Bristol final year students are being targeted by Bristol City Council to pay council tax just days after taking their last exam.
Many are forced to pay between the end of the University term - usually the end of June - and the end of their tenancy contracts, with the logic being that young people are no longer students from the day they finish their degree programme.
A number of students have also been sent council tax letters in the period between completing their undergraduate degrees at Bristol and beginning their Master’s degrees.
Typically, not many students are made aware by letting agents or landlords that they may be targeted by the council in this way. Many students are being forced to pay immediately after finishing their final exams, with the date in which students are deemed to complete their time at University differing depending on whether students began in 2011-12 or later.
As well as students being sent council tax letters in the two or three month period between completing undergraduate degrees and beginning Master’s degrees, during which Bristol students are temporarily no longer in full-time education, Epigram has learnt that enforcement officers have been sent to student properties to collect council tax for minimal periods of time.
As the crackdown is to maximise council revenue, this raises the question of whether going after students who technically may be liable to pay council tax for a mere 5 or 10-day period costs more than it raises considering how high administrative costs of sending in enforcement officers can be.
Sasha Brown, a third year Drama student, is one of those targeted: ‘I only just heard about it - I didn’t even want a lease until September, I won’t even be here during the summer so that’s already an added cost.
'My house is a mix of people graduating this year and next year, so some people don’t have to pay a share, therefore my cost goes up! It feels unbelievably unfair.
'I was told about the gas, water and electric bills I’d have to pay, but got absolutely no indication I might have to pay council tax until two months after I had already signed my lease.’
James Oliver, a fourth year Physics student, is also being affected. He is one of five people in a 13-bed house that will be graduating at the end of this academic year.
This means that the five will have to split the cost of council tax on a 13-bed Georgian house in the centre of Bristol between them at the end of the year, inevitably paying more than double a single share each.
‘It seems like it has been slipped in on the sly, only mentioned once it’s too late for us to do anything about it. There was no mention of it from my landlord or UBU (University of Bristol Union) Lettings when they have undoubtedly encountered this before. It is a fair amount of money and feels a bit sleazy.
‘It’s something that could be completely avoidable as well - student statuses at some universities finish in September for this reason, so the middle of June seems kind of arbitrary.’
Victoria Thomas, Lettings Manager at UBU Lettings, responded: ‘Council tax is payable if you are not a registered student and we recognise the issue this poses for graduates in tenancy agreements that extend over the summer.
As part of our ongoing efforts to improve the housing experience for our students we actively encourage our landlords to offer 10 month tenancies and offer reduced summer rents. Our tenancy agreements make reference to council tax liability, however, we will look into making the summer liability for graduates more explicit now that this has been raised as a particular issue.’
Yet Alex Bradbrook, who is now Academic Officer at UBU, was also affected this summer.
‘The council charged my housemates and I £31 in council tax for the week we lived in our property after our student status ended. They didn’t bother to tell us until 27 August, when they allegedly sent a letter to my ex-housemate, which she never received.
‘On 12 November, a court summons was sent, alongside £103 in “council and court costs”. It all seems to be a ploy to deceive students who aren’t aware of when their student status ends.'
'The intimidation they have used, and stress it has caused us over £31 really is ridiculous. I have filed a formal complaint with the council over their handling of the matter, and have requested a refund of the additional £103 in charges.
‘The fact that there is no flexibility is ludicrous - we hadn’t even had our graduation ceremonies! The University also bears some responsibility.
'They had misled us into thinking our student status was current until 31 July (as it says on our student cards and on the student info pages), whereas in fact they had shortened it to 26 June without informing us.’
Lou Eddins, a Bristol City Council Public Relations Officer, told Epigram that ‘The council has a minimum debt threshold that must be met before we take enforcement action to recover council tax. In the case… quoted, the threshold had been met’.
Epigram understands from other sources, however, that costs of sending in enforcement officers in areas outside Bristol tend to be higher than £31.
Eddins added, ‘The section on council tax in the Student Handbook, which is issued in hard copy to all new students at registration and is also available online (see page 27) includes the following statement: “For the majority of undergraduates exemption will cease on 30 June of the final year of study.”’
This statement appears to give no indication, however, of which courses are not included in the ‘majority’ mentioned, meaning it remains unclear to many students whether they will be liable.
The 30 June date also appears to contradict dates listed elsewhere for when Bristol undergraduates cease to become students.
The student info page on the University website for students on 4-year courses who began in 2011-12 state that ‘University membership/student card expiry date’ is 31 July 2015, whereas students graduating in 2016 or 2017 have told Epigram that their student info page lists their expiry date as 17 June 2016 or 16 June 2017.
Meanwhile, on Thursday 13 November, Bath and North East Somerset Council discussed changing laws that exempt students from payments.
Councillor June Player, (Ind. Westmoreland) originally planned to propose the motion to change council tax laws for students in the city. However, after the motion was adjusted, the concept officially passed was whether student accommodation landlords should pay council tax or business rates on their properties instead.
The motion will now be discussed at a policy development and scrutiny panel, and could be then taken on to central government with the idea of charging business rates for landlords.
Currently, landlords are exempt from paying council tax where all people occupying a house are registered students. Despite the change to Cllr Player’s motion, the result could still hold consequences for students, as rent prices would surely rise in order for landlords to recover tax.
Cllr Player said that she did not want to target students, but wanted to see a financial return: ‘This is an issue which affects many more wards than just mine…and personally I think these properties should be treated as businesses and so pay business rates.’
Bristol has an even higher student population, of 47,000. If passed, a similar situation in the city could see Bristol student tenant prices rise even more.
Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, reassured Epigram he disagrees with changing the law: ‘I do not see any need to change the law on payment of council tax.
Students are exempted for a very good reason, their grants and loans are not treated as ordinary income and are outside the benefits system. There would be no net benefit to the public finances.
‘Landlords... would increase their rents to recover the tax and the government would then have to consider increasing grants and loans.’
Labour’s Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, told Epigram that she would also be against the introduction of council tax for students.
Tom Phipps, UBU Student Living Officer, added:
‘With rents increasing year on year and maintenance loans not keeping on track, the last thing councils should be doing is increasing the financial burden on students.'‘This case highlights the importance of students voting and making their voice heard as increasingly, local authorities are placing a greater burden on students through mechanisms like council tax for short-term political advantage.’
If Bristol students were in danger of being targeted with a similar motion as the one in Bath, the University asserted that it would do what it could to protect its students.
Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Judith Squires said: ‘Given our close working relationship with the city council, any such proposal would need considered debate and discussion between us and the council, a key factor within that being to ensure that we made clear our wish to protect the interests of our students in any such discussion.’
Featured Image / Flickr Jordin57
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