Help] I'm a prisoner in Band F

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IT IS a small office, windowless, airless, strip-lit, its walls a bland institutional beige. Usually it is the setting for tedious bureaucracy. This week it became the Office of Nasty Shocks. Men and women went in, their faces anxious, and came out, some of them reeling, gripping the doorjamb and muttering to themselves. 'Ridiculous] What nonsense]' Just a few left quickly, almost furtively, their faces impassive, refusing to give their addresses.

This was the council tax department for Kensington and Chelsea, in the residential centre of west London, and its bemused citizens were learning for the first time at what prices their homes had been valued.

Christopher Urwin, an old-age pensioner, came out cold and pale, clutching his anorak closer to him. 'I'm astonished,' he said. 'But what can you do?' He and his wife live in a Thirties block owned by the Peabody Trust, a housing charity. It is, in effect, sheltered housing for the urban poor. Mr Urwin and his wife do not own it, and could not sell it: in no way does it reflect either his level of capital or income. It has three bedrooms, but no central heating.

'The yards in between are in a deplorable state, and parts of some of the balconies are cracked,' said Mr Urwin. It is his bad luck, and that of the other tenants of the trust, that many old Peabody buildings were constructed in what have since become highly fashionable parts of London.

Mr Urwin's block is in Chelsea. His flat has therefore been judged to be worth between pounds 120,000 and pounds 160,000, a band which, according to the estimates of the Association of London Authorities, is likely to receive a bill of around pounds 554. 'I'm a pensioner,' said Mr Urwin. 'If it wasn't for my bit of savings I'd have to go on Income Support. We manage, but I just can't believe it.'

Increases for pensioners with savings will bite doubly hard, for their incomes have been badly hit by the reductions in interest rates.

An old lady came out shaking her head. She was, she said, 82, and lived alone: just the sort of old lady that the Conservatives held up, during the poll-tax period, as an example of the unfairness of the rates. 'I'm absolutely terrified,' she said. 'I'm in Band G] (pounds 160,000 to pounds 320,000).' For her one-bedroom flat in Kensington, again without central heating, her estimated tax is pounds 642, with a 25 per cent reduction for living singly. 'Of course it will cause me financial hardship,' she said.

And then a man came out, trying to suppress a smile. He was middle-class by accent and appearance: he had found his nine-bedroom, three-storey house in Kensington, which he owned, valued in Band C - between pounds 52,000 and pounds 68,000.

'I think it's worth a bit more,' he said in a very quiet voice, refusing to give his name or his address. 'One of my neighbours just sold for pounds 200,000 - you won't give any clues, if you put this in the paper, will you?'

There were seven waiting now in the queues to learn their fate, shuffling slowly forward on the grey carpet. Jeffrey Sheffield, a man of middle age with an unmodernised two-bedroom flat in Chelsea, also valued in Band G, came away seething. 'I'm gutted,' he said. 'The Government should be murdered. They should be taken away and shot. I used to vote Conservative. And now this] No way is it worth it. I had it valued for pounds 150,000 when prices were sky-high.' He has, he said, no wage: he is on invalidity benefit. 'I need a stiff whisky,' he said, rushing out into the wet.

'He looks pleased,' said a man coming in, and others going out continued the Greek chorus: 'That's terrible] Wowee] pounds 320,000] I don't believe it]' Faintly, I heard a hiss of 'Heseltine', whose name, with its middle sibilant, is so perfectly formed for venomous emphasis. Moods were not improved among those who opened their Evening Standards and read that thousands of letters saying 'Your appeal has been turned down' have already been printed, ready for the rush.

'If they can sell it for that, they're welcome]' said a woman in her thirties, throwing open the exit door.

This was Sue Dawson, owner of a one-bed flat in Kensington with a 42- year lease. It had been put in the pounds 120,000 to pounds 160,000 bracket - the same as similar flats with 99-year leases, worth vastly more than hers. What particularly infuriated her was a notice on the wall that read: 'All flats are treated as though they are sold with 99-year leases. This is fair because it ensures that all homes are treated the same.'

'Fair?' said Sue. 'Fair? I'm not going to pay.' She gazed at her three-year-old dog, Bagel. 'They'll put on a kennel tax next,' she said. 'We stopped them putting dogs on leads in Kensington Gardens and we'll fight to stop this. We're motivated, we're not the sort of people who give in. We'll be marching on the streets.'

By her side, her friend Helen Perkes, also in her thirties, nodded. 'We'll get 25 per cent off, but it will hardly help,' she said. 'It's the single person who is penalised by this tax. I'm in the G band] With a short-lease, two-bed basement] I'm in the same band as Lord Snowdon, with a three- or four-bed house]'

'I tell you,' said Sue, her fighting spirit mounting, 'they put the working classes in prison for poll tax. Let's see if they do it to the middle classes too.'

Another middle-class woman squeezed by, in her sixties, with a one- bed Chelsea flat on a 12-year lease which had been put in Band G. She too, she said, was shell-shocked; it was madness, she would not pay.

She looked a most unlikely rebel, in her Aquascutum raincoat. But this is a tax that will recruit rebels in the stoutest Conservative quarters. 'We all know QCs - we'll fight]' said another future urban guerrilla, passing by with umbrella and court shoes.

It was nearly five: the queues had gone. 'Many been shocked? Anyone fainted?' I asked one of the council's officers, and she smiled and nodded and peered over the counter as though bodies might still be lying there. Don Edwards, a retired civil servant, was locked in constitutional discussion at another counter. The whole organisation of the country, he thought, was absurd. Local government - 'why not abolish it?' he said.

'But what about local accountability?' said the young man at the desk.

Mr Edwards snorted. 'Abolish local government]' he said again. 'Yes, please]'

(Photograph omitted)