So technically it’s not a disability tax, but I am being financially penalised by Scottish Borders Council for two things that are completely outside of my control – one of them being my disability.
I shared the news of my new house in my last post, and while I’m delighted about it, it has resulted in an incredibly distressing situation regarding council tax. For non-UK readers – council tax is a tax levied on households by local authorities (of which mine is Scottish Borders Council) in Britain to pay for services in the community, it is based on the estimated value of a property and the number of people living in it.
For any new readers, I’ll start at the beginning…
I have severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), a complex neurological disease involving profound dysregulation of the central nervous system, the immune system and dysfunction of cellular energy metabolism.
I first became unwell in February 2014 and in December 2014, at the recommendation of my GP and my employer, I had to stop working. I received my diagnosis of ME in March 2015, and in the summer of 2015 I had to move from my beautiful flat in Edinburgh back to my hometown Peebles. After my sick pay ended I couldn’t afford my mortgage and I was also struggling to live independently. By moving back to Peebles I could rent out my flat, which would cover my mortgage, and I would be closer to my mum, who is also my carer.
I had hoped that I would recover and eventually be able to move back to Edinburgh and continue living my life. Due to the steady deterioration of my ME though, I realised that this wouldn’t be happening, at least not in the near future. ME is currently incurable and there are no safe or evidence based treatments available. It’s a matter of managing my symptoms as best I can and just waiting and hoping that I improve a bit at some point.
My priority now is to plan a life that takes into account my severe ME, which means making my life as easy and comfortable as possible. So, in April 2019 I put my flat on the market. With the sale of my flat I would be able to purchase a more suitable home in Peebles. My current temporary accommodation in Peebles has been fine for the short term (the last four years), but I need a more suitable (accessible) home in which I can live for as long as I have severe ME, which could be the rest of my life.
I accepted an offer on my flat in May, and in the same week I found the (almost) perfect house in Peebles, a detached bungalow close to the town centre. I made an offer and it was accepted. I took possession of the new house in July.
The new house, as lovely as it is/will be, isn’t suitable (for me) in its current state, it needs some building work to make it accessible. Once the work is complete it should allow me to live in as much comfort as is possible with severe ME, which has me almost completely house bound and mainly bed/sofa bound.
I take my duty to pay council tax seriously and I was diligent in keeping Scottish Borders Council (SBC) up to date with my housing situation, in terms of council tax. I first contacted SBC on the same day that my offer on the house was accepted to confirm which reductions I would be eligible for as someone who is both disabled and living on a low income. I then contacted SBC again the day before I took possession of the house, to inform them that as of the following day, I would be the owner.
I thought that because the house would be unoccupied and unfurnished while the building work was going on, I would be exempt (as is usually the case) and would not have to pay any council tax for up to six months, or until I moved in, if that happened sooner. I was wrong…
Email from Customer Advice and Support Services at Scottish Borders Council
“I have looked at the Council Tax account for this property and have to advise that under Council Tax legislation unoccupied and unfurnished dwellings are exempt for a maximum period of six months from the date the dwelling was last occupied. As the property has not been occupied since 24/03/2015 which is more than six months ago, you are not entitled to any exemption. However, as the property has been empty for more than twelve months, it has become liable for a Long Term Empty Levy of 200%. This levy will be applied from the date you purchased the property until the date the property is occupied.”
So, not only was I not eligible for exemption during this period, I was going to have to pay double the council tax. This was because the house had been empty for more than twelve months before I bought it (!!!), something that I was unaware of until after I took possession of the house. Apparently it didn’t matter that I had only just bought the house, because it had been empty since March 2015 (said SBC, more recently they have told me it had only been empty since March 2018), as the new owner, I would be financially penalised. I find it absolutely ludicrous that the occupation history of this house is somehow my responsibility. You would think they would reset the clock, so to speak, when the property changes ownership, but no.
I didn’t know the previous owner, but from what I gather, they went into care and then passed away, which is why the property was left unoccupied. Again, this is something I didn’t know until after I took possession of the house. I was in complete shock. I just could not understand why I was being held financially responsible for the (unintentional) actions of the previous owner.
I have been informed that this legislation exists to prevent people from purchasing property as an investment with the intent to leave the property empty, which isn’t ideal during the current housing crisis. I can understand this, it makes sense, but that is not what I have done. I in fact have taken an unoccupied property and am making it occupied. I am helping SBC to solve the problem that they are using to justify the 200% ‘Long Term Empty Levy’. I was also informed at the time that they have discretionary powers over the legislation, which led me to believe that I would be able to reason with them, have them see sense and not apply to levy to me. Later they denied this, I was told that they didn’t actually have discretionary powers over the legislation and they were simply acting withing the law. I should also note that this is a Scottish legislation, so I can’t even blame the Tories for this utterly ridiculous law.
SBC did inform me however that I could apply for a ‘structural repair discount’. If they deemed the work that I was having done to the house to be “major repair/structural”, I could apply for a 50% discount, taking the 200% back down to the normal rate. I applied for this discount and it was granted, but honestly, even this is unacceptable to me. It is not my fault that the house was unoccupied for so long. I am innocent. I have not left this or any other property unoccupied for over six months. I therefore believe that I should be eligible for total exemption for up to six months, as would be the case if the property had been occupied before I bought it. I have done nothing at all to merit this punishment.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that when I do move in, I will be eligible for various council tax discounts – banding reduction (I am disabled), single occupancy (I live alone) and/or council tax benefit (I am on a low income – ESA and PIP). This means that when I move in, I won’t be required to pay the full rate. But, while I’m in the process of making the house accessible, I am only eligible for the 200% to 100% discount, which hardly feels like a discount. It’s so unbelievably unjust.
Leaving aside the fact that I wouldn’t have needed to buy this house in the first place if I didn’t have severe ME… I am only having this work done so that I can live in the house. The house as it is, is not accessible for me. If for any reason this work could not have been done (I consulted with the builder before making my offer on the house) I would not have bought the house. If I was not disabled I would not need this work done. If I was not disabled I would have been able to move straight in. But, because I am disabled, and because I need an accessible home, the consequence is that for a few months, I have to pay a great deal more council tax that I would have otherwise. To me, this feels like a disability tax, a financial penalty for having access needs, a punishment for being a wheelchair user.
After I was granted the 50% discount, in an effort to challenge SBC in regards to the levy I contacted my local Councillor, my MP and my MSP. Everyone is in agreement that while the legislation has its place, applying this levy to me is unfair and completely lacking in common sense. Someone in my situation, who is renovating a property to make it accessible should not be financially penalised in this way.
Support from my Councillor, MP and MSP.
“It is supposed to help stop the empty homes crisis but in reality its people like you that are getting unfairly penalised. I get why they are trying to do this but in some cases (like yours) common sense need to be added. Its not your fault that someone else left the property empty for years, therefore you should not be penalised unfairly.”
“You are correct in stating that the point of the council tax levy is stop houses lying empty, but that is not what you are doing.”
“This situation is awful, and I have absolute agreement with you that someone in your situation should not be required to pay council tax on a property that you are renovating to equip it for your needs.”
“You have your MP, your MSP and the Council Leader on side.”
Despite their support though, unfortunately everyone’s hands are tied.
“I am so sorry… legally the councils hands are tied. We have looked at your case and tried to find as many discounts as we can possibly find to apply to you bill. I realise that this is not good news and if we could do more we absolutely would.”
Legally, the Council cannot apply any more discounts or reductions to my council tax (so they say), so I have no choice but to pay, which I have done, grudgingly.
My Councillor however is in complete agreement with me that this legislation must be challenged. She believes that my case should be highlighted to the Scottish Government and she agrees with me that the law should change. So I have given permission for the details of my case to be forwarded to the Scottish Minister who has responsibility in this area. I’m not sure what will happen next, I’m considering a petition, and I’m not against going to the press. If we are successful, and we get this law amended, I will attempt to be refunded for the amount of council tax that I will have paid during this period.
As well as financially hurting me, this situation has caused me a great deal of emotional stress and anxiety. I have found dealing with SBC to be incredibly unpleasant. The flippant nature of some of their communication has been upsetting, not to mention the amount contradictory and incorrect information they have given me. They have left me with zero confidence that they know what they’re doing, or that they care about the well being of their citizens/constituents (or whatever we are). I am dreading having to deal with them again when it’s time to apply for the Council Tax reductions when I move in.
SBC have also forced me to give up some of the accessible features of my new home. I hadn’t bargained on having to pay Council Tax during this period, but now that I have to, I’ve had to use money that I had saved up and earmarked for other things, such as an accessible walk-in bath.
Local authorities have a responsibility to protect their vulnerable citizens, and as a disabled adult, as much as I dislike this, I am considered to be ‘vulnerable’. The Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act 2007 places a duty on the Council to protect vulnerable adults from harm. Harm can include: physical harm, psychological harm, financial harm, sexual harm and neglect. I don’t believe that SBC have protected me from harm. I actually feel that the harm I have been subjected to, both financial and psychological, has been caused by SBC. But also, because stress causes my physical ME symptoms to worsen, and this situation has certainly been extremely stressful, I could argue that I have been subjected to physical harm as well. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I feel about this, and how I plan to proceed, if I have the energy to make an official complaint, or to take it to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. Or it might be enough for me to know that this blog post is out there for the world to read.
In regards to my campaign to have the law amended, I will provide updates as and when they happen, if they happen. Rather than publish a new post with each update though, I think I’ll add updates at the end of this post, so keep an eye out if you would like to know what’s going on. I will also mention any updates on this matter in future unrelated posts, with a link that will take you back here.
Wish me luck!
UPDATE: 22nd September 2019
Both my MP and Councillor (who is also the Council Leader) wrote to the Scottish Government Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP and brought up the issues I have in regards to this legislation.
These are the changes I want them to make…
- I believe that a clause needs to be added to the legislation that allows local authorities to be flexible when implementing the levy on people. They should consider each case on an individual basis, and in some cases, like mine, they should apply common sense and not apply the levy.
- I also believe that the ‘empty property’ clock should be reset when the property changes ownership. It astounds me that no one seemed to consider this, or if they did, they saw fit to discount it. I wouldn’t have to take responsibility if the previous owner failed to pay a phone bill, for example, so why am I being held responsible for the previous owner leaving their home unoccupied? It makes no sense whatsoever, and I’m amazed that these issues weren’t flagged up at SBC when they first implemented the legislation.
SBC are adamant that they are simply following the law, that they do not have the power to be flexible, they are placing the ‘blame’ entirely on the Scottish Government, but the reply that my MP received from Mr Stewart tells a different story…
“Your letter expresses concern about the application of the empty homes levy Scottish Borders Council and a lack of flexibility afforded by the legislation. The levy was introduced with the intention it would act as an incentive to encourage private sector home owners to bring the property back into use, rather than simply a revenue raising tool. I can advise that The Council Tax (Variation Unoccupied Dwellings) (Scotland) Regulations 2013 provides local authorities with the power to apply a surcharge on long-term empty homes and determine the circumstances in which the increase applies. It allows them, should they choose to do so, to take the individual circumstances of owners into account when applying the increase. We updated and refreshed our guidance to clarify this flexibility and this was circulated to all local authorities in April 2018. These powers are discretionary and rightly lie with councils, however, I have been encouraging those with blanket policies to look at their peers who have chosen to adopt a more flexible approach.”
So, while SBC and the Council Leader are telling me that SBC have no flexibility in applying the levy, the Housing Minister is denying this. He actually states outright in his letter that local authorities do have discretionary powers and they are allowed to take individual circumstances into account. He appears to be placing the ‘blame’ back onto SBC.
Mr Stewart also stated in his letter that normally, the power to make these decisions would lie with a dedicated Empty Homes Officer, which SBC do not have. My MP has raised this issue with the Council Leader to ask if SBC have any plans to hire somebody to fill this role.
I wonder, if SBC had filled this role, maybe that is the person who would have had the power to deal with these cases on a discretionary basis. Maybe that is the person who could have applied common sense to my case, and not financially penalise me (for the previous owner leaving their property unoccupied).
SBC raised £611,881 in 2017 thanks to this legislation, so you’d think they could afford to employ someone to fill this role.
In lieu of an Empty Homes Officer at SBC Mr Stewart recommended that I contact the Scottish Empty Homes Advice Service, he said they could perhaps liaise with SBC to try to come to an agreement about the level of Council Tax due.
Mr Stewart ended his letter with this…
“I note your comments about resetting the clock when empty homes are taken on by new owners. This is something I will consider as part of our review.”
For some reason I’m not feeling particularly hopeful that he will follow through on this.
Unfortunately my MP cannot do anymore to help me because this specific issue is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, he has been in contact with Michelle Ballantyne MSP (my MSP – I thought Christine Grahame was my MSP but apparently I have more than one?!?) and someone from her office will be in contact with me to discuss how she can perhaps move my case forward. She will be able to ask questions within the Scottish Parliament directly to the Housing Minister, which is something that my MP cannot do.
So, that’s where I’m at. My MP and Councillor have hit dead ends, but with the information from the Housing Minister’s letter, I really hope my MSP can move this forward. I’ll be back with another update as and/or when there’s anything new to report.
UPDATE: 4th February 2020
An update to tell you that I have no update. I was in contact with staff from Michelle Ballantyne’s and Christine Grahame’s office for a while, but communication has now dried up. So, that’s that, I guess. None of the people who have the power to intervene and challenge seem to be willing to do so.
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