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

July 2015.

Well - the general election is over and ministers (some new, some not) are at their desks, and getting to grips with situations old and new. Although we have no change at the top of DWP, we have major changes at MoJ and DCLG and officials are no doubt having to put in plenty of overtime in order to develop or refine policies to their new direction.

There are few, perhaps, who would dispute that the rating system is in a mess. It profits no-one to apportion blame for this. Few who do not labour at the coal face have any real understanding of how the system is supposed to work, and one might be forgiven for hoping that politicians, guided by Whitehall officials, would recognise when they are in a hole, and stop digging. Demanding, without consultation, that the English Valuation Tribunal should clear a 138,000 backlog of cases, while simultaneously provoking the arrival of another 200,000 plus appeals by limiting the backdating of reductions and, therefore, refunds, and at the same time setting off towards a revaluation and closing more VOA offices, strikes me as being an example of substantially less than joined-up thinking. Why were officials so shocked that private practice valuers made all of these appeals, in order to seek to ensure that their clients were being well-served and that the risk of future negligence claims was reduced to a foreseeable minimum?

Having said all of that, I do not want to be taken as blackguarding the Agency. True, there are those there who could usefully be reminded of the purpose and function of s41 of the 1988 Act, just as there must be those in DCLG who could decree the end of the "Loss of RV" form - but the stark truth is that the organisation has been subjected to such a programme of swingeing cuts, that I marvel, sometimes, at how it gets through as much of its workload as it does. Is the frequent closure of local offices (a description which hardly applies any more) the right way to approach a general revaluation? Even with contemporary technology, personally, I think not. It sorely needs better funding - and I and others from the Institute have been saying this since at least 1995!

Billing procedures have not been immune, either. I understand that Treasury officials were somewhat taken aback when, on complaining, recently, that rate bills were too complicated, they were told that the complexities arise from the regulations. Hmmmmm.....who would have thought that could be the reason?

I understand that discussions have started, within Whitehall, as to where legislation is to go, next. Understandably, such discussions are highly confidential. When the time has come for the public to be asked, once again, whether it wants to be run over slowly, or quickly, no doubt the appropriate consultation papers will appear. When they do, I can assure you that the Institute will be ready and waiting to offer its views, which, as always, will be politically neutral.

The Valuation Tribunals are also in considerable need of a boost. They are the last, I believe, of the unpaid, volunteer tribunals outside the magistracy, and their budget has been crushed so tightly that they have reduced their panels from three to two, as they have fought to reduce, sharply, the backlog of their cases, while taking on additional jurisdiction, and having to borrow paid judges from the Social Entitlement Tribunal to hear and determine cases. It was probably right, on balance, to close many of the old county offices, but the cost has been a massive diminution in the local knowledge of those who might be asked to hear cases.

In one of my recent cases, over a central London office building, the two members came from the northern Home Counties, while the clerk travelled to the hearing from the West Midlands. As the case was one of some valuation complexity, though not one to which PS 10 applied, the Tribunal, of its own volition, arranged a panel of two qualified valuers - but this cannot be done all the time. Recruiting of new panel chairmen has just been authorised, for the first time since the national tribunals were created. In the meantime, existing, experienced members are retiring, and there must be a risk that the standard of service may suffer. How many people who are still working, and who might be suitable for appointment, can afford to take time from paid work to sit and then work on a written decision?

Having looked at one or two areas of administration and government involvement which might benefit from examination, what about those who appear before Valuation Tribunals? Do they need to mend their ways, at all? Leaving aside the perceived sins of certain agents who will appeal almost anything (and who have become known as "the bulk operators"), many of whose appeals have been disposed of by strike-out, there are issues surrounding claims that one party or the other is refusing to discuss a case.

Discussion periods, like programmes and valuation schemes, have no foundation in law, and are merely an administrative convenience to assist the Agency in pacing out its work, and seeking to deal with things in its reduced financial world. There is no excuse, in my view, for ceasing discussions, unless the parties have talked everything out, and are at loggerheads. Under such circumstances, they should prepare (again, in my view) statements of matters agreed and in dispute.

VTE is starting to attack such obstructive attitudes. There is a new PGN which seeks to encourage agreement on areas. You should read, mark and inwardly digest this, because, if not followed, it could bite you! Likewise, the Agency has been left in no doubt, by PGN, that it may send whomsoever it wills to appear before a tribunal - but if that person has no familiarity with the case to enable them to give expert evidence, then such will not found an application for a postponement. Sniggering at this from agents would be premature, however, as the practice of failing to tell the Tribunal that the hearing of a listed case is required, in order to procure an automatic postponement, has been "rumbled" and is coming under scrutiny. Expect things in that area to change, before long. What underlies all of this, of course, is the Tribunal's wish to have cases withdrawn, settled or heard and determined, with the minimum of delay to all. Automatic postponement of one case effectively prevents another one from being heard.

Moving on up the judicial food chain, we are waiting to see what the fallout from the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Monk is going to be. An application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court has been made by Monk, but the Agency is known to be working on its proposals for dealing with cases on the basis of what Lewison LJ (who had a substantial landlord and tenant practice at the Bar) had to say. VTE believes that it has upwards of five hundred cases stayed, pending the outcome of the Monk debate. To my knowledge, applications for stays in yet more cases are being made.

On the basis that neither side was happy with the Court of Appeal, it is devoutly to be hoped that among the reforms being pondered at DCLG will be one which truly does have the effect of restoring the situation on repair to what it really was under the General Rate Act 1967. I have written on this subject before, but there has been so much discomfort on this issue, on all sides, since the 1999 Bill was promulgated, and now that we have this decision, it strikes me that getting this matter sorted out should be one for the next Parliamentary Bill. The concept was misunderstood by draftsmen in 1999, and the situation has deteriorated, since then.

This is one of the areas which the Institute will be watching. We spend time in Westminster and Whitehall working, quietly, with legislators and officials, to try to improve what is emerging from Parliament. You may even have seen one or two of us on Parliament TV! This is some of the work we do, for all three faculties.

But what else are we trying to do? My strongest affiliation in the Institute being that with The Valuers’ Association (TVA), I would like to close by telling you what its Board is trying to do and to ask you what you should like to see us do.

You should have by now a good idea of what we are doing, and preparing to do, on the rating front, but there is far more to valuation than rating. Through the Royal Agricultural University, and TEGoVA, we are seeking to forward valuer education, especially for statutory purposes, to get the Institute back into areas of work which were familiar to local authority valuers (when there were more of them than there are now) and to place the Institute at the forefront of meeting the professional challenges of the future, in such areas as the Mortgage Directive, proposals for fixing mortgage lending value and sustainability.

TVA is proposing to discuss these matters at Telford, and/or to cover these and matters such as matrimonial and probate valuation, valuation for tax purposes and a review of recent compensation cases, as well as a discussion on proposals for compulsory purchase reform. There is obviously too much to discuss on Valuer Day at Telford, so it is proposed to have at least one half-day seminar on non-rating subjects, probably in the late summer or early autumn, and probably in London. If the demand is there, we might be able to take the show on to the road.

So, returning to the title of this piece - where to, now? This is your Institute, and it is most important that, at this time of major change in valuation in so many areas, the members of the Institute, of whatever faculty, tell us what we may do to help you all to serve your clients and to develop your careers.

Peter Scrafton

©J.P. Scrafton, 2015

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