The revelation that there has been a "significant escalation" in the number of cases of unscrupulous rating surveyors targeting struggling business owners who are looking to reduce bills during the pandemic should concern everyone who cares about justice and the prospects for Britain's economic recovery.
There is mounting evidence that rogue agents are placing pressure on small businesses to sign contracts, which are not in their long term financial interests, for reliefs they would have received anyway, and then pursuing them through the courts for payments.
Some businesses are being targeted by the rogue agents to secure small business or “Covid” reliefs despite the fact the businesses are in sectors that would have received them for free, simply by writing to their local council.
Evidence has been uncovered of cases in which the small business involved is charged an annual fee of up to 52% of the “saving” for the length of the contract. In some cases, businesses have been tied in for 10 or 12 years, according to evidence heard by Parliament.
Some small business owners who are entitled to reliefs were unaware of them, which makes them easy victims for rogue rating surveyors.
The current business rates system with its complex system of reliefs has created an unsustainable system which has played into the hands of cowboys extracting money up front, according to John Webber, the head of business rates at Colliers.
Colliers has revealed that a spike in theses cases was seen at the beginning of the year when businesses were led to believe that the government’s Valuation Office had agreed to a 25% reduction on business rates for those mounting a material change of circumstance appeal. Rogue surveyors made promises they could help obtain this relief. However, there is simply no such relief on offer.
“We believe the situation will only get worse after the end of June, when the 100% rates holiday comes to an end for businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure industries and Government support lessens,'' Mr Webber said. "Businesses must beware of false promises.”
Mr Webber believes The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) must come down with an iron fist on firms who prey on the vulnerable.
"We believe there should be a register of appeals professionals, which should be regulated by the RICS, in the same way the FCA regulates financial advisors.”
The RICS said it is concerned that people are taking advantage of businesses who may be in financial distress, as well as those who may not be completely aware of the "ins and outs" of the complicated system that is business rates.
The spokesman said RICS had already highlighted the need for more support for businesses in its response to the the Treasury's review of business rates and also in its engagement with Government.
The spokesman added: “While you do not have to be an RICS professional to be a rating advisor, we would advise the use of RICS members and regulated firms where employing business rates services, before agreeing any work."
RICS rating surveyors are fully regulated against RICS standards, including the Rating Consultancy Code of Practice and its code of ethics.
The spokesman added: "This ensures the work is of a high standard, and the Rating Consultancy Code includes requirements for terms of engagement to protect the clients of these services and the public interest. If any client has concerns about an RICS professional, they can follow the set out regulation procedure with RICS.”
Nobody doubts that the vast majority of surveyors behave honourably. But there is compelling evidence that a rogue element is causing real harm to innocent people. Tighter regulation of this vital sector offers the best hope of stopping them in their tracks.
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