A MASS action by companies on the industrial estate – including John Lewis and Furniture Village – to claw back business rates worth £4.5million from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has been withdrawn.
The 21 companies, all represented by the business rates agency CVS, were scheduled to have their appeals heard by a tribunal on the same date, December 14. The hearing did not go ahead.
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council [TWBC] is now concerned that a settlement could have been reached without their knowledge.
Cllr Paul Barrington-King, Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance, said: “Apparently, all £4.5million of appeal listings have been withdrawn just before the hearing.
“We have not been provided with an explanation, and it could be that the agents were not ready, or that the Valuation Office reached a private settlement beforehand.”
However, despite efforts by both the council and the Times to get an explanation from either the Valuation Office Agency [VOA], which sets business rates, or CVS themselves, no response has been forthcoming.
It means the council are yet to find out if they will have to refund the money at a time when they are preparing the final drafts of their 2017/18 budget, which is already constrained by severe government cutbacks to its revenue support grant.
The issue of the collective action by companies to get their business rates revalued first arose in November, leading the council to say its ‘worst fears have been realised’.
Total liabilities to the taxpayer from a successful revaluation would amount to £10million, however TWBC would only be liable for approximately 45 per cent of that.
The rest would be paid largely by central government, and smaller portions by Kent County Council and Kent Fire & Rescue Service.
Members of the council have reason to fear that a deal has been struck to bypass the tribunal stage.
In September, the authority was hit unexpectedly with a bill for £172,000 to compensate B&Q for a wrongful 2010 evaluation, following a deal between agents and the VOA.
At the time, the situation led Cllr Barrington-King to state that residents of Tunbridge Wells had been ‘mugged’ as the council had been given no opportunity for input ‘whatsoever’.