Council Tax

March 22nd, 2016 by James Goudie KC

Coll (Listing Officer) v Mooney [2016] EWHC 485 (Admin) is a statutory appeal by the Appellant Listing Officer against the decision of the Valuation Tribunal for England (“VTE”) in which it ordered the Listing Officer to alter the valuation list to show one entry for a property, instead of two.  The property was built as one dwelling, on three floors. However, at some point, the property was converted into two dwellings.  It was listed as two separate units of property (hereditaments) when the valuation list for council tax was drawn up in 1993.

In 2014, the Respondent and her husband (Mr and Mrs Mooney) purchased the entirety of the property, with the intention of converting it back into a single dwelling. They obtained planning permission and listed building consent for a change of use from two dwellings to a single dwelling, together with alterations and extensions. However, there were severe restrictions on the changes they could make to the building because of its status as a listed building.

Upon completion of the works, the ground floor comprised a kitchen, a sitting area, dining room, two bedrooms and a shower room, and a hall leading to the main external entrance to the house. The first floor comprised a drawing room, study, bedroom and bathroom with dressing area.

Mrs Mooney applied to the Valuation Office Agency Listing Officer to alter the valuation list to remove the two entries and to replace them with one entry for the entire property, to reflect the fact that the property had been restored to one dwelling.  In a decision dated 4 December 2014, later reviewed on 9 March 2015, the Listing Officer removed the two entries and replaced them with two new entries. One entry was in band D, comprising the ground and first floors. The other entry was for the lower ground floor only in band A. The reason for the decision was that, in the view of the Listing Officer, the lower ground floor was a self-contained unit. Mrs Mooney appealed to the VTE, which held an oral hearing on 24 July 2015. In its written decision, dated 21 August 2015, it found that the lower ground floor was not a separate unit of accommodation, and allowed the appeal.

The Listing Officer appealed to the High Court on a question of law under the Valuation Tribunal for England (Council Tax and Rating Appeals) (Procedure) Regulations 2009. Lang J dismissed the appeal.

The starting point is that, as a general rule, an hereditament is a unit of property which is self-contained and within the same curtilage, and occupied by the same person. The Listing Officer considered that following the adaptations there is now a single hereditament.  A single domestic hereditament is treated as a single dwelling, unless it is treated as two or more dwellings pursuant to Section 3(5) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 and the Council Tax (Chargeable Dwellings) Order 1992 (“the Chargeable Dwellings Order”), Articles 2 and 3.

Lang J said, at paragraph 35, that the VTE was entitled, and indeed required, to consider the physical characteristics of the whole house, not just the lower ground floor. She referred, at paragraph 37, to the potential relevance of shared facilities in the remainder of the building.  She concluded as follows:-

“38. … I consider that the VTE was entitled to take into account the fact that the lower ground floor held the communal laundry facilities for the whole house.”

“40. Although the manner in which the building is being used by particular occupiers is clearly not the legislative test, … evidence of actual use may properly be considered. …”

“41. Thus, in my view, it was not impermissible for the VTE to have regard to the evidence that the house was in use as a single household, whose sole kitchen facilities were on the ground floor and sole laundry facilities on the lower ground floor. The key question was whether the panel went on to apply the correct legislative test, namely, had the building been “constructed or adapted for use as separate living accommodation”. This focuses on the use for which the building has been physically constructed or adapted, not the way in which the occupants were actually using it. …

42. I do not accept the Listing Officer’s submission that the VTE erred in law in taking into account the evidence that there were major restrictions on changes to the construction and layout of the building because it was a Grade II listed building. In my view, this was a potentially relevant part of the evidential background which the panel was entitled to take into account when examining the physical characteristics of the building and asking itself the question whether the building had been “constructed or adapted for use as separate living accommodation”.

43. In my judgment, on a fair reading of the decision, the members of the panel did correctly direct themselves in law. They set out the legislative provisions fully, correctly summarised the legal principles and referred to the case law. …

44. In my judgment, the VTE was entitled to conclude, on the evidence before it, that the way in which the building had been adapted for use, by installing laundry facilities for the whole house in the utility room, and kitchen facilities for the whole house on the ground floor, meant that the utility room was not available for separate and exclusive use as a kitchen, as part of a separate self-contained unit on the lower ground floor. This was a multi-factorial exercise of fact-finding and judgment by a specialist tribunal with which this court should be slow to interfere. …”

“46.   I am entirely satisfied that the VTE did not misdirect itself in law and, on the evidence, its conclusion was a reasonable one. In the circumstances, I do not consider it would be appropriate to set aside or remit the decision merely because the evidence and factual findings were not fully recorded in the decision.”

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