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End VAT confusion and give our historic fabric a boost

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In December 2001 the government published A Force for our Future, its statement on the historic environment. In it, it stated that it would be considering the case for supporting a European reform that would allow a single low rate of VAT to be charged on all building work. The announcement was welcomed by those sectors of the construction industry which have been lobbying for a reduction in the VAT rate on domestic repair and maintenance work from 17.5 to 5 per cent. Yet the figure remains at 17.5 per cent. One of the many objections to this legislation, loudly voiced by English Heritage, is that it discourages conservation-led regeneration. New-build solutions prove more cost effective than preserving old buildings, which suffer neglect.

This week's building study, Whitby Abbey visitor centre, demonstrates the way in which English Heritage is starting to initiate projects where the conservation of historic projects is used as an impetus for innovative contemporary design - and it is hard to imagine how a new-build structure could have had the resonance of Stanton Williams'deft combination of old and new.

Whitby was rendered financially viable by the fact that the project was exempt from VAT and, indeed, the government is constantly adding to the categories of preservation and conservation projects which are eligible either for zero-rating or for a reduced VAT rate of 5 per cent. In November 2000, for example, the chancellor pledged to reduce VAT on repairs to listed places of worship; in last week's budget he announced that VAT on building work which includes the conversion of non-residential properties into old people's homes will be reduced to 5 per cent.

But piecemeal interventions are not enough.While bodies such as English Heritage may be able to wade through the regulations, less experienced clients are deterred both by the confusing quantity of 'special cases'and by the fact that it is up to a building's owner to prove that a given project should not be liable for VAT at the standard rate.While the government chips away at the edges of its own legislation, countless historic buildings are falling into disrepair.

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