Email sent by mistake reveals other major stores are claiming refunds…

    B&Q Tunbridge Wells 2

    During the investigation into business rates by this newspaper, B&Q accidentally revealed that it has joined with other major retailers on the industrial estate to claim a further rebate.

    The Times pressed the superstore for comment on the fact it had been awarded a £430,000 refund after claiming a wrong evaluation by the Valuation Office Agency (VOA).

    However, the DIY store sent the wrong response, and instead of answering the original question told us in a statement:

    “Alongside other neighbouring retailers, B&Q has been awarded a temporary reduction to its business rates following the ongoing roadworks and associated disruption on the A21 and Longfield Road. This reduction is temporary and will cease once the works are complete.”

    The borough council’s Director of Finance and Corporate Services, Lee Colyer, pointed out that the VOA have since confirmed they have received an appeal for disruption but it has not yet been assessed.

    “The response from B&Q is not correct. They are confusing the refund just awarded with a further appeal for a temporary reduction,” he said, adding there was a certain ‘audacity’ behind the appeal, given that they will be beneficiaries of the multimillion-pound road improvements.

    “But on the other hand, given their track record of getting reductions from the VOA, you can see why they and their agents do it,” Mr Colyer conceded.

    Last year, during the road improvements, retailers and business owners on the industrial estate told the Times the work had impacted their trade.

    The major retailers in the vicinity of B&Q, which also rely on access to Longfield Road, include: Currys PC World, DFS Furniture, Toys R Us, John Lewis at home, TK Maxx, Next, Argos, Furniture Village and Carpetright

    The Times contacted all of these stores to see if they were seeking reduced rates.

    However, none of these retailers offered a confirmation, with most citing their ‘long-standing practice’ not to comment on business issues.

    Five key questions

    The Times put the following questions to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA):

    What rights does a council have in terms of appealing any decision?
    A local council has no rights in appealing a decision when they are not the ratepayer.

    Why are local authorities not invited to contribute to any appeal process when decisions are taken at an early stage?
    They can attend full tribunal hearings. Tribunal hearings are conducted in public and so anything said at them is considered in the public domain. However, if a ratepayer comes to us querying a specific aspect of their rateable value, we would look to discuss this matter with them first, to see if we can resolve the issue more quickly and efficiently than by going down the often lengthy tribunal process. Any such meetings or correspondence would fall under the scope of the Commissioners for Revenue & Customs Act (CRCA), which protects access to individual taxpayers’ confidential information from third parties (including local authorities).

    Why are local authorities not allowed to know about evidence submitted and the reasons for approving an appeal?
    Any such correspondence would fall under the scope of the Commissioners for Revenue & Customs Act, which protects access to individual taxpayers’ confidential information from third parties (including local authorities).

    Would you accept there can appear to be a total lack of transparency, with the perception of decisions taken behind closed doors undermining public confidence in the process?
    No. While we are as transparent as possible about the outcomes of tribunal hearings, we cannot discuss individual cases due to CRCA – to discuss an individual case would be to break the law.

    Does the fact an appeal is won mean the VOA made mistakes in the first place?
    Not at all. 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.