The Government pushed ahead with plans to overhaul the appeals system for business rates despite not receiving a single consultation response in support of them, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.
Businesses were consulted about the new “check, challenge, appeal” process in August 2016, which has overhauled the grounds on which companies can argue against rating decisions by introducing a power to throw out appeals that are within a margin of error of around 15pc. The system was implemented in April this year along with a revaluation of rates across the country.
However, of 287 responses to the consultation, not a single company, trade organisation or individual wrote in support of the proposed system.
Responses were received from many of the UK’s leading companies across a range of industries – including Boots, Tesco, Unilever, British Steel, BT, Eurostar, Greene King and Whitbread – as well as trade bodies such as the British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI and the British Retail Consortium.
The submissions, which were obtained via Freedom of Information requests to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) by property firm Gerald Eve, raised a number of potential problems with the system. These included an increased burden on ratepayers and a lack of transparency from the VOA over how decisions about setting rates were made.
People also suggested it was unfair that firms had to provide any evidence that would support an appeal up front, without having the opportunity to add to it at a later date, and raised fears that the VOA portal would be too difficult to use if people owned a number of properties.
Jerry Schurder, head of business rates at Gerald Eve, said: “It was clear as soon as the proposals were unveiled that the new procedures would create major obstacles for ratepayers, but the release, at last, of the representations reveals just how much opposition there was and remains among UK plc.”
He called the revelations about the lack of support a “damning indictment” of the Government’s changes.
“The fact that the proposals were pushed through regardless, riding roughshod over the legitimate and genuine concerns of ratepayers nationwide, shows that government has no real ambition to deliver a fairer business rates system,” he said.
He also said that the Government’s response to the consultation findings had been delayed, only being released at the last minute.
The “check, challenge, appeal” process drew warnings ahead of its implementation about a new clause meaning ratepayers were not able to argue against a rates bill if its margin of error was inside 15pc.
Last week it emerged that the VOA was facing potential embarrassment as its own figures revealed almost 90pc of users were dissatisfied with the new process.
Respondents asked about their experience using the new system said it did not work properly, that it was too slow, and parts of the website were missing or not working.
Mr Schurder said HMRC had been brought in to make improvements to the system mechanics. “Now there is hope that they might at least deliver the IT to deal with the process,” he said. “The way to reduce unnecessary appeals is for the VOA to be more transparent.”
The overhaul of the business rates system in April this year came after the Government had delayed revaluing properties for two years. Many businesses argued this had left them paying higher rates which had been set at a time when the economic outlook was different.
However, central London retailers were hit with huge increased to rates after the changes were made, despite concerns raised by the Mayor of London’s office and business groups.
From April 1, some 510,000 businesses saw an increase in their business rates, 420,000 pay the same and 920,000 saw a decrease according to Government estimates published earlier this year.