Busi­ness rate ap­peal fears ig­nored

Gov­ern­ment con­tin­ued with over­haul of con­tro­ver­sial sys­tem de­spite lack of sup­port

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page - By Rhi­an­non Bury

THE Gov­ern­ment pushed ahead with plans to over­haul the ap­peals sys­tem for busi­ness rates de­spite not re­ceiv­ing a sin­gle con­sul­ta­tion re­sponse in sup­port of them, The Sun­day Tele­graph can re­veal.

Busi­nesses were con­sulted about the new “check, chal­lenge, ap­peal” process in Au­gust 2016, which has over­hauled the grounds on which com­pa­nies can ar­gue against rating de­ci­sions by in­tro­duc­ing a power to throw out ap­peals that are within a mar­gin of er­ror of around 15pc. The sys­tem was im­ple­mented in April this year along with a reval­u­a­tion of rates across the coun­try.

How­ever, of 287 re­sponses to the con­sul­ta­tion, not a sin­gle com­pany, trade or­gan­i­sa­tion or in­di­vid­ual wrote in sup­port of the pro­posed sys­tem.

Re­sponses were re­ceived from many of the UK’S lead­ing com­pa­nies across a range of in­dus­tries – in­clud­ing Boots, Tesco, Unilever, Bri­tish Steel, BT, Eurostar, Greene King and Whit­bread – as well as trade bodies such as the Bri­tish Cham­bers of Com­merce, the CBI and the Bri­tish Re­tail Con­sor­tium.

The sub­mis­sions, which were ob­tained via Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quests to the Val­u­a­tion Of­fice Agency (VOA) by prop­erty firm Ger­ald Eve, raised a num­ber of po­ten­tial prob­lems with the sys­tem. These in­cluded an in­creased bur­den on ratepay­ers and a lack of trans­parency from the VOA over how de­ci­sions about set­ting rates were made. Peo­ple also sug­gested it was un­fair that firms had to pro­vide any ev­i­dence that would sup­port an ap­peal up front, without hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to add to it at a later date, and raised fears that the VOA por­tal would be too dif­fi­cult to use if peo­ple owned a num­ber of prop­er­ties.

Jerry Schur­der, head of busi­ness rates at Ger­ald Eve, said: “It was clear as soon as the pro­pos­als were un­veiled that the new pro­ce­dures would cre­ate ma­jor ob­sta­cles for ratepay­ers, but the re­lease, at last, of the rep­re­sen­ta­tions re­veals just how much op­po­si­tion there was and re­mains among UK plc.” He called the rev­e­la­tions about the lack of sup­port a “damn­ing in­dict­ment” of the Gov­ern­ment’s changes.

“The fact that the pro­pos­als were pushed through re­gard­less, rid­ing roughshod over the le­git­i­mate and gen­uine con­cerns of ratepay­ers na­tion­wide, shows that gov­ern­ment has no real am­bi­tion to de­liver a fairer busi­ness rates sys­tem,” he said.

He also said that the Gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the con­sul­ta­tion find­ings had been de­layed, only be­ing re­leased at the last minute.

The “check, chal­lenge, ap­peal” process drew warn­ings ahead of its im­ple­men­ta­tion about a new clause mean­ing ratepay­ers were not able to ar­gue against a rates bill if its mar­gin of er­ror was in­side 15pc. Last week it emerged that the VOA was fac­ing po­ten­tial em­bar­rass­ment as its own fig­ures re­vealed al­most 90pc of users were dis­sat­is­fied with the new process.

Re­spon­dents asked about their ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing the new sys­tem said it did not work prop­erly, that it was too slow, and parts of the web­site were miss­ing or not work­ing. Mr Schur­der said HMRC had been brought in to make im­prove­ments to the sys­tem me­chan­ics. “Now there is hope that they might at least de­liver the IT to deal with the process,” he said. “The way to re­duce un­nec­es­sary ap­peals is for the VOA to be more trans­par­ent.”

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