Snoopers' guide to your home
UK Daily Mail | March 8, 2007
A picture guide to every home in England will be used by council-tax spies in a drive to push up homeowners' bills.
The "illustrated guide" for council tax inspectors is the first full evidence of how far they are prepared to intrude into homes to collect the highest possible amount.
The 80-page book carries 168 pictures of types of homes, which are divided into 99 groups. Inspectors are instructed to place every home into one of these groups.
They are then asked to decide if the householder should pay higher bills because of the neighbourhood and amenities of the house. Conservatories, swimming pools, balconies and parking spaces count to push up the tax rating.
So do pretty views of hills or lakes, closeness to good public transport, being part of a gated development, or even being near a golf course.
Granny flats do not escape the inspectors. The guide tells them to give a separate council tax rating to a granny flat, even if it has a door connecting it to the main house.
The "spy's guide" appears to have been prepared as a prelude to a full-scale revaluation of every aspect of every home in England as part of a revamp of the council tax system.
Whitehall officials said the document has been prepared only to help in the regular revaluation of homes that occurs whenever a property is sold. This system has been in place for 14 years. But the guide is understood to have been completed and made available to inspectors only last year.
And opposition politicians said it has been readied for inspectors preparing to put a new council tax value on more than 21 million flats and houses in England in the coming council tax revaluation.
The document contains pictures of 168 different types of homes, from cottages to manor houses and even caravans, extensions and houseboats. All homes, the instructions say, should be put in a group to match one of these properties.
Inspectors are told to take account of "architectural style and characteristics" of a home when they decide at what rate its occupiers should be billed for council tax.
Then they are given 66 "value significant features" to look for that mean a home will attract higher or lower council tax bills. Among them, those in gated developments will be rated higher while council houses will get lower ratings.
But the document makes clear that for those in "quality" homes, bills will not come down even if their home is dilapidated.
As an example, inspectors are told that a pre-1919 large villa or small Georgian house "is a quality dwelling and in this respect no regard should be had to its present condition or location when allocating the group".
The instructions on how to adjust the tax codes apply to conditions such as a home with extra parking spaces, a swimming pool, a countryside view, or in a gated development.
Inspectors have powers to enter properties to check on alterations and extensions. They expect to do this for one in every 100 homes.
The "illustrated guide" for council tax inspectors has been made public following Freedom of Information requests after months of stalling by ministers. They claimed that since it contains pictures of real homes it could not be published "in order to protect privacy".
Tories said it has been produced as part of a "stealth campaign" to prepare for the revaluation of homes for council tax which is certain to see a new and heavy hike in bills for millions.
The revaluation, the first since 1991, was postponed in the autumn of 2005 as the Government tried to damp down protests over rising council tax.
Disclosure of the "revaluation handbook" follows months of concern over the powers available to 4,300 staff of the Valuation Office Agency, the quango in charge of putting homes into council tax bands, and the methods they use.
Inspectors can jack up bills for homes which have good transport, large gardens or are close to amenities such as a golf course. They have powers to demand entry to homes to check on alterations that have produced extra rooms or space - and householders who refuse them entry can face fines.
The handbook - Dwellinghouse Coding: An Illustrated Guide - puts houses and flats into one of 99 groups.
Inspectors are told: "Each of these groups will comprise what should be an easily recognisable class of dwelling."
They should mark homes with "dwellinghouse codes" according to which group they fall into.
They are told they should classify a house first on its architectural style, then on size and accommodation.
They must take into account the number of rooms and bathrooms, whether the house has central heating, the number of floors, parking space, and the outbuildings, ignoring garden sheds and coal bunkers.
The inspectors are told to rate conservatories according to whether they are single-glazed, double-glazed or lean-to.
They then give a code for "special features that affect the value of a property". A long list of codes is given, with an explanation that "these features could vary from a positive feature, ie tennis court, to a negative feature, ie next to an electricity sub-station".
The last council tax valuation was carried out in 1991 before the introduction of the tax. The revaluation is certain to reflect soaring prices, particularly in the southern half of England.
Promises that it will not be used to bring in stealthy council tax hikes are likely to be widely disbelieved following the revaluation in Wales two years ago in which a big majority of homes saw their bills go up.
Tory local government spokesman Caroline Spelman said: "Ministers have given authority for every home to be sized up, and every home improvement or sign of a nice neighbourhood to be photographed, catalogued and taxed by Gordon Brown's inspectors. Council tax bills will rise purely for living in a quiet road, being near to a bus stop, or having a parking space.
"Ministers have shown shocking contempt for Parliament by refusing to reveal their sinister handbook. No wonder they are now clamping down on the Freedom of Information laws which secured its release."
The Valuation Office Agency said: "Reports of a 'revaluation by stealth' are pure invention.
"The agency has a duty to maintain the lists of council tax bands. It has done this since council tax was introduced by the previous government in 1993 - nothing has changed."
The agency already has pictures of 2.2 million homes on its database.