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Spy in the sky boss admits Tax will soar

UK Mail on Sunday | November 5, 2006
MARTIN DELGADO

At least half of English households face huge council tax increases under a nationwide reassessment of property values by a 'Big Brother', computer.

The Government has tried to play down the effects of the survey of 21million homes, but The Mail on Sunday has learned it will add hundreds of pounds to most bills.

The American company which designs the system the Government will use to update property values has been forbidden from disclosing details of the project.

But its bosses admitted its method of assessing properties nearly always found them undervalued.

Ben Story, the vice president of Cole Layer Trumble, said: "Generally, we find that most properties have been under-evaluated.

"It is normally in excess of 50 per cent of the properties looked at. But in some cases, it has been as much as 100 per cent.

"Data is often missing, incorrect or out of date. Some places we have been called into in the States have shown the information to be 50 years out of date.

"Our process updates this information and typically applies a higher evaluation to the property."

The company has won a £45million contract with the Valuation Office Agency in Whitehall which, in the New Year, will begin its work on what has been dubbed a 'nice home', tax.

Teams of inspectors will record costly home improvements such as loft extensions, double-glazing and conservatories, using aerial and satellite photographs to spot home improvements.

Good schools, low crime rates and clean streets will also be taken into account to assess new levels of council tax.

Ministers will use the American software to rate a neighbourhood on the quality of local services and the type of people living there.

The Tories last night described the computer firm's warning of a widespread hike in bills as 'staggering'.

And there were further indications that the new assessment will bite hard.

In Northern Ireland, where a similar scheme has already begun, residents complained bitterly at being hoodwinked over the size of increases. Some say that their bills have doubled.

The computer software provided by Cole Layer Trumble uses information bought from retail giants and credit-card firms, and will allow inspectors to calculate a precise value of a home based not only on its size and features but also its location.

Ministers have divided Britain into 10,000 neighbourhoods. But these are not based on existing local authority areas and Government officials have refused to disclose where their boundaries lie.

The Government awarded the contract to the American company despite bids from British firms.

The headquarters of Cole Layer Trumble is a windowless two-storey building on an industrial estate in Dayton, Ohio. It has no UK or European office and no functioning website.

There, The Mail on Sunday was refused entry to an area where teams of programmers were working on the British project. General manager Jim Keenan said: "We have been supplying software and consultation since 2003.

"It has been adapted for use in the UK. We are strictly directed by our contract not to discuss what we are actually doing there."

Tory communities and local government spokesman Caroline Spelman said she was "staggered" by the admission of the extent of the increases.

"When homes in Wales were reassessed about one third of them went up at least one council tax band," she said. "It looks as if the experience in England is going to be even worse.

"The Government may deny it but the gut instinct of the taxpayer is that this exercise is really about raking in more money."

In Northern Ireland, bills were previously calculated according to the rental value of a property. Now they will be determined by its value, mirroring the English system.

Ministers have claimed that more than half of Northern Ireland residents will see either no increase or a decrease.

However, it has admitted that there will be some "exceptional percentage increases", with some householders seeing up to a fivefold rise in their bills.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said: "Any claim that this company plays a role in determining council tax levels in this country is total garbage.

"To make any link between a company that have simply supplied a software system and how council tax is set is nonsense and irresponsible."

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