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20 Aug 2020

More than 12,000 households got council tax reductions in 2019-20: could you appeal your bill?

Successful applicants get cheaper council tax bills and refunds for overpayments

Three in 10 households who challenged their council tax band last year were successful in securing lower council tax bills for the future and getting refunds for the tax they'd already overpaid, new figures show.

Of the 43,650 cases that were put forward to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) in 2019-20, 12,400 successfully had their property moved to a lower council tax band.

However, 70 households saw their bills increase - which is more than twice as many as the year before, but still only 0.16% of all appeals. As for the remainder, their council tax bands and bills stayed unchanged.

At a time of so much financial uncertainty, it's certainly worth checking to see whether your property could be in the wrong council tax band.

The temporary ban on face-to-face bailiff collections are due to be lifted on 23 August; measures which are commonly used by councils for those in council tax arrears.

It's estimated that 1.3 million households are likely to have built up council tax arrears over the past few months due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, Which? explains how you could get a council tax refund and what help is available if you're not able to pay your bill.

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How to change your council tax band

To make an appeal for your council tax band to be changed, you must either be willing to show proof that the property was either put into the wrong band when it was first assessed or that subsequent changes mean it should be assessed again.

You'll need to contact the VOA in England and Wales, or the Scottish Assessors Association (SAA) if you're in Scotland.

The following reasons for a new council tax challenge will be considered:

  • changes to the property since its valuation - for instance, being turned into flats, or part of the property being demolished
  • a property should be added or removed from the rating list;
  • property details are wrong or incomplete;
  • the valuation was wrong when the listing was created;
  • valuation is wrong due to a legal decision on another property;
  • the VOA has failed to make a change or has made an incorrect change;
  • a change to the property or surrounding area that affects its rateable value.

Before you go ahead and make an appeal, make sure you've completed the following steps:

1. Check with your neighbours

If your neighbours' properties are similar to yours, and you get on well enough with them to ask, you could see how much council tax they pay. If they're on a lower band than you, it could be an indication yours is wrong.

You could also check to see what council tax people in your area pay by checking the VOA website. The Which? council tax calculator can also reveal what people pay in every band in your area; simply enter your postcode below.

2. Find out your house value

Council tax bands are based on what the value of the property would have been in April 1991 in England and Scotland, and in 1993 in Wales.

So, in order to challenge your band, you'll need to know what value your property was on that date - even if it hadn't been built yet.

For a general idea, house price sites such as Zoopla and Rightmove can help you find out the current price of the property, and the Nationwide House Price Calculator can then give you a valuation for the relevant year.

3. Make a challenge

If you still think there's a discrepancy after taking these steps, it's time to make a challenge. There are two procedures to choose from.

  • If you think the original valuation was wrong: you'll need to ask for a band review, explaining the outcome of the checks you made (asking your neighbours and checking your property value) and why you feel your property band is incorrect. This involves going directly to the VOA or SAA.
  • If you think your property band has changed since the original valuation: you'll need to write to your local council explaining why you think the band should be changed. The council will either accept or reject this claim. If you're rejected, you can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal to request a review, which will either tell your council to amend your bill or disagree with your appeal.

If your appeal is denied, your council tax bill will remain the same.

If a review is accepted, note that - depending on what those carrying out the valuation find - your property can be put in a higher or a lower band; so there is a chance your bills will get more expensive.

How council tax is calculated

Council tax is calculated differently depending on where you live in the UK.

In England, properties are put into bands ranging from A to H, based on the price they would have sold for in April 1991. The VOA assess properties built after that date, taking in the layout, size, character, location use and estimated value.

In Scotland, property bands also range from A to H, based on April 1991 value, but the band ranges are slightly different.

In Wales, values are based on a property's market value from April 1993, and there's an additional band (labelled 'I').

Northern Ireland uses a very different domestic rates system. This is a formula based on a property's value, the domestic regional rate and the domestic district rate.

If you're confused, you're not alone; there have been several calls over the past couple of years to reform the council tax system and make it simpler and more up to date.

Other ways to reduce your council tax bill

If you don't think you can get your council tax band changed, there may be other ways to reduce your bills.

You may be able to get a 25% discount if you live with someone who isn't counted as having to pay council tax; this includes full-time students, student nurses, people who are severely mentally impaired and carers providing at least 35 hours' care per week - as long as they're not the main resident's spouse.

Our guide onreducing your council tax bill has more information on this.

The council doesn't grant this discount automatically; you must apply for it and you may need to show some kind of proof.

What happens if you miss council tax payments?

Council tax bills are considered a 'priority' payment - that is, a bill you should prioritise over some other forms of debt or payments, as the measures to enforce payment can escalate quickly and have serious consequences on your finances.

If you don't pay your council tax bill within 14 days of the date it was due, you'll receive a reminder letter.

If you don't pay after a further seven days, you may lose the right to pay off the debt in instalments and could be asked to pay the full amount in one go.

You'll be given a further seven days to pay the full amount, after which time the council has the right to send a court summons for the local magistrates' court for the arrears.

If the arrears aren't paid by the date of the court summons, the council can ask the magistrates to issue a liability order. This will give the council permission to collect the money you owe through deductions to income support, jobseeker's allowance or wages, or to commission bailiffs to seize any goods worth the value of the money owed.

Get help with your council tax

If you're struggling to pay your council tax bill due to the coronavirus crisis, your council may be able to help. The government launched a £500m hardship fund in March, providing councils with extra funding to support vulnerable people and households through local welfare schemes.

Alternatively, you could apply for hardship relief, which is for those who are experiencing 'exceptional hardship' due to reasons beyond their control.

To apply for either of these forms of help, you should contact your local council. Discounts and alternative payment arrangements are granted at its discretion, and you'll have to prove that neither your earnings, savings or other assets will be able to pay your council tax bill.