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DOWN THE PLUGHOLE?

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

December 2012.

In his last piece, Flotsam was pointing out the many gaps in the Local Government Finance Bill, and hoping that some of them would be plugged. Sadly, the opposite seems to be happening, and much of it seems to be based on woeful ignorance within the Civil Service (that is the most charitable description of their approach).


Unfortunately, the Institute seems not to have done very well, in that, the more Lord Lytton gathered support from all parties around the House for the proposals which he was advancing, the more DCLG preached against them. The apogee of this opposition was the revelation that billing authorities could not be allowed, once again to participate in valuation proceedings: “…..because it would be too expensive for ratepayers”. When asked by the representatives of the professions why this should be so, the response was that agents would have to conduct separate and parallel negotiations with billing authorities! What??????? Which planet do these mandarins inhabit? Certainly not Planet Earth.


The looks of horror on the faces of the delegation must have spoken volumes, but the mandarin, who should have known better than to carry on digging, did so further by talking of the nightmares of two-party agreements which would surely follow the introduction of the town halls to valuation. Flotsam gives the lad credit for at least knowing what a two-party agreement was, but none whatever for not knowing how such “monsters” were vanquished, all those centuries ago (or at least twenty years, anyway). How could Whitehall’s memory be so short – and so selective? Sadly, the advice given to ministers on that basis, that localisation and transparency in rating had nothing to gain from including billing authorities in valuation proceedings, was irredeemably bad, based as it was upon profound factual error.


The mandarin’s best performance of the day came, though, when he declared (apparently quite poker-faced) that the Department had no interest in levels of rateable value, although he managed to ignore a question about the VOA’s “Loss of RV” form (a copy of which had been captured). He also seemed not to know what section 41 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, because he did not want to discuss it.


Perhaps he is content to leave ignoring s41 to the denizens of Wingate House? They do such a wonderful job, there with their “Defence of the 2010 List” circular, their strange ideas about what is meant by the term “without prejudice” (which, in fairness, they have just dropped) and their curious ideas about their obligation to disclose evidence in their possession – the so-called “proportionate response”. To Flotsam’s knowledge, they have already got themselves into hot water with the Lands Chamber on at least three occasions, now, by resisting applications for disclosure which the Tribunal held were reasonable and legitimate, and then refusing, or at least failing, to produce the evidence which they were ordered to produce, and even inventing the excuse in one case when ignoring a peremptory order, that they had no valuations on the assessments in the 2005 List…….Eh? Are they concocting them, now?


Before long, somebody is going to call their bluff in Valuation Tribunal, by arguing that, if a Valuation Officer declines to produce any evidence on the ground that s/he: “…has no case to answer” (a term used in criminal trials where the defence believe that the prosecution have not posed any valid questions), then the ratepayer may argue that anyone who declines to produce any evidence has neither the right to cross-examine other parties, nor the right to make a speech, and that the Tribunal has to decide the appeal on the basis of the evidence put before it (which, of course, the members and their Clerk may test.


Trying, as ever, to be fair, Flotsam suggests that these actions lead by Wingate House may not constitute a concerted attempt to defeat all appeals and to discourage ratepayers from appealing, but are just the result of the ignorance of the higher management of what is going on, in the network. The Head of Profession’s claim, at the Diploma Holders’ Conference in Telford in October that team leaders were not refusing to ratify caseworker agreements and then failing to appear before Valuation Tribunals, was refuted, to his discomfiture, by an overwhelming show of hands among private practice attendees.


After a truly hard-fought contest, however, the prize for the grandest howler must go to the announcement of the postponement of the 2015 revaluation. What genius (Flotsam declines to say “idiot”, let alone “politically-motivated mutant”) wrote the ministerial announcement? How do ministers expect ratepayers to be so stupid as to believe the reasons given? Some ratepayers might have increases deferred; but the vast majority would have seen their rateable values fall – and, of course, the object of a revaluation is not to raise extra revenue, but to redistribute the burden of taxation.


Is there a white knight out there? Perhaps the much-maligned Professor’s rumoured proposals to rewrite some of his Practice Statements may help to level the field, a little. Nothing is known at the time of writing; but some moderation of the present regime is devoutly to be wished.


Something to look forward to, for Christmas, perhaps?


Flotsam


Peter Scrafton

©J.P. Scrafton, 2012

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