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City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council (20 006 580)

Category : Benefits and tax > Other

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 19 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the Council’s refusal to pay his company a grant and its decision to bill the company for business rates. We found no fault in how the Council reached its grant and billing decisions.

The complaint

  1. Mr X said the Council wrongly refused to pay a £10,000 business grant and wrongly billed his company for business rates for tax years 2019/20 and 2020/21. Mr X said his company was denied the help given to other businesses and could not pay its bills. Mr X wanted the Council to pay the grant and bill the correct people for business rates, which were his company’s tenants.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have:
  • Considered Mr X’s written complaint and supporting papers;
  • talked to Mr X about the complaint;
  • asked for and considered the Council’s comments and supporting papers about the complaint; and
  • shared a draft of this statement with Mr X and the Council and considered the responses I received.

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What I found

Background

  1. Mr X said he was a director of a company (‘the Company’) that owned a building in the Council’s area. He said the Company leased parts of the building to tenants. Mr X had written to the Council about business rates for two parts of the building, called ‘S3’ and ‘S5’ in this statement. (Mr X later raised concerns about business rates for a further part of the building, which is ‘S4’ in this statement.)
  2. In March 2019, the Council’s records showed S3, S4 and S5 each occupied by a company. The Council billed each of the three companies for business rates in March 2019 for tax year 2019/2020 and March 2020 for tax year 2020/2021.
  3. In late March 2020, Mr X wrote to the Council seeking a business grant linked to the COVID-19 emergency for the tenant company of S3. A few weeks later the Council replied saying it could not pay a grant as it had found that company had been dissolved in 2019.
  4. In August 2020, Mr X emailed two separate copy leases to the Council, both of which had 2019 start dates. Mr X said one lease (‘Lease One’) was for the tenant of S3 that had replaced the dissolved company. The other lease (‘Lease Two’) was for another new tenant of the building. Lease Two referred to S3. (Mr X later told the Council that Lease Two should have referred to S5.)
  5. The Council wrote to Mr X questioning the tenancy information he had provided and seeking contact details for the new tenants and proof of rent payments. The Council’s letter also said the Government had announced 28 August 2020 as the last date councils could pay grants.
  6. In the correspondence that followed, Mr X sent the Council further information, which the Council continued to question. In summary, the Council’s position was it did not have the necessary information to prove the Lease One and Lease Two tenants were occupying and trading from specific parts of the building. The Council explained what information it needed to establish liability for business rates and any eligibility for COVID-19 grants. The Council also said it now held inconsistent information about occupancy of S5.
  7. Mr X said he had not applied for a grant but wanted the Council to correctly register his tenants as responsible for business rates. Mr X also said he could not give the Council information it wanted specific to S3 and S5 as the building had one post box and reception area.
  8. The Council was satisfied the two companies it had billed in March 2020 for business rates on S3 and S5 were no longer occupying them. It also remained without the information it wanted to record new occupiers for S3 and S5. The Council, while further investigating, considered S3 and S5 as ‘unoccupied’ and the Company, as owner of the building, liable for their respective business rates.
  9. The Council billed the Company for business rates on S3 and S5. The bills for S3 started from the date the former tenant company had been dissolved in 2019. The bills for S5 started from the date the former tenant had told the Council they had moved out of S5 in 2020. The bills for S3 and S5 both included an exemption from business rates for the first three months after the former tenants left.
  10. The date for payment of grants passed (see paragraph 9).
  11. Mr X emailed the Council saying it should not bill the Company when it knew there were new tenants in S3 and S5. In their continuing correspondence, Mr X sent the Council more information and questioned why it doubted new tenants occupied S3 and S5. The Council referred Mr X to its earlier letters that set out the information it needed to record new tenants as liable to pay business rates on S3 and S5.
  12. Mr X also wrote to the Council about S3 and asked for a £10,000 COVID-19 grant for the Company. The Council, giving its reasons, said the Company was not entitled to a grant. Mr X challenged, and the Council confirmed, its grant decision.

Consideration

Introduction

  1. Mr X made the complaint for the Company. It was not for me to decide whether the Company was eligible for a £10,000 grant or to determine liability for business rates. Those were decisions for the Council. My role was to consider whether there was fault in how the Council both handled Mr X’s grant request and decided to bill the Company for business rates. Without evidence of fault, I could not question the Council’s decisions (see paragraph 2).

The request for a grant

  1. Mr X’s complaint to the Ombudsman said the Company shared an office with its tenant and had applied to register that tenant for business rates. Mr X said the Council then registered the Company but not its tenant. Mr X also said the Company had accepted the registration and, to pay the business rates and its utility bills, applied for a £10,000 grant.
  2. The evidence showed Mr X wrote to the Council about the grant after 28 August 2020, which was the closing date for such grant payments. The evidence also showed the Council responded to Mr X and gave reasons for deciding the Company was not entitled to a grant. The Council also accepted Mr X’s review request, which led it to confirm its decision. These were relevant and suitable steps for the Council to take. I therefore found no fault in how the Council considered, decided and reviewed Mr X’s grant request.

The business rate bills

  1. The Council billed the Company for business rates payable on S3 and S5. I found no evidence the Council billed the Company for business rates payable on S4 in either tax year 2019/2020 or 2020/2021.
  2. The Council billed the Company after giving time and opportunities, including to Mr X, to receive information about the occupancy of S3 and S5. The information the Council asked for was relevant to the decisions it needed to make about liability for business rates. That Mr X said he could not provide that information was unfortunate. However, that did not mean the Council was at fault in seeking such information. The Council’s requests for information were not unreasonable, inappropriate or disproportionate. And, on not receiving that information, the Council could consider S3 and S5 unoccupied for business rates purposes. Having reached that view, the Council could bill the Company, as owner of the building, for business rates payable on S3 and S5. I found no evidence of fault in how the Council reached its decisions to bill the Company for business rates.

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Final decision

  1. I completed my investigation finding no fault by the Council.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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