07/12/2017 13:47 GMT | Updated 07/12/2017 19:03 GMT

Business Rates Appeals System Under Fire After Just 400 Firms Challenge Bills

Concerns are mounting over a new system for appealing against business rate hikes after figures showed just 400 companies have so far been able to formally challenge their bills since this year’s controversial reforms.

The latest statistics from the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) revealed that 5,650 firms across England have asked for their business rates to be checked – the first stage of the new “check, challenge and appeal” process – between April 1 and the end of September.

Of those,  2,260 remain unresolved and only 400 have progressed to the second stage of making a formal challenge.

The Government has come under heavy fire over the complexity of the new appeals system – with cross-bench peer John Lytton telling the House of Commons earlier this year that it involved “the most torturous” registration and had been designed to “prevent appeals”.

Data out separately last month from the Valuation Tribunal Service revealed that no rates challenges had reached the final appeal stage by the end of September.

There had been expectations for a deluge of appeals, given that 500,000 businesses saw their bills rise and close to 20,000 appeals were lodged a month after the last revaluation seven years ago.

Altus Group, Britain’s largest ratings advisory firm, warned that “genuine concerns” remain over the new regulations and changes to the appeals process.

John Webber, head of business rating at Colliers International, said: “It beggars belief that businesses are so happy with their rate bills in 2017 that hardly any one is contesting.

“We would argue the figures for 2017 are so low purely because ratepayers can’t navigate through the new system.”

The business rates overhaul on April 1 saw 1.9 million properties in England revalued and left many businesses facing crippling hikes, with retailers and pubs among those hit hardest.

Independent forecaster the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has revealed that £4.5 billion has been set aside to cover tax rebates across England over the next five years.

Yui Mok

Chancellor Philip Hammond has been accused of not going far enough to help firms struggling with rates (PA)

Altus said there is likely to be a rush of appeals being lodged in the new year as businesses and advisory groups get to grips with the new system.

The firm is looking at more than 63,000 properties that could be eligible to appeal against bill hikes.

Alex Probyn, president of UK business rates at Altus, said: “The new regulations are here to stay and need more time to be made to work.

“While there remain genuine concerns in the ratings community, we believe the new regulations can be made to work through co-operation and anticipate the numbers rising dramatically in the new year as advisers assemble the evidence required.”

The VOA figures show that the number of initial rate checks registered rose significantly from 180 in April to 1,620 in September.

Chancellor Philip Hammond sought to appease concerns over the rates revaluation,  announcing a £2.3 billion reprieve in the Budget by bringing forward plans to switch the inflation measure used to calculate annual increases.

He also revealed plans to reduce the period between revaluations to every three years and said he would extend a £1,000 discount on bills for those with a rateable value of less than £100,000 – for another year until March 2019.

But he was condemned for not doing enough to support struggling firms, with many calling for a rates freeze and others demanding a full overhaul of the system.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said the figures showed the new appeal system is a “shambles”.

Mike Cherry, FSB national chairman, added: “The platform places huge administrative burdens on small firms and we routinely have members raising issues with its extremely poor usability.”

A spokesman for the VOA said: “The previous appeals system was broken and encouraged speculative appeals – around 70% of appeals did not result in any change in valuation.

“These statistics cover the first six months of a brand new system. It’s still early days and we continue to improve the functionality of the service.”