The government has concluded its consultation on the new policy, which started before the pandemic in 2018. It plans to implement the changes from 1 April 2023. 

However, the legislation needed to do so has not yet been passed in parliament.

While the government has made clear its intention to enshrine the new rules in law, they are not set in stone just yet. 

How much would I pay under each system?

Small businesses can find their rateable value on the Government website. 

Those with a rateable value of below £12,000 are not eligible for business rates, while those with a value of up to £15,000 pay special tapered rates. 

For those with a rateable value of between £15,000 and £51,000, they will need to multiply that value by 49.9p to find out their rateable value. They can then subtract any discounts that they may be entitled to, which the government details here

Those with a rateable value of more than £51,000 will follow the same calculation, but with a higher multiple of 51.2p.  

As for council tax, second homes are charged at the same rate as main residences. 

Individual councils may decide to give a discount for second homes, or on homes that have been empty for two years. Owners should contact their council to find out if this is available.

Under the new rules, the government has said there will be no rate or council tax discount for those with lots of properties.  

What if I have a new holiday let with no proof of lettings for last year?

Those acquiring a new holiday let and wanting to register for business rates will not be able to prove that their property was available to let for 140 days and actually let for 70 days in the past year, as required by the new rules. 

Until the owner can provide that proof, they will be subject to council tax – meaning most will need to pay that for at least the first year of their ownership. 

After that, they can ask the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) for a business rates assessment. 

This is the government body that handles everything to do with business rates, and it will be responsible for policing the new rules once they come in to force. 

Don't lie low: Property owners who don't think their property meets the new letting rules, but who are paying business rates, are advised to inform the VOA as soon as possible

Don’t lie low: Property owners who don’t think their property meets the new letting rules, but who are paying business rates, are advised to inform the VOA as soon as possible

I don’t think my property will meet the criteria for last year. What should I do?

Some holiday let or second home owners will not be able to prove that their property was available to let for 140 days and actually let for 70 days in the past year. 

The government says people in this position ‘should notify the VOA as soon as possible, so that their property can be assessed as domestic and revert accordingly to (or be given) a council tax valuation.’ 

It adds that failure to do so could result in a large, backdated council tax bill.

How will it be policed?

When seeking a new business rates valuation after April 2023, second home owners will need to provide evidence that their property was let or available to let for the required periods.  

The government has said will communicate the exact method for collecting evidence before the new rules come into effect.

However, this is expected to include things like the property being listed on rental websites, and evidence of payments from guests.  

‘Evidence of lettings will be required, such as at least one website or brochure used to advertise the property and letting details and receipts,’ says Boulger. 

Those already paying business rates on their holiday let or second home, and who meet the letting requirements, do not need to submit anything. 

However, they should ensure that they have evidence of the last year’s lettings by April 2023, as the VOA may ask for them at any time. 

‘The only impact the new rules will have on genuine holiday let properties might be the need to provide the evidence outlined above, but this information should be readily available for the owner’s tax return,’ says Boulger. 

What if the property is used by family and friends?

Those who regularly allow family and friends to use their properties for free could find they are no longer eligible to register as a small business under the new rules. 

The government says lettings counted in the 70-day period must be on a ‘commercial basis’ at ‘market rates’ and that ‘lettings to friends or relatives at zero or nominal rents will not be covered.’ 

No more mates rates? Money will need to change hands when the property is let, or it will not be counted as a holiday letting under the government's new 70-day rule

No more mates rates? Money will need to change hands when the property is let, or it will not be counted as a holiday letting under the government’s new 70-day rule

Of course, if there are 70 days of commercial lettings on top of discounted ones to friends and family, this will not be a problem.  

Boulger says owners should still be able to rent to people they know at a small discount as part of the 70 days, for example if they are deducting the fees that a listings website would normally charge for a letting via their platform. 

‘It should not prevent the owner offering a reasonable discount to family on friends if, for example, they can avoid the normal commission otherwise payable to the sites advertising their property,’ he says.    

What are the rules outside of England?

Wales has already had similar rules for holiday lets in place since 2010, and the new legislation will bring England in line with those.

The Scottish government is also set to introduce a requirement that holiday lets are rented for 70 days and available for 140 days in a given year, following a consultation called the Barclay Review. 

These rules are set to come into force from 1 April 2022. 

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Man admits to abduction of four-year-old Australian Cleo Smith

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A man has pleaded guilty to abducting a four-year-old girl from her family’s camping tent on Australia’s west coast last year.

Police found the girl, Cleo Smith, alone in a house in Carnavon, a town of 5,000 people, 18 days after she went missing last October.

Terence Darrell Kelly (36) admitted to the abduction during a brief court appearance in Carnarvon on Monday in a video link from a Perth prison, 900 km to the south.

He faces a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison on a conviction of forcibly taking a child aged under 16. He will next appear in a Western Australian state District Court in Perth on March 20.

Kelly has not entered a plea to other criminal charges he faces, including assaulting a public officer. Those charges have been adjourned to a later date. – AP

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Peter Todd, Founder, Portus Retail

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Peter founded Portus Retail in 2016 with the aim of creating places that perform as retail destinations for shoppers with shopping environments that are adaptable to retailers in a rapidly changing market.

What are the main changes in the physical retail sector that you expect to define the market in the post-covid world?

The number of store closures and the consolidation of retail, F&B and leisure outlets are reshaping the look, feel and content of city centres and shopping centres. This is driven by more than store closure; it also reflects changes in consumer behaviour that require the physical retail sector to reinvent itself to remain relevant. The recently announced plans for revised and substantially reduced retail content to the development plans for Croydon Town Centre are an example of this. Town centre retail and shopping centres need to be or become mixed-use developments offering facilities that consumers want and will visit – offices, cultural attractions (more leisure), education facilities, community uses such as medical centres are all examples of the content that owners of retail locations will need to repurpose their centres to accommodate. In addition to this, the changing role of the physical store is a factor that will reshape centres; online sales growth is a permanent shift in the market and Covid has accelerated that. Physical stores need to offer customers both convenience and experience, this will mean store sizes will change and mainly reduce in size as they serve a role as both a point of sale, a showroom and in many instances click and collect for the fulfilment of an online sale once the customer has browsed the products! Smaller stock rooms, smaller store sizes will all require the owner and retailer to work on physical reconfiguration, potentially releasing space for alternative uses such as those mentioned. 

 

What have been the most significant changes to consumer behaviour that you have witnessed since the pandemic and Freedom Day? What is the key to addressing them?

There has been a strong customer return to physical shopping in recent weeks since the lifting of many of the Covid restrictions. This has been confirmed by the results of the major online retailers where the growth has stopped. In today’s FT Walmart reported disappointing online sales growth in Q2 and on the same day a surge in physical store sales from a strong back to school campaign in the US. There is a clear divide in the level of caution of consumers based largely on age, customers below 45 seem more confident in visiting physical retail locations, we have observed this at one of our larger centres – Docks Bruxsel in Belgium. We have also seen a very strong return to shopping with our footfall being substantially higher than during the same period of 2019, pre-pandemic. Unsurprisingly there has been a shift in consumption with more customers focussed on fashion, F&B and leisure than during the lockdowns as they purchase the items and experiences that were less available to them and less on home goods and electronics which had a boom during the pandemic. In my view, this increase in footfall for Docks is also because of consumer trends. CACI has recently released a consumer survey confirming post-pandemic trends, this identified an increased desire to support local retail centres, to visit retail destinations that were open-air, environmentally positive and offered multiple attractions with mixed-use, not just retail as well as an experience. Destination leisure, offices, event space significant F&B in an environmentally friendly environment are all characteristics of Docks. In the CACI report, they also confirmed the clear divide in intent to visit physical retail locations among younger customers and a shift favouring local high streets, shopping centres and away from large city centres.

 

Are there any concerns regarding managing future covid waves? 

Most retailers and owners have learned a great deal during the pandemic about how to operate and engage with customers to reassure them with healthy shopping environments and social distancing measures being well defined. That should put the shopping centre market in a good position to cope with further waves. The risk remains more to be the unknown, stringent lockdowns and enforced closures impact cash flow and that is the greatest remaining risk along with the challenge of repositioning retail environments as mentioned above. Additionally, there are locations that will not be able to carry out the repositioning either physically or because of economic viability. In my opinion, the economic costs and challenges of repositioning will be the greatest risk and challenge to retail centres.

 

What role do you think temporary retail solutions will play during the recovery?

Embracing temporary solutions will be essential to success for the owners of retail centres. One of the most exciting aspects of the post-pandemic market will be the emergence of new retail and leisure concepts and formats. Temporary lettings, pop-ups, trials of new concepts and those owners who can accommodate and incubate the new formats with temporary retail solutions will in my view be the more successful owners. We are seeking to keep available floor space in a “white box” format for exactly this as the new formats emerge and develop.

 

What does the future hold for Portus Retail?

I am very optimistic for the future, there shall be an unprecedented need for repositioning of retail real estate; this will at times be painful, difficult, and expensive. As I have mentioned not all centres will have a viable future. We have already seen some of the emerging consumer surveys and corporate results confirm a return to growth in physical store retailing. I am therefore positive about the prospects for the sector, provided that these is locations and centres that are successful in the repositioning mentioned. This will be a huge economic and management challenge with the need for very hands-on management of the retail environments. The changes to come will present an opportunity for owners and investors, provided they are focussed upon the key consumer trends in the sector and prepared to work extremely hard. In conclusion, I expect Portus Retail to be extremely busy working upon repositioning of retail environments.

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