Last week the Valuation Tribunal issued a test-case ruling backing the government’s decision to block pandemic-created "material change in circumstances" appeals to business rate bills. The Tribunal had heard 26 test cases from occupiers of non-domestic properties who had challenged the government’s decision to remove their right to appeals to their business rates bills as a result of the disruption to business as a result of the pandemic.
The 26 test cases were representative of the hundreds of thousands of businesses in England, across all sectors, who had sought to argue in 2020 and early 2021 that the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on their businesses created by lockdown measures including, the edict to work from home and social distancing, had been devastating and that their rateable value, used to calculate property tax bills, should be reduced accordingly. Despite the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) having initially appeared to have agreed that this disruption was an MCC, the government, in an unprecedented step last March, suddenly announced that it would retrospectively legislate to prevent any business rates bills reductions, costing rate payers to lose rebates estimated at around £3.5bn.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, said at the time it “could have led to significant amounts of taxpayer support” for businesses adversely affected.
The government instead announced a new £1.5bn relief fund (CARF), for businesses affected by COVID-19, for those outside the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors, which would be distributed by Local Authorities to “get cash to affected businesses in the most proportionate and equitable way.” This announcement was lambasted by the rating industry at the time as vastly underestimating both size of the problem and the capability of the local authorities to pay out in an efficient and consistent way.
Now nearly fifteen months on, the rating profession has been proved right with hundreds of thousands of businesses promised business rates reliefs through the CARF fund still waiting to receive support, despite promises to the contrary.
According to latest figures, out of 309 billing authorities, only around half- 156 have published the criteria for their schemes and of these 156, 56 have published selected criteria, 39 of these schemes are open, with 61 schemes having now closed with the deadline for application passed. I have been in print describing the whole debacle as “carnage, ” with distribution of the fund still “a postcode lottery.”
The CARF scheme is so bogged down between inconsistencies from each billing authority that it makes it impossible to negotiate if you have sites in different locations.
Some authorities have capped awards; others have shown much more inflexible restrictions on eligibility including some announcing they will strike out offices and others have said that will not be awarding reliefs if a ratepayer has more than five properties across England. The criteria are so prescriptive that many businesses that genuinely saw hardship in the pandemic cannot meet the terms. The whole thing is a joke.
We believe that the decision to legislate against allowing genuine MCC appeals is a worrying one and had hoped those companies seeking redress in the courts would be successful, particularly when the government’s alternative “ handout” has been such a farce. The result is disappointing. We at Colliers have many clients who felt similar and had also been considering court action, but our cases were stayed until the outcome of these test cases was revealed. We are now considering all our options.
Pictured: John Webber, head of business rates