Are you paying too much council tax?

A quarter of households in England and Wales who challenged their council tax last year successfully secured lower bills for the future, according to new data from the Valuation Office Agency (VOA).

Of the 49,940 cases put forward in 2021-22, 13,430 successfully had their property moved to a lower council tax band.

With energy and food prices continuing to rise steeply amid record-breaking inflation, it will be welcome news to those people who should also receive refunds for the tax that they have overpaid.

However, 50 households saw their bills increase – representing just 0.1% of all appeals, this is uncommon, but worth taking into account if you’re considering making an appeal. The majority of cases (29,100) were unchanged.

Here, Which? explains how you can apply for a council tax refund or reduction, and how to get help if you can’t pay your bill.

This newsletter delivers free money-related content, along with other information about Which? Group products and services. Unsubscribe whenever you want. Your data will be processed in accordance with our Privacy policy

How to apply to change your council tax band

If you think your property has been placed in the wrong council tax band, you’ll need to contact the VOA in England and Wales, or the Scottish Assessors Association (SAA) if the property is in Scotland.

To make an appeal, you’ll either need to show proof that the property was put into the wrong band when it was first assessed, or that changes to the property since its valuation mean it needs to be assessed again.

Requests for a new assessment will be considered for the following reasons:

  • Changes have been made to the property since its valuation – for instance, it’s been turned into flats, part of the property has been demolished or its official use has changed
  • A property needs to be added or removed from the rating list
  • The property details are wrong or incomplete
  • The valuation was wrong when the listing was created
  • The valuation is wrong due to a legal decision on another property
  • The VOA has failed to make a change or has made an incorrect change
  • A change to the property or its surrounding area has affected its rateable value.

Before you make an appeal for any of the reasons listed above, you should complete the following steps to get a gauge on whether your property might be in the wrong council tax band.

1. Check with your neighbours

If your neighbours’ properties are similar to yours, you should generally be in the same council tax band. If you know them well enough to ask, it’s worth seeing how much council tax they pay, or whether they’re in a different band to you.

You could also check to see how much council tax people in your area pay by checking the VOA or SAA websites.

The Which? council tax calculator can also reveal what people in every council tax band pay in your area.

2. Find out your house value

Council tax bands are based on what the value of the property would have been in April 1991 if it’s in England and Scotland, or April 1993 in Wales.

In order to challenge your council tax band, you’ll need to know what the property’s value would have been on that date – even if it hadn’t been built yet.

Property websites such as Rightmove and Zoopla can give you a general idea of your home’s current value, which you can then use with the Nationwide House Price calculator, which gives a valuation for the relevant year.

You won’t be able to use these figures as evidence that the property is in the wrong council tax band, but it could help inform your decision of whether or not to go ahead with an appeal.

3. Make a challenge 

If you still think your property is in the wrong council tax band after taking the steps above, it could be worth making a challenge. There are two procedures to choose from:

  • If you think the original valuation was wrong you’ll need to go directly to the VOA or SAA and ask for a band review. You should state your case, explaining why you feel your property band is incorrect.
  • If you think your band has changed since the original valuation you should write to your local council, explaining why you think the band should be changed. The council will either accept or reject this claim. If you’re rejected, you can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal to request a review. It will either tell your council to amend your bill, or reject your appeal.

If your appeal is denied, then your council tax band – and bill – will stay the same.

If a review is accepted, note that your property won’t necessarily be placed in a lower council tax band – it could remain the same, or could be put in a higher band, depending on what the valuation finds. 

If your property is placed in a higher council tax band, your bills will become more expensive.

  • Find out more: how to get a council tax refund

How council tax is calculated

Council tax bills are calculated differently in each UK nation.

In England, properties are sorted into bands ranging from A to H, based on the price they would have sold for in April 1991. The VOA assesses properties built after this date by taking the property’s layout, size, character, location, use and estimated value into account.

In Scotland, property bands also range from A to H based on an April 1991 value, but the band ranges are slightly different.

In Wales, property values are based on the market value from April 1993, and there’s an additional band – so they’re sorted from A to I.

Northern Ireland uses a domestic rates system. Council tax bills are calculated using a formula based on a property’s value, its domestic regional rate and the domestic district rate.

  • Find out more: council tax bands

Other council tax reductions

If you don’t think your property is in the wrong council tax band, there may be other ways to reduce your bills, depending on your circumstances and who you live with.

If you live alone, or with someone who isn’t counted as having to pay council tax, you could get a 25% discount. Those who are disregarded for council tax include student nurses, full-time students, those under the age of 25 in approved training and members of visiting forces. 

Our guide to reducing your council tax bill can give more information on this.

These discounts are not applied automatically. If you think you’re eligible, you must make an application for the discount and you’ll usually have to provide proof.

What if you can’t pay your bill?

Council tax bills are considered a ‘priority’ payment – this means it’s a bill you should prioritise paying over some other forms of debt or payments. This is because measures to enforce payment can quickly escalate, with the most extreme cases ending up in court.

To avoid this, anyone struggling to pay theirs should contact their local council as soon as possible. It may be able to help set up a discount or alternative payment arrangements, However, these are granted at each council’s discretion and you’ll usually need to prove that neither your earnings, savings nor other assets will be able to pay what you owe.

Those who are experiencing what’s deemed as ‘exceptional hardship’, for reasons beyond their control, may be eligible for hardship relief. Your council will be able to advise whether you’re eligible.

  • Find out more: paying council tax