In the weird world of strange property conversions and dubious outbuildings where I spend much of my time nosing around you see some downright odd stuff. Most of it illegal and unauthorised.
When discovered, several enforcement disciplines come into play:
- Environmental health may be concerned with overcrowding, management regulations, health and safety.
- Planning enforcement looks to the council’s own policies and government legislation regarding what is and isn’t allowed to be built or converted.
- Property licensing teams are looking at whether or not the property falls within national and local schemes.
- Building control are involved in signing off the quality and safety of the work within statutory guidelines and the Tenancy Relations Officers have to deal with the fallout when the illegal evictions start as a result of the council’s involvement.
Safer Renting plays their part
Often we all go out together to save time. If Safer Renting (the company I work for now) can get in before the backlash starts we stand a better chance of sustaining the tenancies and protecting the occupants, even if only by advising them of their rights before things go South.
When confronted about the unauthorised nature of the works that have been done, the rogue landlords and developers often take great umbrage, pointing out that the property in question has been banded for council tax by the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) and that it does, as a result, have the royal seal of approval.
It does nothing of the sort. The VOA has no duties or powers that they can use to rubber stamp conversions and buildings in contravention of the various statutes.
In short, the fact that a conversion or outbuilding has been banded means Jack but it results in more appeals, more emails, more complaints, more letters and more delays, all at tax payer’s expense.
Valuation Office Agency
I know why the VOA band properties but I freely admit I don’t know how they actually go about it. So I did a bit of digging and found information on Gov.uk about it. The website says the following:-
“When a new property has been built, or an existing property is converted to domestic use (for example, a warehouse conversion), the property will need to have a Council Tax band.”
So far, so good and I kind of guessed that but then it goes on to say:-
“Usually, the VOA can get all the information they need from outside, so they won’t need to disturb you. The inspector will often take photographs to save time. Generally, only 1 or 2 external pictures are necessary – much like an estate agent would use.”
Woah, woah, lets back up there for a minute.
- You mean they don’t need to do anything other than look at it?
- No checks are made?
Much as I suspected then.
Reading further in, I see guidance on how family homes can be converted into tiny micro-flats, in breach of planning regulations and yet still get banded:-
“Separately let rooms in a HMO may have been adapted, for example, so that they have their own kitchenette or separate shower/bath and WC. They will be given their own band even though may share some facilities”.
This process explained further:-
“The VOA is required by law to apply a separate Council Tax band to every building, or part of a building, which has been constructed or adapted for use as separate living accommodation”.
A statement which itself derives from guidance in the Practice notes through which we are informed:-
“If within a property there is any unit of occupation which would have formed a hereditament in its own right for the purposes of the 1967 General Rate Act, then it is a separate dwelling based on occupation, irrespective of whether or not it is self-contained.”
This is where it deviates
Now I’m afraid folks all of this can put the work of the VOA at odds with planning enforcement, who in all London boroughs I know and many outside London, have prohibitions on converting family homes into small units, not to mention creating issues for both environmental health and licensing.
And let’s not forget the housing benefit provisions, where shared facilities will mean a reduction in HB rates. Banding for council tax where there are shared facilities will create a very grey area that can be exploited, which in many cases is exactly what happens.
So we have here is a situation where the guardians of one form of government regulation are at odds with the enforcers of other government regulations.
Herein lies the solution
Of course, all of this can easily be rectified, without changing legislation and in a way that will help enforcement teams track down unauthorised conversions and out-buildings, which would only require an amendment in procedures, whereby the VOA simply contacted the local authority before rubber stamping, allowing disputes to be resolved before banding and not afterwards.
Having such simple checks in place would not only alert the enforcement teams to the existence of an unauthorised conversion or structure, bearing in mind also that in such situations very often other forms of skulduggery are taking place but would likely deter many a dodgy developer or rogue landlord if they knew there was a stronger chance they would be detected.
Of course, none of this is to the VOA’s advantage, which is no doubt why they don’t bother consulting other organisations. Corporate bureaucracy is be-dogged by demarcation:-
“not my job description, not my problem”
being the open gate that so often allows rogue landlords to crap on the lawn.
And yet another benefit
An early warning flare would also help planning enforcement, whose job difficulties are further exacerbated by a rule whereby, if a property has been converted without permission but has been there for four years, the council can’t order it to be converted back to a single dwelling, leaving the family home forever divided up, unless the owners decide to reconvert themselves, so early discovery is crucial.
The VOA can rescind it’s council tax banding just as easily as they give it but while they go about their merry way without seeing their part in a far bigger picture they will continue to create problems that could be easily resolved by a phone call or email.