In an important interim decision, the President of the Valuation Tribunal for England has clarified the proper routes for challenging completion notices arising in the business rates context.
Delph Property Group Ltd v Alexander (VO) concerns the entry in the 2010 Rating List of three storeys of office accommodation in Leicester. The floors were assessed for rates following the service of completion notices by Leicester Council on the then-owners of the property in early 2009. On 31 March 2015, proposals were made for each of the floors, seeking their deletion from the 2010 Rating List on the basis that the floors were not “new buildings” within the meaning of s. 46A of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, and so could not be subject to completion notices.
Two preliminary matters arose:
(1) The VO contended that the VTE did not have jurisdiction to consider the validity of a completion notice on an appeal from a deletion proposal. The VO contended that the ratepayer must first apply to the High Court for judicial review, and only after the quashing of the completion notice in such proceedings could the hereditaments be deleted on a proposal.
(2) The VO and the billing authority both contended that, even if the VTE did have jurisdiction to hear the proposals, the ratepayer was in any event time-barred. They relied on the decision of Professor Zellick in Friends Life v Alexander (VO)  RA 263, in which it was held (by analogy with the procedural rules for judicial review) that proposals challenging completion notices had to be brought promptly and in any event within three months of service, or else an irrebuttable presumption arose that the completion notice was valid.
The VTE found for Delph on all of the preliminary issues:
(1) The correct way to challenge the validity of a completion notice was by way of a deletion proposal, as Delph had done. It did not matter that the VTE was not empowered to quash the completion notice; nor was there a need for the completion notice to be quashed by the High Court beforehand. The VTE therefore had jurisdiction to consider the validity of the completion notices.
(2) For completeness, the President also confirmed that, on a completion notice appeal under Sch 4A of the 1988 Act, the only thing the VTE could consider was the completion date, not the wider validity of the notice or the accuracy of the Rating List itself.
(3) Having accepted that a challenge to the validity of a completion notice was a type of deletion proposal, the President held that “the artificial [time] constraints created by Professor Zellick [in Friends Life] as far as I can see have no statutory force and simply don’t exist.” Friends Life was therefore wrongly decided on the point, and Delph’s appeals were not time barred. The President emphasised however that the passage of time may make it harder for an appellant to discharge its burden of proof as to the condition of the property at the relevant date.
(4) Finally, it did not matter that the completion notices were served on a previous owner, or that they were served during the currency of the 2005 List. It would be wrong in law to allow a hereditament to remain in the 2010 List where the sole basis for its entry was a completion notice which was invalid at the time the List was complied.
The full decision is available here.
Luke Wilcox appeared for Delph.