Council Tax 6 month rule: proposing a halfway house to the Minister

Council tax appeals: been talking to the hand? Help may be on its way

Popped over to No.1 Parliament Street yesterday with MSE Guy for a meeting with Council Tax Minister Bob Neill MP, and was delighted to get a warm welcome from him and his advisors, who seemed genuinely interested in the idea.

This all started on Radio 2 back in September. He was on explaining why the Govt. didn’t want a nationwide rebanding, and I was on too and got a little, hmm, shall we say, agitated over the fact that 100,000s may be in the wrong council tax band, yet are blocked from appealing due to what I believe is an unfair rule (see Minister opens door to council tax reform news for full info).

He asked me to set out my arguments in a letter, which I managed to fling off within the hour. Yesterday was the follow up meeting. I must admit I was slightly nervous when I walked in, and not quite sure how we’d be received (and I was late, unable to get past the Fire Union strike outside Number 10). But the meeting itself was constructive, and they were happy to listen to my explanation of the problem, read the responses to my blog asking for examples and some suggested solutions.

This all stems from a rule made before the internet

Council tax bandings in England & Scotland were originally set up in 1991. It was done by a speedy ‘drive by’ evaluation and was never meant to last this long (see full council tax rebanding guide for the full story and how to check your own band).

At the time the rule was introduced saying you could only appeal within 8 months, that was later reduced to 6 months of moving in a new property. Bizarrely, back then some wanted to appeal to get their band INCREASED, due to a perceived snob factor of being in a higher band (bet they regret that with the cost now).

This was all well and good until the internet age, which saw people starting to be much more savvy about the system and able to use the vast amounts of information now available. When I fully launched the council tax rebanding system back in 2007 the response was overwhelming.  Millions tried it, we crashed the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) website for a week, as quite simply it was the first time there’d been a structured system to check whether bandings were fair. Suddenly this meant the 6 month rule became unfair.

That’s because once empowered with info, people wanted fairness, but were stymied because they hadn’t known in time. Effectively, people were penalised for being information disenfranchised. Luckily, as the guide explains, there’s a way around it, by “challenging the integrity of the list" which gets some past the six month rule. Yet its success depends on the individual Valuation Office Agency assessor and your persistence, effectively penalising those with less confidence or ability or luck.

While explaining this, I concentrated on the issue of fairness; after all, that is the Prime Minister’s key drive, and if you want fairness the six month rule needs to be scrapped. People have been living in their homes in the wrong band for years, they know they’re in the wrong band, but aren’t able to do anything about it.

Possible solutions

Of course, the easy solution is just to scrap the rule and that is my vast preference. However, there are cost implications of that, both administratively and due to the end result (though for me fairness overcomes that). Part of the problem I think is that the VOA is itself a rather strange body, not an Ombudsman with a remit to be fair on consumers, but still an intermediary to ensure council grade the bandings fairly, so it’s tough to work out exactly what rights individuals have.

When asked in the meeting about this conundrum, thinking on my feet, I came up with a secondary proposal, a half way house for those who have been in a property more than six months. Unlike new movers, they will need to request a right to appeal. This should help allay the worry of speculative claims and administrative burden (though actually I think the fact your band can be increased as well as lowered does that job pretty well too).

This would involve filling in a short form with key questions, which a specialist assessor would be able to look at to see if there was a Prima Facie case. If there was a reasonable case, a full appeal and assessment would continue as normal, but this allows the assessor to weed out cases which look like having little actual chance of success.

While not perfect it should allow more people the chance for justice. Of course, I offered that we’d work with them in any way to communicate a new system, and (as we do now) try to ensure only those with a decent chance of success go for it, which should help.

This was all received in a positive light and with interest, though of course it’s all very early days, though we hope to hear back from them with more ideas. I’ll keep you up to date.

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