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Use of Empty Rates Relief for Commercial and Industrial Properties

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Dear Hounslow Borough Council,
I would like to request responses to the following questions: 
1) For how many commercial properties within the Hounslow Borough Council have there been multiple applications for empty rates relief in the past three years with a time lapse of no less than approximately four and a half months between applications? 
2) For how many industrial properties within the Hounslow Borough Council have there been multiple applications for empty rates relief in the past three years with a time lapse of no less than approximately seven and a half months between applications? 
3) What are the addresses of the properties covered by your answers to questions (1) and (2) above? 
4) Who are the proprietors of the properties covered by your answers to questions (1) and (2) above? 
5) For each proprietor covered by your response to question (4), what is their interest in the property (for example, freehold or leasehold)? 
6) For each proprietor covered by your response to question (4), are they a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)? 
7) If the applicants for empty rates relief for the properties covered by your answers to questions (1) and (2) above are not the proprietors of those properties, who are the applicants? 
8) For each of the properties mentioned in your answers to the questions above, on what date did Hounslow Borough Council receive the most recent application for empty rates relief, and was such relief granted? 
Alternatively, if you already operate a publication scheme for any of the information requested above, please can you let me know where and how I can access this scheme in order to obtain that information? Of course, for any information requested above that is not part of a publication scheme, I would still like to receive that information from you by way of this Freedom of Information request. 
I understand that certain landowners are exploiting a loophole in the Non-Domestic Rating (Unoccupied Property) (England) Regulations 2008 to avoid paying business rates for long periods of time while keeping their properties empty. 
An empty commercial or industrial property will be exempt from paying business rates for a certain period of time. After three months (for a commercial property) or six months (for an industrial property) of being empty, the landowner must start paying business rates again. 
I am aware that certain landowners will enter into a lease of at least six weeks at the end of this three or six month period with the sole intention of using this lease to avoid paying business rates for a further three or six months once the lease expires. 
This is done to get around regulation 5 of the Non-Domestic Rating (Unoccupied Property) (England) Regulations 2008, according to which a lease of less than six weeks would not achieve this goal. 
It is worth noting that, despite the six week lease, the property is likely to remain continuously empty by any reasonable definition of the word, as High Court case-law has found that simply installing Bluetooth apparatus into a premises is enough for that property to be “occupied”. 
I trust there will be no issues regarding the ‘personal data’ exemption to disclosing information. I understand that ‘personal data’ is limited to data about identifiable living individuals and does not extend to information about companies or organisations. To the extent that the vast majority of answers you can provide to my questions above will relate to companies and organisations, I expect you will be able to disclose those answers without breaching your obligations under the Data Protection Act. 
However, if you take the view that some of the requested information does constitute ‘personal data’, I trust you will be able to find a way of processing it fairly and lawfully such that you are able to fulfil your duties under the Data Protection Principles. I implore you to find a way of doing so, especially given the public interest in disclosing this information, given its importance to the public discussion on issues such as tax avoidance, homelessness and property speculation. Such importance was recently recognised by Judge Fiona Henderson, who noted in the context of a freedom of information case brought against Camden London Borough Council that “the public interest lies in putting empty properties back into use” and who thereby ordered the disclosure of certain information that would facilitate this. It is suggested that the information requested herein would also facilitate this, by contributing to the public discussion on properties that remain empty and hopefully driving forward public policy proposals that would bring such properties back into use.
Yours faithfully,
L Jones

Freedom of Information, Hounslow Borough Council

Dear Resident/Member of the public,

Thank you for your email about a Freedom of Information.

 

We will either deal with your request or pass it onto our service teams to
provide you with a response.    

o   Freedom of Information (FOI) requests – the Council will respond
within 20 working days from the time of receipt if this is within working
hours, or, if received out of hours, from the next working day.
[1]https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...

o   To comply with the Local Government Transparency Code 2015 further
information can be found at
[2]https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...
 

 Yours sincerely,

Customer Relations Team

 

References

Visible links
1. https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...
2. https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...

Freedom of Information, Hounslow Borough Council

Dear L Jones,

Thank you for your FOI request dated 10/02/2018. Your reference number is 38265-38266.

This has been passed to the relevant team who will respond within 20 working days.

If you would like to contact us please email [email address] or telephone 0208 583 5211.

Yours sincerely,
Emma Wallis | Customer Relations Officer
Customer Relations
Yellow zone, Civic Centre
London Borough of Hounslow
Office: 020 8583 5211
Email: [email address]
Website:  www.hounslow.gov.uk
Follow us online: Twitter: @LBofHounslow and Facebook: www.facebook.com/HounslowCouncil

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Carol Lovell, Hounslow Borough Council

1 Attachment

Dear L. Jones

Please find attached response to your Freedom of Information Request and the details you required.

Regards.

Carol Lovell | Client Officer
Orange Zone
London Borough of Hounslow
Office: 020 8583 2697
www.hounslow.gov.uk
Follow us online: Twitter: @LBofHounslow and Facebook: www.facebook.com/HounslowCouncil

show quoted sections

Dear Hounslow Borough Council,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.

Thank you for your letter dated 26 February 2018 (Your Response), in which you responded to my correspondence dated 12 February 2018 and entitled "Use of Empty Rates Relief for Commercial and Industrial Properties" (My Correspondence).

Your Response

I understand that you are refusing to answer the Freedom of Information (FOI) requests within My Correspondence because applications to the London Borough of Hounslow for empty rates relief are stored on a document imaging system called Anite.

Because such applications do not have a unique code on Anite, you assert that you would not be able to identify which applications are for empty rates relief, and that you would therefore not be able to produce the report required to answer my FOI requests.

Internal Review

Please may I request an internal review of this decision?

I believe the decision contained within Your Response is incorrect, and I will outline my reasons for believing this below.

(1) Your Failure to Clarify Your Reasons for Refusing to Answer the FOI Requests within My Correspondence

On the face of it, Your Response appears to assert that it is impossible to provide answers to my FOI requests.

With respect, this is not true. It is perfectly possible to review the accounts on your document imaging system and isolate which accounts relate to empty rates relief applications. The only conceivable issue, if indeed there is one, would be the cost of undertaking such an exercise.

Throughout the rest of this correspondence, I will assume that you are purporting to rely on section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to suggest that answering my FOI requests would exceed the ‘appropriate limit’. I will proceed to show why it would not exceed the ‘appropriate limit’.

However, if I am mistaken in this assumption and you are in fact relying on different statutory grounds, please do let me know.

(2) The Cost of Accessing Off-Site Storage

In your response, you do not make clear whether Anite is an off-site or in-house storage system.

Please confirm whether it is off-site or in-house.

Please also confirm whether and how the cost of accessing this storage system was included in your calculation of the overall cost of responding to my FOI requests.

(3) Your Failure to Provide Cogent Evidence

I understand you are under a duty to be “reasonable” in your response to FOI requests, and in particular when estimating the time it will take to comply with such requests.

I refer you to the case of Randall v Information Commissioner and Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (EA/2006/0004, 30 October 2007), which defined “reasonable” as meaning “sensible, realistic and supported by cogent evidence”.

I point you to paragraph 37 of the relevant guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office, available at https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisatio... (The Guidance), which highlights the following information you might have provided as ‘cogent evidence’:

- whether you have carried out any preliminary searches for the requested information;

- whether you have based your estimate on a random representative sampling exercise;

- which departments or members of staff have been contacted;

- the search terms used when querying electronic records;

- why you need to search any accounts to which you refer;

- how many files, boxes, documents, records or emails you would need to review; and:

- how long it would take to determine whether the requested information is held or to locate, retrieve and extract it.

None of this information was provided in Your Response. Because Your Response fails to provide such ‘cogent evidence’, it is not reasonable.

(4) Your Failure to Act Reasonably in light of Other Authorities' Responses to Identical Requests

I refer once more to your duty to be “reasonable” when responding to FOI requests, and in particular to be “sensible and realistic”.

The FOI requests I sent to you have also been sent to other local authorities.

The London Boroughs of Bexley, Kingston-upon-Thames, and Lambeth have each responded to my FOI requests with correspondence and excel spreadsheets providing answers to the eight questions I also asked of you.

If the London Boroughs of Bexley, Kingston-upon-Thames and Lambeth are able to provide such responses, it is not reasonable, sensible or realistic to suggest that the London Borough of Hounslow cannot do the same.

(5) Treatment of My Correspondence as One FOI Request

I refer you to the case of Ian Fitzsimmons v ICO & Department for Culture, Media and Sport (EA/2007/0124. 17 June 2008), which established that multiple requests within a single item of correspondence should be treated as separate requests for the purpose of section 12.

Because My Correspondence contained eight separate questions, it should not be treated as one FOI request, but rather as multiple separate FOI requests within one document.

A separate costs estimate should therefore be made for each separate FOI request, rather than one aggregate estimate for the cost of responding to them all.

This could be achieved by calculating an aggregate costs estimate for responding to all eight FOI requests within My Correspondence, and dividing that overall figure by eight.

When costs are calculated in this manner, the cost of responding to each FOI request separately should fall comfortably below the appropriate limit.

(6) Your Failure to Offer Advice and Assistance

I understand that, where a public authority invokes section 12 FOIA in its refusal to disclose answers to an FOI request, that public authority is under a duty to provide advice and assistance to help the requestor refine their request so that it can be dealt with under the appropriate limit.

I further understand that, even where a public authority does not invoke section 12, it remains under a general duty to provide advice and assistance pursuant to section 16 FOIA.

Such advice and assistance may include advice as to what proportion of the requested information could fall within the appropriate limit, and advice as to how an FOI request might be re-formulated so as not to exceed the appropriate limit.

Your Response fails to offer any such advice and assistance.

Concluding Remarks

On the basis of the above, I re-iterate my request for an internal review.

I believe that, following the internal review, you should decide to provide answers to the FOI requests within My Correspondence, on the grounds that:

- you have failed to clarify the statutory grounds for your initial refusal to do so;

- you have failed to provide cogent evidence to support your refusal to answer my FOI requests;

- it is neither reasonable, nor sensible, nor realistic that the London Borough of Hounslow should fail to provide responses to my FOI requests where the London Boroughs of Bexley, Kingston-upon-Thames and Lambeth have been able to do so; and:

- you should treat My Correspondence as eight separate requests within one piece of correspondence, which should bring individual costs estimates down to an acceptable level.

Should you disagree with the points raised above, I look forward to receiving your reasons for such disagreement.

If relevant, I also look forward to receiving your advice and assistance regarding what proportion of the FOI requests within My Correspondence you will be able to answer within the appropriate limit, and/or regarding how I might re-formulate my FOI requests so as to stay within the appropriate limit.

Yours faithfully,

L Jones

Freedom of Information, Hounslow Borough Council

Dear Resident/Member of the public,

Thank you for your email about a Freedom of Information.

 

We will either deal with your request or pass it onto our service teams to
provide you with a response.    

o   Freedom of Information (FOI) requests – the Council will respond
within 20 working days from the time of receipt if this is within working
hours, or, if received out of hours, from the next working day.
[1]https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...

o   To comply with the Local Government Transparency Code 2015 further
information can be found at
[2]https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...
 

 Yours sincerely,

Customer Relations Team

 

References

Visible links
1. https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...
2. https://www.hounslow.gov.uk/info/20110/o...

Freedom of Information, Hounslow Borough Council

Dear L Jones,

Thank you for your request for an internal review of the response to your FOI request ref: 38265-38266.

I have logged an internal review and your reference number is 40757-40758. This will be investigated by the Customer Relations and Improvement Manager and you will receive a response within 20 working days.

Yours sincerely,
Emma Wallis | Customer Relations Officer
Customer Relations
Yellow zone, Civic Centre
London Borough of Hounslow
Office: 020 8583 5211
Email: [email address]
Website:  www.hounslow.gov.uk
Follow us online: Twitter: @LBofHounslow and Facebook: www.facebook.com/HounslowCouncil

show quoted sections

Harminder Persad, Hounslow Borough Council

Dear L Jones

 

You asked the Council to review the response you received to your Freedom
of Information (FOI) request dated 12 February 2018.  Your request for a
review of the original decision was received on 3^rd April 2018.  I
apologise for the length of time taken to reply to you.

 

You have asked us to review the following questions.  Please find the
Council’s response in blue:

 

 1. For how many commercial properties within the Hounslow Borough Council
have there been multiple applications for empty rates relief in the
past three years with a time lapse of no less than approximately four
and a half months between applications? The question asked makes it
clear the applicant wants to know about applications, not awards. 
This means that all documentation needs to be reviewed in order to
establish the facts for each account.  A project taking more than 275
hours would be needed to answer this question.  Empty relief
applications are not separated from general correspondence, therefore
in order to determine the number of applications that London Borough
of Hounslow have received we would need to check every email and
letter received in the past 3 years (approximately 16,500 documents
across 9,000 accounts).  In the first instance, documents are stored
electronically and are then accessed by authorised officers. 
Documents are indexed to the relevant account/address under a specific
code depending on the type of enquiry.  Empty relief applications do
not have a specific code and are recorded alongside all other general
correspondence.  A sample exercise was carried out to open 10
documents in the electronic document management system and review if
the correspondence related to empty property relief.  This took 10
minutes; the majority of which time was spent opening and closing the
document (processing time), the processing time would equate to 275
hours overall.  If you were to amend the question to refer to multiple
awards it would be possible to identify such accounts from the
business system (Academy), while we do not know the number our
estimate would be that it is thought it would be less than 100 and
would therefore significantly reduce the effort required.
 2. For how many industrial properties within the Hounslow Borough Council
have there been multiple applications for empty rates relief in the
past three years with a time lapse of no less than approximately seven
and a half months between applications?  If the project mentioned
above was undertaken then we could fulfil this request.
 3. What are the addresses of the properties covered by your answers to
questions (1) and (2) above?  If the project mentioned above was
undertaken then we could fulfil this request.
 4. Who are the proprietors of the properties covered by your answers to
questions (1) and (2) above?  If the project mentioned above was
undertaken then we could fulfil this request.
 5. For each proprietor covered by your response to question (4), what is
their interest in the property (for example, freehold or leasehold)? 
LBH use Capita’s Academy processing system and there is no provision
for recording the ratepayers relationship with the property.  The only
option to fulfil this request is to review any accounts that have had
multiple applications and look to see if the information has been
provided to LBH.
 6. For each proprietor covered by your response to question (4), are they
a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)?  Requestor would have to
determine this for themselves based on the answer to question 4.
 7. If the applicants for empty rates relief for the properties covered by
the London Borough of Hounslow answers to questions (1) and (2) above
are not the proprietors of those properties, who are the applicants? 
If the project mentioned above was undertaken then we could list the
applicant.
 8. For each of the properties mentioned in the answers to the questions
above, on what date did Hounslow Borough Council receive the most
recent application for empty rates relief, and was such relief
granted? Alternatively, if the London Borough of Hounslow already
operate a publication scheme for any of the information requested
above, you would like to know where and how you can access this scheme
in order to obtain that information? For any information requested
above that is not part of a publication scheme, you would still like
to receive that information from the London Borough of Hounslow by way
of this Freedom of Information request. If the project mentioned above
was undertaken then we could fulfil this request.

 

 Although the Council does hold this information, provision in the format
you request is exempt under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act
2000.  Section 12 states that public authorities do not have to comply
with requests where they estimate that the cost of the compliance will
exceed the “appropriate limit”, which is itself set out in The Freedom of
Information Act 2000.

 

The cost limit guidance states that the “appropriate limit” is £450 for
most public authorities, and staff time must be calculated at £25 per
hour.  Therefore the Council is not required to disclose information if
finding that information would take more than 18 hours (18 x £25 = £450).

 

In estimating the cost, the Council have considered the following:

 

1.         Establish if the information is held

2.         Locating the information

3.         Retrieving the information
4.      Extracting the information

This concludes my internal review. However, if you remain dissatisfied I
would advise that you have the right to complain to the Information
Commissioner under Section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Contact details for the Information Commissioner are as follows:

Information Commissioner's Office

Wycliffe House

Water Lane

Wilmslow

Cheshire

SK9 5AF

 

Online form: [1]http://ico.org.uk/concerns/handling/repo...

Email to: [2][email address]

The Information Commissioner has also produced a guide "Your Right to
Know: how to complain" which is available from the publications line on
08453 091091 or [3]www.informationcommissioner.org.uk.

Regards

Harminder Persad IRRV Tech | Senior Corporate Services Contract Manager –
Client Team

Head of Revenues & Benefits 

London Borough of Hounslow

Office: 020 8583 4751

 

[4]www.hounslow.gov.uk

Follow us online: Twitter: @LBofHounslow and Facebook:
[5]www.facebook.com/HounslowCouncil

 

 

From: Freedom of Information
Sent: 04 April 2018 15:31

Cc: Freedom of Information <[6][Hounslow Borough Council request email]>
Subject: FW: Internal review of Freedom of Information request - Use of
Empty Rates Relief for Commercial and Industrial Properties

 

Good afternoon,

 

An internal review has been logged under ref: 40757-40758 as per the below
request from L. Jones (contact:
[7][FOI #463954 email]) who is not happy with the
response he received to his FOI ref: 38265-38266.

 

The request was logged to the Business Rates queue and was responded to as
follows;

 

Corporate Services Contract - Client Unit                             

              London Borough of Hounslow, Civic Centre, Lampton Road,
Hounslow, TW3 4DN

                                                                                                      

L. Jones

 

                  

Contact       Ms C. Lovell

Telephone   020 8583 2697

Date            26 February 2018

Your Ref     FOI

  

By Email

Dear L. Jones

Re:  FREEDOM OF INFORMATION (FOI) 2000 ACT RESPONSE

 

I am writing regarding your request for information dated 12 February
2018.

 

You have requested the following under the Freedom of Information Act
2000:

 

You would like to request responses to the following questions. The
response to all the questions are in blue:-

 

  1.For how many commercial properties within the Hounslow Borough Council
have there been multiple applications for empty rates relief in the past
three years with a time lapse of no less than approximately four and a
half months between applications?

  1.For how many industrial properties within the Hounslow Borough Council
have there been multiple applications for empty rates relief in the past
three years with a time lapse of no less than approximately seven and a
half months between applications?

  1.What are the addresses of the properties covered by your answers to
questions (1) and (2) above?

  1.Who are the proprietors of the properties covered by your answers to
questions (1) and (2) above?

  1.For each proprietor covered by your response to question (4), what is
their interest in the property (for example, freehold or leasehold)?

  1.For each proprietor covered by your response to question (4), are they
a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)?

  1.If the applicants for empty rates relief for the properties covered by
the London Borough of Hounslow answers to questions (1) and (2) above are
not the proprietors of those properties, who are the applicants?

  1.For each of the properties mentioned in the answers to the questions
above, on what date did Hounslow Borough Council receive the most recent
application for empty rates relief, and was such relief granted?
Alternatively, if the London Borough of Hounslow already operate a
publication scheme for any of the information requested above, you would
like to know where and how you can access this scheme in order to obtain
that information? For any information requested above that is not part of
a publication scheme, you would still like to receive that information
from the London Borough of Hounslow by way of this Freedom of Information
request.

 

The London Borough of Hounslow are unable to provide a report from Academy
as all empty applications are stored on Anite, our document imaging
system. As the empty applications do not have a unique code on Anite the
London Borough of Hounslow are unable to identify the empty applications
and therefore unable to produce the report required.

 

The response to your request has been dealt with under the Freedom of
Information Act 2000.

 

Copyright and misuse information

Most of the information that is provided in response to a FOI or EIR
request will be owned by the London Borough of Hounslow and therefore
covered by the Open Government Licence. However, the copyright of some of
the information we share may be owned by another person or organisation
(e.g. Ordinance Survey).

 

Individuals and organisations are free to re-use any information covered
by the Open Government Licence for commercial or non-commercial purposes,
provided the terms of the licence are adhered to.

 

Where the copyright of the information is owned by another person or
organisation, you must apply to the copyright owner to obtain their
permission for re-use.

 

Should you wish to make a request for information again, please complete
our online form accessed via the link below as this will provide us with
the required information to ensure a prompt response to your request: FOI
on line request

 

This online form may also be used to request a review of any response
where you feel the Council has not dealt with your request for information
inappropriately or failed to take appropriate action within a reasonable
timescale:  FOI on line request

 

Yours sincerely

 

Carol Lovell

Client Team, Corporate Services Contract

 

 

Please let me know if you have any queries or require any further
information.

 

Yours sincerely,

Emma Wallis | Customer Relations Officer

Customer Relations

Yellow zone, Civic Centre

London Borough of Hounslow

Office: 020 8583 5211

Email: [8][email address]

Website:  [9]www.hounslow.gov.uk

Follow us online: Twitter: @LBofHounslow and Facebook:
[10]www.facebook.com/HounslowCouncil

 

show quoted sections

Freedom of Information, Hounslow Borough Council

1 Attachment

Dear Ms Jones,

 

I am attaching the response to your internal review request.

 

Kind regards

Tina Dunkin

 

Tina Dunkin | Customer Relations and Improvement Manager

London Borough of Hounslow

Yellow Zone, Civic Centre

Lampton Road Hounslow

TW3 4DN

Office: 020 8583 3749

[1]www.hounslow.gov.uk

 

Follow us online: Twitter: @LBofHounslow and Facebook:
[2]www.facebook.com/HounslowCouncil

 

References

Visible links
1. http://www.hounslow.gov.uk/
2. http://www.facebook.com/HounslowCouncil

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