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BIG BEASTS ROARING IN THE JUNGLE

AN ARTICLE by Peter Scrafton FIRRV, FCIArb, MRSA(Hon) Solicitor (Non-Practising)

March 2013.

Last time, Flotsam was writing about that which he sees as the ignorance or selective amnesia as to the structure of the appeals system, within DCLG and the higher echelons of VOA. At the time of writing this piece (at the beginning of February), the battle to save the 2015 revaluation goes on, with Secretaries of State appearing to hold opposing views. We await developments, remembering, the while, the effect which successive postponements of revaluations between 1973 and 1990 (all intended to be “one-offs”, of course) had on the administration of the rating system, with the transition system now enshrined in statute in England, even if it has been abolished, elsewhere.


Meanwhile, back in the jungle, the roaring and trampling of great beasts was to be heard, as the rumour about possible changes to Valuation Tribunal Practice Statements, gained credence. The President is said to have acknowledged that, in rating (as opposed to all other jurisdictions) an intending appellant does not have at his fingertips all of the information which would enable him to lay out his grounds of appeal. This would seem to be (says Flotsam) because, unlike any other decision-making body, VOA seems to have tried to exempt itself from the need to give reasons for its decisions. Some may recall that, at the time when the present information base was being set up, senior Agency figures wanted to publish the evidence on which valuations were based; but this wish was overruled. When the latest suggestion for the disclosure of more information emerged, apparently, the look on the Agency’s representative’s face resembled Wunsch’s “The Scream”!


Additional and bigger Agency beasts (the term is used but figuratively) were produced for the following VTUG meeting which, by all accounts, sparked a lengthy debate, which Flotsam finds to be extremely healthy. The President is to be congratulated for refereeing a good, clean fight, and for not seeking to impose any agenda which might have restrained such an open discussion.


There were some good points made on all sides.


VOA say that 50% of appeals are settled by agreement, and that 75% of those result in no change to the List. They complain that the old grounds of “incorrect, excessive and wrong in law” criticised by the Court of Appeal, thirty years ago, are still in regular use (though far from illegal), and that there is a very low bar placed before appellants in the matter of statements of case. They suggest that, in the statutory scheme governing appeals, there is no provision for the disclosure of evidence by the VOA.


“….. and then the fight started” as the old joke has it. While all expressed sympathy and frustration over the torrent of appeals submitted by the so-called “bulk operators”, there was a distinct view that the Agency had rather brought much of this upon itself by its refusal to disclose evidence, often before a statement of case is served, seemingly ignoring its statutory duty to make and maintain rating lists in favour of a self-created duty to defend lists (often at all costs) and to offer only a “proportionate” response, for which also there is no statutory or judicial authority, either. Flotsam accuses no-one of committing such an offence; but has permitted himself a wry smile over the recent datamining operation against the Agency’s website: someone has been trying to get to the undisclosed comparables!


Someone, apparently, made so bold as to refer to the “Loss of Rateable Value” forms, which VOs have to refer up the management chain before agreeing a reduction above a small percentage. These forms, or some of them, are believed to find their way to Eland House, although the denizens of that place feign no interest in the loss of rateable value! The Agency did not want to discuss them at VTUG.


The point was made that every public authority has to give reasons for its decisions, and the tax base should be transparent. VOA should not be an exception. There is evidence that, in the Lands Chamber, VOA has been trying to take the same line on disclosure, in several cases, and that it has been coming unstuck. The Upper Tribunal seems to be following the line taken by the Courts that full disclosure of information and evidence is required, at an early stage in the proceedings.


And what of VTS in all this? They complain of being swamped with paper, as they are getting far more statements of case than were ever contemplated when the system was set up. Someone has commented that the volume of paper has multiplied, tenfold, since the computers took over, so completely. Everyone knows the effect that this has had on listings, and getting cases heard.


So what happens now? The Tribunal is no doubt having its own thoughts: VOA is attempting to survey ratepayers, direct (which is putting the backs of their agents up); and the agents’ representatives have retired to a corner to put together some proposals for the re-writing of the practice statements which might perhaps, require review in the light of the experiences of the last three years.


We will see what emerges…..Flotsam can hardly wait!


Flotsam


Peter Scrafton

©J.P. Scrafton, 2013

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