Council tax changes questioned

PROPOSED changes to council tax charges on long-term empty homes – which could net Scottish Borders Council an extra £700,000 per year – is surrounded in “ludicrous bureaucracy”, writes Kenny Paterson.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 3rd October 2012, 10:09 am

That is the view of councillor Catriona Bhatia on a Scottish Government consultation on its council tax proposals, which it hopes will encourage owners of unoccupied homes to bring their properties back into use.

Among the changes include allowing councils to increase council tax on long-standing empty properties to 100 per cent of the usual charge.

A discount of between 10 and 50 per cent for properties which have been unoccupied for less than a year could also be implemented, while the council would not be able to apply an increase on a building that is being actively marketed, until it has been empty for more than two years.

SBC estimate there are 1,000 long-term empty homes, but its revenue and benefits manager Gary Smith said it is not known how many may be liable to an increased charge.

And in a reply to the consultation, Mr Smith raised a number of concerns and requests for clarifications.

Mr Smith told executive members on Tuesday: “There are some issues, such as how easy it is to claim the empty property is a second home which is exempt from the charge.

“The idea of looking at utility bills and speaking to neighbours does not seem reliable to us. We would be relying on home owners to be truthful and get evidence from that. It could be potentially very expensive to police this.

“The estimate financial increase in the council tax base is £700,000 but this is an untried and untested area and it depends on the policy and discretionary power we have.”

Mrs Bhatia added: “What is being proposed is so complicated that no council will be better off.

“It would be very difficult to find out if someone is in a home for a minimum of 20 days (when a property would be classed as a second home) or not.

“I just wonder if this has been thought through. What if someone is actively trying to sell their property? There seems a ludicrous amount of bureaucracy for a potentially small financial gain.”

Hawick councillor David Paterson said: “A policy to end long-term empty properties has to be welcomed.

“However, some properties have been empty for so long it is not possible to get them back in use and others can’t afford to bring the homes into use.”

Jedburgh member Jim Brown added: “On the estate near my home there are a number of empty properties.

“The danger is the estate owners would bulldoze the buildings rather than try and find an occupier.”

But Berwickshire councillor Donald Moffat was more positive about the consultation, with the new bill expected to come into force next year.

He said: “There are probably 10 properties in each of our wards which lie empty and that amounts to hundreds which could have families living in them and paying council tax.”

Current legislation allows councils to reduce the tax discount on empty homes from 50 to 10 per cent, with the increased income ring fenced for funding social housing.