A TRADER says she has been driven to despair by a four-year battle to prove that she does not need to pay business rates on her shop premises.

Kate Oliff says she could easily “lock the door, throw away the key and never come back” to the shop she opened in Bradford-on-Avon four years ago.

The 52-year-old claims that when she launched her business, Leaf & Bean Trading Company, in April 2017 she checked with Wiltshire Council on whether she needed to pay business rates and was told no.

Her shop in the town’s popular shopping street The Shambles sells her hand-made chocolates, teas, tea-making accessories, cigars and pipes, pipe tobacco and smoking accessories.

But in July 2017 Wiltshire Council’s business rates collection team sent her a £3,500 demand for business rates, payable from April 1.

Ms Oliff protested that her shop premises were below the £12,000 threshold claimed she should be zero-rated but the council insisted the rates were £13,000 a year.

“Apparently, there had been a change in April and everything had been recalculated but I was totally unaware of this. Nobody said anything to me in March that it was all going to change.”

In desperation, she offered to pay the council £100 a month towards the rates while trying to establish that the shop should be zero rated.

She ended up trying to prove her point by going on the Valuation Office Agency website rates check portal but found it almost impossible to use so turned to a rates valuation consultancy to help.

“I’m not stupid and can figure my way around most things but it’s very technical and you need to know exactly what numbers to put in the boxes so I needed help,” said Ms Oliff, who was previously a teacher for 15 years.

“We paid the rates consultant £500 and never heard from him again. We were scammed,” said Ms Oliff, who runs the independent retailer with her partner David Gilmour, 53.

As the council’s financial demands mounted at the end of 2018, Ms Oliff went to court to challenge the council’s decision.

She sought advice from a second rates valuation agency, RVA Surveyors Ltd of Denton in Manchester.

She paid RVA Surveyors £600 to check her shop measurements and rateable value on the Valuation Office website portal.

The company asked her to sign a Rates Saver Package – no reduction, no fee agreement giving them 45 per cent of all savings made.

She now says: “In desperation, I signed. It came back that the shop was measured wrong. They had put an extra digit on the valuation and we were not rateable at all.”

RVA’s initial submission at the check stage failed to secure a reduction but after the firm successfully challenged the valuation in June 2019 the Valuation Office wrote to Wiltshire Council and the rates were reduced from £13,000 a year to £9,600 a year.

The government says that full relief is available on properties with a rateable value of £12,000 or less.

And in 2020-21it introduced a business rates holiday for businesses in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors to help them through disruption caused by Covid-19.

Leaf & Bean also secured a refund of more than £1,280 from the council after business rates arrears had been cleared. RVA Surveyors said this would not have been possible except for the professional services it provided to Ms Oliff’s company.

The agreement with RVA runs for five years and includes a “retrospective review” of the business rates payable with effect from April 1, 2017, the date on which she first took occupancy of the premises.

Ms Oliff’s financial problems piled up even higher when RVA sent her an invoice for 45 per cent of the savings it claims she has made over the past four years.

It sent her invoices on August 13, 2019, February 19, 2020 and April 19 2021, none of which have been paid as Ms Oliff disputes that she owes the money.

She says her son Harley and Mr Gilmour were both present when RVA’s representative agreed that “45 per cent of nothing is nothing.”

Ms Oliff says: “They came back to us and said you now owe us all this money that you would have saved but I said that we would not have paid any rates. This is where we are at now.”

RVA is now asking Ms Oliff for £5,597.90 in fees, plus interest at eight per cent amounting to a further £748, for the period from August 13 2019 to October 27 2021.

The bill is mounting up daily, as the firm is also asking for a £1.23 per day interest since October 28 until the invoices are paid.

Ms Oliff says: “I shouldn’t have been paying anything to the council so they actually haven’t saved me anything. In addition, two of those years were free from business rates because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so how can they claim a saving for those? Nobody paid rates in those years.

“On top of that, we took out a ‘bounce back’ loan of £17,000 to help us survive the Covid pandemic. I now have a debts of nearly £25,000 and I just don’t know how we are going to pay it off.

“I have been summoned to court but we don’t have a date yet. Inside, I’m so angry and cross . It’s frustrating. I feel like I’m going round in circles.

“I haven’t had a holiday in four and a half years. David and I are both working here six days a week just to pay the bills. We don’t have an income, we survive.

“If we have to pay RVA we are finished, the business is done. We are done. The businesses is faced with closure.

“I took out a £15,000 loan to start the business and that was paid off in February. But during the pandemic, I had to borrow another £17,000, so I am now worse off than I was when I started. I have got no way of paying it off. Not a hope. If the shop shuts, there is no way of paying the mortgage so I will lose my home.

“Now, I don’t even want to come here. Nobody wants to buy a business and this is so specialised. I make all the chocolates.

“I have suffered from depression in the past and this has triggered that again. It’s desperate. If I could lock the door, throw away the key and never come back, I would.”

A spokesperson for RVA said: “In February 2019, RVA Surveyors undertook a review of the Leaf & Bean’s business rates, a process that included a number of stages with the Valuation Office Agency, took several months and involved a number of members of our dedicated team.

“This process successfully achieved a business rates reduction for the Leaf and Bean, which reduced their business rates liability retrospectively from the 1st April 2017. On this occasion, this resulted in the business rates liability falling below the small business relief threshold. Through our services, the Leaf & Bean will pay no business rates for the duration of the current six-year ratings list, thereby bringing significant financial benefit to their business.

“Our commitment to all of our clients is to ensure a transparent, thorough and dedicated service that benefits their business overheads by reducing their business rates liability. We have in place a contract with the Leaf & Bean, which sets out the terms of our service and the agreed payment for the reduction of business rates achieved.

“RVA Surveyors has not yet received any payments from the Leaf and Bean for the services delivered and will continue to attempt to resolve the matter.”