Businesses chase £10m rebates

    Council believes its ‘worst fears have been realised’

    NEXT month will see businesses in the town banding together in a bid to claim back £10million in rates. They believe their premises have been wrongly valued and that they are owed rebates.

    If their actions are successful, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council will be required to pay them £4million – enough to run the Assembly Hall for the next ten years – at a time when the authority is battling to overcome government cuts in its funding.

    The other £6million would be paid largely by central government, and smaller portions by Kent County Council and Kent Fire and Rescue Service.

    One borough council officer told the Times: “Our worst fears have been realised.”

    In total, 21 business are contesting their rates with the Valuation Office Agency [VOA] in a move believed to have been prompted by the success of a B&Q appeal in September that was reported in this newspaper, as part of an ongoing investigation into business rates.

    All 21 firms, the majority of which are based in the North Farm business park, are being represented by the same agent, CVS (Commercial Valuers & Surveyors) Ltd, said to be the UK’s largest business rates specialist, and have their tribunal on December 14.

    The news that so many companies are appealing en masse has been met with dismay by council officers, who are concerned about how the local authority will pay the £4million.

    The council’s Director of Finance and Corporate Services, Lee Colyer, said: “It would appear that commission-chasing property agents are now using the downward appeal process to cash in on past payments that went to central government, but that now will be partially footed by local taxpayers.

    “The appeals can go back to 2010, so there are around £10million-worth of refunds potentially for settlement, although with so many hearings listed for the same time I hope that sufficient consideration and information will be given to each case, and that the VOA put up a robust defence of their original assessment, on behalf of local taxpayers.”

    Firms Mr Colyer claims are contesting their earlier valuations include Furniture Village and John Lewis – neither of which responded to a request to comment – alongside others based in ‘Fountains Business Park and Kingstanding Way’.

    He said that although the hearings are supposed to held in public ‘in theory’, no public agenda or documents are prepared beforehand, making it hard to find out the specifics of each case.

    Mr Colyer added: “For anyone to even be aware that these hearings are taking place takes some investigation.”

    Tunbridge Wells council taxpayers’ have already suffered at the hands of the VOA, having been forced to repay £400,000 in rates to the DIY giant B&Q in September after it was decided they had been valued wrongly in 2010.

    The latest episode, which will see the council liable for four times as much in retroactive refunds, has further damaged the trust between the local authority, the VOA and the agents who look to benefit from taking the claims to appeal.

    It is a situation made worse by the VOA’s ability to prevent the disclosure of information due to their ‘statutory duty’ to preserve ratepayers’ confidentiality.

    Mr Colyer said: “It would appear that the VOA has a super trump to play that beats all other requests for information that would normally be expected under the public’s right to know and Freedom of Information legalisation, therefore extinguishing any hope of transparency.

    “This does appear to be similar to the private deals reached by HMRC with large American companies regarding very low amounts paid in corporation tax that made headlines last year.”

    When asked about the size of the appeal, a VOA spokesman said:

    “We are unable to comment on specific cases. We have a duty to maintain an accurate and up-to-date rating list. If a ratepayer alerts us to some information that may require further investigation, we are duty-bound to act upon it.”

    And when asked if the 21 appeals being lodged means the VOA accept that their 2010 valuations were flawed, the spokesman responded:

    “Broadly speaking, there are two types of appeals; an appeal against the 2010 valuation, and an appeal resulting from a material change to the local area. A material change appeal does not indicate that the 2010 valuation is incorrect.”