Reducing the number of appeals against business rate assessments has long been a stated government aim, and the end of October saw the publication of its latest proposals.
Entitled Check, Challenge, Appeal, the consultation paper outlined the government’s vision for reforming appeals following the 2017 revaluation.
Check, Challenge, Appeal sounds like a logical stepped approach, but in reality it will add extra layers of bureaucracy and cost. The changes represent a huge shift in the burden of evidence onto the ratepayer - underpinned by new deadlines and risk of fees and fines - seemingly designed to disincentivise appeals regardless of merit.
The government claims the introduction of a ‘check’ stage will provide businesses with helpful information about their rateable value assessments, but it will only parrot back to ratepayers information they already possess and have themselves provided to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA). At the ‘challenge’ stage, a ratepayer will be required to document why it believes the VOA’s assessment to be incorrect - something that is all but impossible when the VOA refuses to reveal the evidence behind its valuations.
The proposals amount to a huge increase in the costs associated with making an appeal. Not only is the process likely to take longer, but the ratepayer also has to shoulder new obligations associated with evidence gathering and valuation preparation.
There can be little doubt that, faced with such onerous requirements, many ratepayers will reluctantly opt not to challenge their assessments. With the government itself accepting that at least 30% of appeals are justified presently, the new measures represent a significant barrier to justice.
Another likely scenario is higher activity among the less scrupulous rating ‘advisers’ who will use the complexity of the system and its new evidential requirements to extract big upfront fees, backed by a promise of savings that may not be delivered.
Yet again, the government has shown itself to have both a peculiar misunderstanding of the problems with the rating system and contempt for the views of businesses who crave simplicity and transparency. To an external observer, the government’s attitude might be summarised as: “If these companies won’t just take our word and pay up, we’ll force them to.”
The Enterprise Bill is progressing through parliament, giving these proposals something of an air of fait accompli about them, but this remains a consultation paper. So respond to the proposals by the 4 January deadline and hopefully, just for once, the government will actually listen to the voice of business.
Jerry Schurder is head of business rates at Gerald Eve