The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council wrongly sent multiple council tax bills to his property. He also complained its investigation was late, inconsistent and contained lies. The Council was entitled to send provisional council tax banding information to the properties but this was unclearly worded. This fault caused avoidable confusion for which the Council has apologised. As a result of our investigation it has taken action to prevent reoccurrence of this fault. The Council also took too long to respond to Mr X’s complaints. It has apologised which is an appropriate action to remedy injustice.
- Mr X complained the Council wrongly sent council tax bills to his property based on information from people who did not live there and a telephone call about which the Council has no record. Mr X said the Council, in responding to his complaint, repeatedly changed its story, was late in responding and lied about what happened.
- Mr X wants the Council to apologise for the stress this caused, fully investigate what happened and explain why it happened.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Mr X about his complaint and considered further information he provided.
- I asked the Council questions about the complaint and considered its reply.
- I gave the Council and Mr X the opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making my final decision.
What I found
- Mr X and other family members moved into a farm house in the Council’s area in early 2017. The farm house was surrounded by other buildings. His brother asked the Council about transferring his disabled person council tax reduction to the new property. He sent a formal application to the Council in June 2017.
- A council officer visited Mr X’s family in early September 2017 to consider the council tax status of the buildings. Mr X later said the officer had arrived at the property with a hand-drawn map showing incorrect information about who was living where. He says the officer could not explain where he got the map or information about the property. He said the visit was very brief and the officer could not have properly seen the layout of the buildings from where they stood.
- Based on his visit, the officer considered there were several households at the location for council tax purposes as well as a workshop that should be subject to non-domestic rates. The Council then intended to refer the case to the Valuation Office Agency (the Agency) to decide about liability and banding.
- However, immediately after this visit the Council says a third party contacted it about the buildings. It says this resulted in it amending its submission to the Agency. Mr X believes this contact never took place and that the Council used it to justify its submission to the Agency. He later made a Freedom of Information request that did not disclose any evidence of the third party contact.
- The Council then sent the family letters about temporary council tax banding. Each letter wrongly referred to the family member having provided information they had moved into a new property. The Council’s letters said it would not be able to issue a proper and correct bill until the Agency had made its decision.
- The Council letters advised it could take up to four months for the Agency to decide on banding. It said the Council had, in the meantime, issued Council Tax bills for each property, based on its temporary banding, which each person could make payments against if they wished.
- Mr X went to the Council office that day to report his concern. The Council told him to speak to the Agency. The Agency told Mr X the Council should not have sent council tax bills.
- Mr X wrote to the Council to express concern about its letters. He said no one at the properties had been in touch with the Council about moving.
- Mr X visited the Council offices again later in September. An officer confirmed that the creation of new addresses for council tax purposes was a decision for the Agency to make. Mr X said an unidentified person had visited the property on 23 September taking photographs.
- The Agency visited the property late in September. It wrote to the Council in October to say that based on its investigations it had found only two identifiable self-contained units as the correct basis for charging.
Mr X’s complaint
- Meanwhile, Mr X had complained to the Council at the end of September. He said the family had chosen to live together on the farm because of personal circumstances. He said the Council had made unwarranted demands for money, carried out clandestine visits using a pre-annotated map and had scared the family.
- The Council responded to say it had acted because of Mr X’s brother’s application for Disabled Band Reduction. It had checked planning applications for the site which described a self-contained annex. It then had to decide if this annex should be banded separately by the Valuation Office Agency (the Agency) from the main property.
- It said the officer had visited in early September to decide if there were any self-contained units requiring separate banding. The officer considered there were three households at the property. He also considered a workshop was being used for business purposes and should be rated as such.
- It said that after the visit, a third party had telephoned the Council. The Council said that based on what they said, it had adjusted its submission to the Agency for determination. It believed there were four domestic units and a non-domestic unit. It sent information to the Agency to make its decision on liability. In the meantime it had created “provisional” properties and generated five bills on 7 September based on its understanding at that time.
- It said the Agency had visited later in September and its provisional view was that there were only two properties rateable for council tax, plus one for non-domestic rates.
- The Council had clarified the situation regarding Mr X’s brother’s property and thus his eligibility for disabled band reduction. It had arranged for adjusted bills on this basis.
- It had not yet received the Agency’s decision and so could not provide amended bills. It said once the Agency confirmed the situation it would do so.
- It said it did not believe a Council officer visited on 23 September. It apologised for the delay in its complaint response.
- Mr X replied asking for further investigation under stage 2 of the Council’s complaint procedure.. He made a Freedom of Information request and said he would also contact the Ombudsman. He said the Council was trying to get more money from the family because it knew about a recent change in its circumstances.
- The Council replied in December 2017 at stage 2. It apologised for the time it took to respond. In summary it:
- Apologised for delays in responding to Mr X’s complaint.
- Said it had appropriately decided to reassess council tax liability. This was because of disabled band reduction application and by looking at the planning application for modification and adaptation to the buildings at the property.
- Had sent provisional bills based on its initial findings about the number of units. It had sent the case to the Agency for determination. It said the Agency often came to a different decision to councils and had done so in this case.
- Said it had to ensure it correctly assessed council tax liability. It would review its process in future to ensure it properly considered information leading to a reassessment before creating new addresses and issuing provisional bills, particularly where a large increase was likely.
- Apologised for any distress caused by issuing the provisional bills.
- Had come to a view about liability based on the officer visit using existing policy. The Agency had come to a different view as was frequently the case. There was no evidence of misconduct.
- When it received the third party information it decided it did not need a further site visit before amending what it sent the Agency. But it would now review its process and in future decide whether a further check was needed where a case was assessed with significant increase in liability.
- Had no record of an officer visiting and taking photographs in late September.
- Gave Mr X the option of a further review under stage 3 of the complaint procedure.
- The map brought by the officer to the property had not been modified and resulted, in part, from discussion on the day.
- Information about one family member had come from a call from a member of the public. There was no record of this call but the Council did not usually record calls.
- The Council was reviewing its process to ensure it carefully considered a situation in all cases where a significant increase in liability was likely before creating addresses and issuing provisional bills. It would now decide whether it needed to make further check before issuing bills.
- The Ombudsman cannot investigate the Valuation Office Agency’s actions or decision about Mr X’s property. Mr X is not complaining about this decision but rather about the Council’s actions leading up to, and following, that decision.
- The Council was entitled, based on the disabled band reduction application, to make enquiries about the property to determine its correct status for council tax. It appropriately carried out a site visit. Following this, it came to a provisional view about the likely nature of liability. This was subsequently overtaken by the Agency’s decision.
- The Council says a third party contacted it. It has not disclosed information about the nature of this contact to Mr X. It has explained why it has not done so to the Ombudsman and provided me with information about the contact. I am satisfied its explanation is consistent with the need to protect information about third parties. The Council used this information to amend its report before sending it to the Agency. I have seen no evidence that the Council has acted dishonestly as Mr X complained. It has said it would now carry out additional checks in similar circumstances but that does not mean it was at fault.
- The Council was entitled to come to its initial opinion about the property. It did so in accordance with its policy. The fact that the Agency came to a different and conclusive view does not mean this initial opinion was fault by the Council.
- The provisional council tax letters the Council sent to the property were in a standard format using the phrase “thank you for providing the Council with information that you have moved into a new property…”. This was an incorrect statement in these cases. The Council’s action had not been triggered by information to it from the recipients of each letter.
- This wording therefore caused avoidable confusion. Mr X believed someone else was giving the Council information about the property. The Council has apologised for this. It should also review its procedure to ensure it always sends letters that correctly explain why it is issuing a temporary banding notification in a particular situation. This will help prevent reoccurrence of this fault.
- However, the letters made clear the Council’s decision was provisional and that it would not issue council tax bills requiring monthly payments until the Agency made its conclusive decision about banding. This was appropriate information and should have limited any distress.
- It explained the bills it had issued with a temporary band could be used to make payments if the person wished to do so. It explained any payments would be taken into account when the Agency agreed the official banding. This was appropriate advice. It would have been helpful to repeat this advice in the separately sent council tax bills but I cannot say that not doing so was fault because the letters had given clear advice on the matter.
- The Council issued the letters in accordance with its then policy. It has since taken appropriate action to review its policy and carry out more thorough checks before issuing provisional letters in circumstances where there is likely to be a significant increase in liability, subject to the Agency’s decision. These are appropriate learning points.
- There were delays in the Council’s response to Mr X’s complaint for which it has apologised. This is an appropriate remedy.
- The Council has given Mr X appropriate advice about why it has subsequently issued separate electoral registration forms. This is not fault.
- Within one month of my final decision the Council should review its procedure to ensure that when it sends temporary banding letters it always correctly explains why it is issuing a notification for that particular situation.
- Since issuing my draft decision the Council has provided the Ombudsman with evidence of the outcome of this review in the form of a new model letter.
- I have completed my investigation. I have found fault causing injustice. The Council has taken appropriate actions to remedy injustice to Mr X. As a result of my investigation it has taken action to prevent reoccurrence of its fault that could affect others.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman