Thousands wait to file appeals on council tax: Paul Gosling on the grounds for moving into a lower band

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MILLIONS of householders have received notices this month advising them of their council tax bands, and thousands have already notified the Inland Revenue of their wish to appeal against their coding, even though they cannot officially do so until April.

Sarah Boothby of the London Money Advice Support Unit said: 'We anticipate a lot of problems. I have spoken to Camden and Westminster councils, and people who are unhappy with their valuations will have to approach a valuation office in Huddersfield. At Huddersfield, they have 150 people a day from Westminster alone talking about appealing. Before Westminster sent out its banding notices, there were 650 people waiting to appeal. On the day when the notices were received, the figure went up to 1,900.

'In Barnet they have 1,000 people wanting to appeal. When I phoned up Camden, who have their systems for dealing with the council tax up and running, I was transferred four times before I was told I had to phone Huddersfield.'

Most householders will find their homes are valued considerably higher than the present market value. Properties were assessed at April 1991 prices, since when their worth has dropped sharply. A falling value arising from the general state of the market is not an acceptable ground for appeal.

Valuations were conducted without examination of the internal conditions of a property, which means that the bad condition of a house or flat is a valid reason for appeal. If a property's value has fallen as a result of materially different conditions - such as a new road built at the bottom of the garden - this also qualifies for an appeal, properties moving into a lower valuation as soon as the change occurs. The householder's status as owner occupier or tenant does not affect the valuation.

Properties that increase in value - as a result of an extension, for example - will be upwardly revalued only after they have been sold. This is to avoid penalising householders for home improvements. Adaptations to meet the needs of people with disabilities are ignored for valuations.

The Revenue is hoping it can avoid formal appeal hearings in most circumstances, and it will try to reach agreement in private discussions. Homes that only just fall into the bottom segment of a band (probably about 20 per cent of properties in the middle categories) may be accepted in lower bands to avoid the expense of a hearing.

Where an appeal does go forward it will be heard by a lay tribunal, where representation is not needed. Estate agents are already offering to assist with revaluation appeals.

Typically, moving down a band is likely to save about pounds 60 a year. With agents charging about that amount for evidence on a revaluation, a householder could start making significant savings from the second year, even using a surveyor for evidence. However, money advice counsellors suggest that householders should preferably represent themselves after seeking help from a Citizens Advice Bureau or other counsellor.

Michael Tilling of Spencer's estate agents in Leicester said: 'We would be quite happy to advise. We would charge about pounds 60. For that, we would go and visit the client, get a description, note the condition, go through our records of sales, and prepare a valuation. If we agreed that it was over-valued, we would suggest we renegotiate with the valuation officer. If no agreement was reached, and we thought the case was reasonable, we would take it to appeal, for which the cost would be the same again for an appearance in court and for preparation of the case.'

Householders may also be eligible on other grounds for reductions in their council tax bill. Homes with just one adult resident should have 25 per cent discounts, and empty homes 50 per cent off.

There is also a transitional relief scheme - automatically calculated by the local council - to phase in any increase in the council tax against the old poll tax.

A Revenue spokesman said householders who wanted a revaluation should contact their local valuation office. This might prove difficult in some areas. The Independent on Sunday checked one local phone directory and found that under Inland Revenue it said 'see valuation office', and under valuation office it said 'see Inland Revenue'.

Beverley Huie, a Citizens Advice Bureaux director in London, said: 'We are concerned that the introduction of council tax will create additional pressures for us through a greatly increased demand for advice.' The CABs already fear cuts in funding.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE PROPERTY BANDS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Band Valuation A up to 40,000 B pounds 40,001 to 52,000 C pounds 52,001 to 68,000 D pounds 68,001 to 88,000 E pounds 88,001 to 120,000 F pounds 120,001 to 160,000 G pounds 160,001 to 320,000 H over pounds 320,000 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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