How to make your band elastic

Dido Sandler looks at ways of cutting your council tax bill
ONE of the best ways of saving money on your council tax is to move. If you tot up what band H (properties worth pounds 320,000 plus) taxpayers in the London Borough of Lambeth have contributed over the past six years, compared with their peers in neighbouring Wandsworth, the difference is enough to buy a car.

By yesterday, everyone registered and liable for council tax should have received their bill for 1996-97. The worst hit this year, as ever, are inhabitants of mainly Labour-controlled inner city areas. Liverpool's band D (pounds 68,000 to pounds 88,000) rate at pounds 1,006, is the first to breach the pounds 1000 barrier. Hackney follows at pounds 855, with Manchester at pounds 838 and Bristol at pounds 871.

The average increase this year is more than double the rate of inflation, at 6.2 per cent. This takes the average standard rate (which covers most households other than single occupants) for band D to pounds 647. The London boroughs are set to rise still more steeply. Southwark goes up 24 per cent, while Tory flagship Wandsworth rises 32 per cent.

Martin Pilgrim, head of finance for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, says movements in rates correspond directly to Government funding levels. The larger London increases indicate bigger cuts there.

Labour's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, claims much of the inequality between low-charging Conservative and high-charging Labour local authorities is down to a skewed formula for calculating central government grants. Mr Dobson says that the City of Westminster is ranked as the fourth most deprived area in the whole of England. "No one in their right mind would believe the formula. Barnsley, with terrible unemployment after pit closures is ranked as the 313th most deprived area, for government subsidy purposes,'' he said.

This year's inflation-busting council tax rises form part of a trend. Last November's budget announced an extra pounds 3.5bn was to be raised by local councils in the next three years, as central government support trails off. Mr Dobson believes this rise is equivalent to an extra 2 pence on the basic rate of income tax.

Amid this gloom, there are some rays of hope. You do not have to go to the extreme of moving to cut your council tax bill. John Bertram (not his real name) from Nantwich, Cheshire saved himself more than pounds 200 a year, or 27 per cent, by persuading the local council to lower his house from band E to band C. This means his property was revalued from the pounds 88,000- pounds 120,000 to the pounds 52,000-pounds 68,000 bracket.

Birmingham Midshire Building Society, which runs a council tax valuation service that helped Mr Bertram achieve this reduction, says that a third of individuals that come to them have a valid case to appeal. And 90 per cent of these claimants win their case, it says.

When local council valuations were carried out in 1991 - these were used to formulate initial council tax levels in 1993, and have not changed since - they took a very broad brush approach, says Mark Robinson, chief valuer at Birmingham Midshires. The original valuers did not actually enter properties, he says. Instead they looked at homes from the street and made a rough guess.

You do not have to have your own valuer to help you challenge a council decision, although a professional valuation is often worthwhile in more complicated cases. Appeals tribunals are straightforward, and carried out in a non-threatening environment. Your hearing may be held up by a backlog, however.

If you move, either to buy or rent, you might consider an appeal. But general house-price falls since 1991 make no difference in the assessment. Instead, successful claims have to be built on specific external factors, such as road schemes or nearby development, that have reduced the value of your property since, or on an incorrect valuation in the first place. When properties have had their banding revised downwards, the local council may be obliged to bring similar homes into line.

To gather evidence to support your case, take a trip to your council's local valuation office. Here you can consult the records to find out what is paid in your neighbourhood. You will also be able to see if anyone nearby has managed to win an appeal.

It may be useful to consult estate agents about local property prices in 1991. But ask several - prices would have varied tremendously according to the condition of the property. The 1991 council tax valuations were done assuming a good state of repair.You cannot claim to be sent down a band because your property has fallen into disrepair.

Mr Robinson stresses that it is only worth appealing if you think you can make enough of a difference to be revised down a band or two. Properties between pounds 100,000 and pounds 200,000 are the most likely to get a review.If you live alone, you get a 25 per cent sole-occupier discount.

Disabled people who need extra room because of their disability should not pay tax on that extra room and may be revised down a band.

Highs and lows*

Band D** average national rate pounds 647

Highest national rate (Liverpool) pounds 1,006

Lowest national rate (Westminster) pounds 295

Highest in Greater London (Hackney) pounds 855

Lowest in Greater London (Westminster) pounds 295

*1996/7 bills

**Band D homes are those valued between pounds 68,000 and pounds 88,000 in April 1991. Standard rate is for two or more people. Single occupants get a 25 per cent discount.