Business Rates: What should charities be concerned about? (July 2021)

The government never fails to disappoint when it comes to Business Rates and it is difficult to be positive about any announcements made by the government over the course of the last few months. I will discuss two issues highly relevant for the sector which are a cause of concern, highlighting the action I think charities should be taking.

Material Change in Circumstance (MCC) appeals – the effect of COVID-19

In my last article published late November 2020, I set out the latest position on discussions with the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) and the Rating Surveyors Association (RSA) committee, involving myself and nine other firms of agents. These discussions were primarily concerned about the effects on the office sector since this property sector that had received no business rates holiday throughout the pandemic. Although offices were at the centre, it was clear to both sides that the effect of Covid prior to 1 April 2020, as well as the potentially long lasting effect on our high streets, meant that the MCC could well last past the end of the rates holiday enjoyed by the retail and hospitality sector.

Discussions were positive and verbal allowances were tabled in late December. Unfortunately, as soon as these figures were communicated, discussions abruptly ended with no explanation. Silence prevailed until March 2021 when the government introduced the following pieces of legislation:

The 2021 Regulations reflected a new government policy to attempt to amend the law of rating so that certain Coronavirus-related restrictions and policies cannot amount to MCCs for valuation purposes. These regulations were introduced without any consultation with the rating profession. The announcement which accompanied the regulations indicated that primary legislation would be passed in due course, with the intention of altering the law retrospectively.

In fulfilment of that commitment, the Government then introduced the Rating (Coronavirus) and Director’s Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill (“the Bill”) to Parliament.

The bill has received its First and Second Reading in the Commons. There is little opposition to it, and it will pass through and become law at some point in the Autumn.

These regulations in effect prevent Covid being treated as an MCC and the Bill – soon to be an Act is a retrospective tax increase. There are currently circa 500,000 Covid related Checks and Challenges in the system which are likely to be struck out because of the above. A sorry state of affairs and one that may still be challenged through the courts. It is our advice that the towel should not be thrown in just yet as there is still some life left in the issue- albeit a very faint pulse!

Consultation: more frequent revaluations Fundamental Review of Business Rates

HM Treasury and MHCLG published this consultation paper in late June on the issue of more regular revaluations. The consultation paper is seeking responses to by 24 August 2021 – so a tight timetable particularly given the summer holiday period.

On the face of it, a paper suggesting three yearly revaluations from 2023 seems pretty positive and very little to not like – which would be the case until you read the small print which reads like the VOA’s Christmas wish list.

Areas of significant concern are the following suggestions in the paper:

  • Although the 3 yearly cycle is a positive move, compared to what we have now (where rateable values are still based on rents in 2015), the VOA is still maintaining that it needs a 2-year gap between the Antecedent Valuation date (AVD), when values are assessed and when the list becomes live. We believe the gap should be shortened to 12 months.
  • Duty to Notify. This is a significant burden on ratepayers as it will now involve an annual confirmation return. This is effectively an annual check by ratepayers – even those who may benefit from reliefs – charities as well as small businesses.
  • Mandatory Provision of Lease Information. Again, an annual return to include side letters and arrangements agreed with your landlords. This is required by the VOA even though they already have access to this through land registry and other sources.
  • Restrictions on Appeal timescales. The government has already announced that the draft list will be published 3 months before it becomes live and not the usual 6 months. This proposal then suggests a 3-month window to appeal – yes 3 months- with an added attraction of a fee being paid at that point.
  • Landlords restricted from making appeals. Not of major concern to many but a lot of landlords take a proactive approach to the rates liability of their tenants. To remove their involvement in the process seems unnecessary as well as undemocratic.
  • The death of MCCs. Set against the background of the government legislating to outlaw Covid MCC appeals perhaps it is not surprising that they are suggesting the removal of the ability to appeal on any MCC grounds. While this could be possible in an annual revaluation cycle, to remove it in a 3-yearly cycle is again undemocratic and unjustified.

I would encourage charities to make representations to this consultation by 24th August – or the ability to appeal higher and higher bills will be severely curtailed.

John Webber is Head of Rating at Colliers International

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