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29 Jan 2003 : Column 979—continued

6.57 pm

Mr. Leigh: May I thank the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for her remarks, and in particular for her commitment to introducing the order relating to Sharman next week? That is very welcome news for the Committee. I further thank her, and my hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, for their summing up of this debate. They seemed to reach rather different conclusions about our work. I suppose that that shows that success in policy making is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps we can all agree that, whichever party is in charge, there is always room for cutting out waste, and that is precisely what we try to do.

I thank the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who leads the Labour group—if I can describe it that way—on the Committee, and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who leads the somewhat smaller Liberal Democrat group, for their support in making our work this year such a success. I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments on the BBC, and the hon. Member for Newbury for his comments on prisoner reoffending. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) obviously takes a great interest in that subject, and I thank him for his comments as well.

I thank the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) for taking part, and for his comments on agricultural fraud. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) for

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what he said about the essential need to promote project managers into the position of permanent secretary. I also thank those who took part in the mini-debate on private finance initiatives, which was today's central theme. My hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), and the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) offered some interesting facts and arguments about the PFI. This debate will run and run, and although it is true that we are getting better at delivering these projects on time and on budget, real concerns remain about transferring risks, about taking these matters off the balance sheet, and about public sector comparators. Anybody who takes an interest in the PFI should study this debate.

Our Committee has had its day in the court of Parliament, and I believe that we have proved today that we are doing a good job in holding the Executive to account. I commend the motion.

Question put and agreed to.



6.59 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): I humbly submit the petition of Tina Griffiths and more than 20,000 of the people of Ogmore in South Wales, who declare that the current controls on fireworks are in need of improvement.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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29 Jan 2003 : Column 981

Council Tax (Lowestoft)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

7 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): It may seem incredible that, more than 10 years since the introduction of the council tax, there is still a major dispute about bandings—not the case of an individual householder, but that of a group of residents who live in homes that form part of an estate. It is the longest-running case that I have on my books. It began even before I was first elected in 1997, and I inherited it from my predecessor. I believe that it has become rather famous in the folklore of the Valuation Office agency and the valuation tribunal service. It has involved a succession of the VOA's senior officials, top regional tribunal staff, the ombudsman, the adjudicator's office, a Minister in the previous Government and, indeed, very briefly, when she first became a Minister in 1997, my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, picking up correspondence from her predecessor.

The reason for this long saga is simple: injustices do not go away. The residents of Crestview Drive, Lowestoft feel a strong sense of injustice over their dealings with the VOA. My experience is that most people with a complaint usually give up after a period of time, even if it is not resolved. The fact that these residents have not abandoned their campaign is significant and says much about the case. I have probably spent more time on this case than any other from my constituents, but it is worth taking time in the House today to review what has happened, to draw out the key issues and to suggest a way forward.

I said that council tax was introduced more than 10 years ago. We know that that was done in a hurry by the then Government to escape from the disaster of the poll tax. But imagine how a group of residents felt when two years after their property bands had been established, they were told by the VOA that they were wrong and that they would be raised from B to C—and imagine how they felt when, a year later, some of them were told that their homes were not in fact band C and would be raised even further to band D.

For those people, most of them pensioners, that was a disaster to rival the poll tax. It gave rise to two reactions. First, it gave rise to the feeling that the VOA was incompetent—and that reaction is not surprising. However, it also made people look seriously at their road and their estate and compare their council tax bands and properties. The irony is that most of the estate was built by the same builder, with standard bungalow types, so it should be very easy to establish broad comparability and therefore a sense of fairness, especially in the eyes of residents, but the VOA has consistently been unable to do that over all these years.

I must say that the VOA has given over an enormous amount of time to the case, and some of the staff have tried to be as helpful as possible. That the case remains unresolved is due to one or two flaws in the system, but it is predominantly down to the intransigence of one official, the district valuation officer of the East Anglia valuation office. People can eventually accept that a bad mistake happened in the first place, but they cannot

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accept a refusal by officials to adopt a common-sense approach and fairness in the subsequent attempts to rectify the situation.

In October 1995, the director (east) of the VOA admitted in a letter:

The ombudsman later recognised that there was

However, in March 1996, the then Economic Secretary, Angela Knight, declared:

If only that were the case. Over the next four years, many homes on the estate regularly had their bandings altered, some by the VOA and some following tribunal decisions. Residents could see no consistency and lost confidence in the VOA.

What angered the residents most of all, however, was that whenever they pointed to comparable properties on the estate that were in bands lower than those to which their homes had been raised, the VOA would never accept that the mistake was with the original properties whose bands were raised, but proceeded to raise the banding of more and more properties on the estate. First, other properties in Crestview drive had bands put up, and then the closes off Crestview drive. The VOA even set about the older part of the estate, but I shall say more about that later. After each stage, the VOA stated that all the bandings are now correct, only to make further changes later. For example, No. 7 Sharon drive was once band C, increased to D, and then reduced to C again, although a director of the VOA later wrote to me and said that it should be a D.

My constituents have used various means available to them to try to gain redress. They took their case to a tribunal, but at that stage were inexperienced and, significantly, both the clerk and the chairman of the tribunal have told me that it was not a satisfactory hearing. That is why, when I became involved in the case later, the valuation tribunal co-operated with the adjudicator's office in identifying grounds on which an unprecedented second tribunal could be held, which took place in Lowestoft in November 1998. By that time senior VOA and tribunal staff had walked the area with me and could see that it appeared that there were clear discrepancies between the two parts of the estate in comparing properties and their bands.

The second tribunal was really significant, and revealed clearly the problem that we were dealing with: the district valuation officer for East Anglia. Although the joint appeal by eight residents was dismissed—the residents recognised that it had to be on the narrow grounds on which it was made—the tribunal decision deliberately contained a very important statement that helpfully provided a way forward:

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Although the tribunal said that there was evidence supporting the current bandings, it also rejected much of the evidence of the district valuer—a Mr. Bond—and said:

The tribunal concluded:

The tribunal looked at and commented on the case made by the residents that the banding of their properties should be compared and equalised with bandings on the eastern or older part of the estate. It recognised that

After all, bands had remained unchanged from the original bands of six years earlier. The tribunal stated:

It therefore upheld what the residents had contended all along. It went on to say:

That seems to be a bit of a steer.

That clearly paved the way for the VOA to put the relatively small number of Crestview properties into line with the hundreds of properties on the other part of the estate, especially as the tribunal most unusually and deliberately did not confirm the bandings of the Crestview properties as correct—a point that it later repeated in writing. At that stage of the case, I honestly believed that resolution would occur. Everyone seemed to be working towards that, except the district valuer, who, instead of altering the Crestview bandings, proceeded to carry out a review of hundreds of properties on the eastern estate, and eventually proposed to raise the bandings of about 120 of them seven years after they were first established. That was later described to me as "lunacy" by a senior VOA official, whom I shall not name.

What is worse is that the head of profession of the VOA had written to residents in March 1996 telling them that he had asked Mr. Bond to investigate discrepancies in that eastern estate and to take action to correct any anomaly. No bandings on the eastern estate were altered at that time. After the review, Mr. Bond repeatedly told residents that the bandings on the eastern estate were correct.

When I challenged Mr. Bond on his action in trying to raise bandings in the eastern estate that he had previously insisted were correct, and which, as Members might imagine, caused anxiety to residents there, he said that he was looking at the bandings because

That caused outrage at the tribunal service and the president wrote to Mr. Bond pointing out that his statement was not correct and demanding an apology, which he eventually received.

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That episode demonstrates where the problem lies and is why I used the word "intransigence" at the beginning of my speech. Thankfully, owing to the good work of another VOA officer, the proposed band rises were dropped.

Another way of trying to resolve the problem was through an independent review of bandings in the Crestview area by another VOA district valuer. Although the VOA argued that the report showed no clear overall case for altering the Crestview bandings as the residents wanted, it none the less produced a different set of bandings from Mr. Bond's for many properties from the same sales evidence.

That reveals one of the key issues in this case: marginality and how to deal with it. Many of the properties are marginal between bands C and D. In one place there are two absolutely identical bungalows, but one is in band C and the other in band D—apparently because one has a footpath running alongside it.

Surely, the only sensible approach is to stand back a little and try to achieve broad comparability of properties in an area. It is clear that officials burying themselves in sales evidence can come up with different bandings from each other and indeed from residents' calculations, using their own sales evidence.

If someone had at an early stage simply tried to "straighten the pack" a little instead of ploughing on, raising bands over a wider and wider area, the case would have been sorted out, but instead the scope of the problem became ever wider. Many appeals were sparked off, with results that created further perceived inconsistencies.

Throughout this affair, I have been made aware of an apparent flaw in the tribunal process. The published guidance for appellants encourages them to show evidence of sales prices and/or bandings for similar properties. Residents in the area have on occasion taken forward masses of such evidence, but had it ruled out of order. I do not understand that.

What is to be done? First, will my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General study carefully what I have said today and will she be willing to receive a dossier of documentary evidence from me to support it?

Secondly, until last year all discussions with the VOA concentrated on trying to get the injustice in the bandings put right because that was what residents wanted. However, last year the question of compensation from the VOA emerged. Residents are now aware that the national review of banding is not too far off. The VOA has said that it will offer compensation, but only for those residents whose properties had their bands raised twice—from B to C and then to D. I certainly agree that those people deserve compensation.

However, the problem is wider. The crisis sparked off by the original shambles to which the VOA admits affected more residents than those who were twice re-banded. It involved a wider group—more than 20 people—in a great deal of anxiety, stress and inconvenience, owing to their protracted dealings with the district valuer, whose record I have just laid before the House.

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I note that back in 1995 the director (east) of the VOA wrote:

I ask the House to note carefully the words "in general" in the admission of the fault. I am also aware of more recent changes to the VOA's code of practice on complaints and compensation, which have given the agency more flexibility.

Will my right hon. Friend ask the VOA to widen its definition of the people whom it is prepared to compensate? If it can do so, the case will finally be settled; it certainly deserves to be settled.

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