Business Rates Review so far – bit of a damp squib?

The much vaunted business rates review seems to be turning into a bit of a damp squib if the latest reports are anything to go by.

New legislation which aims to speed up business rates appeals and make the system fairer has already been branded “a missed opportunity” by several senior figures nationally.

Among proposals set out in the government’s new Enterprise Bill, published last week, were steps towards reforming the appeals process, designed to help councils which argued the current process makes financial planning difficult and can leave them facing unexpected income shortfalls.

If it becomes law the Enterprise Bill would enable the creation of secondary legislation designed to speed up the appeals process and make it more transparent. This would include a new “check stage” to ensure the property’s rating valuation is based on accurate and up-to-date information, backed up by new civil penalties of up to £500 for providing false information. Measures to cut red tape, including allowing the Valuation Office Agency to share information directly with councils are also included.

The proposed reforms follow a review of business rates administration last year which found many appeals were backed up by sparse evidence and taking too long to resolve – this led to the Government missing its own self-imposed deadlines time and again – never good headlines in a general election year.

Graeme McDonald, director of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, told LGC the proposals in the bill amounted to “tweaks” of the appeal system, rather than reform. He said he would have liked to have seen a system of voluntary assessment built into the business rates process so that businesses could assess themselves and therefore share the risk of appeal, rather than the risk all being placed on the local authority – an interesting concept.

Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman thinks the changes to the appeals system should mean fewer challenges are made because businesses should have more confidence in the accuracy of their bill.

It seems a long time ago now but the government announced the review of business rates in March, which is due to report back before the 2016 budget. In the meantime the DCLG said the Enterprise Bill would help create a more efficient system, reduce “speculative” appeals and resolve genuine appeals faster to ensure…  “the system is fit for a 21st century economy.” – an interesting turn of phrase considering we are almost 16 years into this Century.

The bill started in the House of Lords and will have its second reading there on 12 October.

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