As government funding for local authorities has been progressively cut, councils have tried to maximise their council tax income by going after student landlords for payment for every day a property contains a non-student or is empty. Our screams of victimisation have been ignored, though we have had a little success in ensuring that student halls get the same treatment as small private landlords.
However, it appears students are now getting upset and the government may well take action as a result.
Those of us who are student landlords all completed the standard forms last September detailing each students name, student ID number etc and then waited for the annual council tax bill to arrive based on the earliest date any occupant might not be a full time student (so typically date of last exam) through to the latest date when one of their courses start (as a full time student on summer break is not a student in the eyes of the Council Tax gestapo and taxes must be paid!).
It was thus with some surprise we all received another form last month asking for yet more detail on those living in our properties. I queried this with the manager of the appropriate team at Portsmouth City Council and he responded with the following: "We always try to learn by our experiences, and this year we have reviewed our student discount review template to enable us to update our accounts correctly and to minimise any subsequent need to contact landlords for additional information.
As a result I'm disappointed that our attempts to improve the process have not been as well received by your members I might have hoped. That said, I'm sure it is understood that as the billing authority, Portsmouth City Council has a responsibility to ensure that council tax discounts and exemptions are applied correctly in accordance with the national regulations."
So we are not sure how sending 2 different forms reduces the need for subsequent contact - unless in future we will just be getting the more detailed 2nd form, but on the subject of whether student halls are taxed in the same way, he went on to say, "As I've explained previously, all properties attracting class N discount are treated the same, whether the owner is a landlord with a small property portfolio, a large one, or 'class n' student blocks. This approach remains unchanged" We will raise an FOI later in the year to confirm this point and report on it then.
Anyway, the reaction of landlords to the imposition of Council Taxes in this way has been to move away from individual contracts (AST's) to joint ones, as when students are on individual contracts the council deems the landlord liable for any taxes during the contract period whereas when students have a single contract between them, it is they who are liable for any taxes levied. Also, landlords have been moving away from 10 month contracts to 11 or 12 month contracts (typically the same annual income but spread over more of the year) - this protects them from the 'empty property' liability to council tax.
The outcome of all of these changes is that already heavily indebted students are being hit with significant council tax bills and they do not like it. The point was first raised on BBC Radio 4's Moneybox Live program last month (see link on this page).
The response to that initial program was so large that it was covered again in the following weeks programme and as you can hear (click box to the right), the government has re-iterated that a full-time student is a student for the duration of their course and they do not expect local authorities to levy taxes in the way they have been doing. We wait with bated breath - but in the interim, do keep clear records of Council Tax paid as if the practice is unlawful, you will need to claim a rebate of any payments erroneously collected.