Decision : Closed after initial enquiries
Decision date : 31 Mar 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The complaint is about the Council charging extra council tax on an empty property. The Ombudsman will not pursue this complaint. This is because the Council’s overall decision to charge extra council tax in its area can only be challenged in court and because Mr X can appeal to a tribunal if he thinks the Council has wrongly calculated his council tax liability.
- Mr X complains the Council acted wrongly in how it charged extra council tax for an empty property. He states this has resulted in demands to pay £2,800.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone can appeal to a tribunal. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to appeal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
- The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability.
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information Mr X provided. I also consulted the Valuation Tribunal although I did not disclose any identifying details. I shared my draft decision with Mr X and considered his comments on it.
What I found
- Councils can decide to increase the council tax on ‘long-term empty dwellings.’ Those are homes that have been continuously unoccupied and substantially unfurnished for two years or more. Chichester District Council has chosen to use that right.
- Mr X’s company owns a property whose previous council-taxpayer died. Mr X reports the property needs extensive works before it can be rented out. In February 2019 the Council told Mr X it considered the property had been empty and unfurnished for two years so it would charge extra council tax. The extra council tax so far amounts to £2,800.
- Mr X complained to the Council about various matters related to the extra council tax. The Council said there was no appeal right. It suggested Mr X could ask the Valuation Office Agency (which is independent of the Council) to remove the property from the valuation list during renovation work.
- Some of Mr X’s concerns, for example his wish for the Council to change its general policy and to take account of the dates a property’s ownership changed, seem to relate to the Council’s overall decision to charge a council tax premium on long-term empty homes in its area. The only way to challenge the Council’s decision to use this power is by judicial review in the High Court. (Local Government Finance Act 1992, section 66) So this is not a matter for the Ombudsman.
- Some other concerns of Mr X’s relate to how the Council applied the premium in his particular case, for example, whether it accurately calculated the two-year date, which Mr X argues could be from the grant of probate rather than the death of the previous occupant. The Valuation Tribunal can consider appeals about the calculation of the council tax liability. (Local Government Finance Act 1992, section 16) So the restriction in paragraph 3 applies.
- I have considered whether it is reasonable to expect Mr X to use his right to go to the Valuation Tribunal. I appreciate Mr X was not previously aware of the right. However, my draft decision drew that right to his attention. Where the law provides a specific appeal right, we normally expect people to use that. The tribunal has the expertise to deal with such matters. It can also change the Council’s decisions as it considers necessary, which the Ombudsman cannot do. If we were to investigate and find fault in how the Council reached any decisions (and I do not know if we would find fault), we might recommend the Council remake a decision but we would be unlikely to recommend what the new decision should be.
- In the circumstances, I consider it reasonable to expect Mr X to use his appeal right.
- Responding to a draft of this decision, Mr X stated his complaint was more about the process by which the Council reached its decision to charge extra council tax on his property than the decision itself. Mr X outlined points he argues were flaws in the Council’s decision-making process. He argues the flawed process led to a wrong decision and he states the process needs to be corrected.
- It is not our role to regulate or oversee the Council’s processes generally. We will only investigate the process by which a council reached a decision if the matter is in our jurisdiction and if investigation is warranted by the possibility of being able to remedy any injustice that might have been caused by fault. I understand Mr X’s distinction between the process and the decision. Here, however, the process and the decision both had the same substantive effect on Mr X, namely a demand to pay extra council tax. It is for the tribunal to consider whether the Council is correct to be demanding that sum.
- The tribunal might not be able to consider all Mr X’s arguments about the process by which the Council reached its decision. However, where an alternative remedy exists for the substantive claimed injustice (here, the demand to pay the extra council tax), we cannot investigate any remaining related issues. So, while I do acknowledge Mr X’s argument, it does not persuade me to investigate the complaint.
- The Ombudsman will not investigate this complaint. This is because Mr X has an appeal right on some points and because the Ombudsman cannot investigate the Council’s overall decision to charge a premium on long-term empty homes.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman