The Scottish Government has been accused of “muddying the waters” over lifeline relief for businesses.
Partner at Knight Frank, Eric Shearer, has been calling for a change in the requirements for empty property relief during coronavirus lockdown to get firms out of a “catch 22” situation which he believes may encourage some to break the law to stay afloat.
Aberdeen City Council has now taken up the fight, with its co-leader Douglas Lumsden writing to ministers to add to pressure for a change in the law.
There are two requirements to be eligible for the relief. The first is that the property is unoccupied by people, the second that it is unfurnished with “all moveable items” removed.
Mr Shearer believes some firms may feel forced into hiring a van to clear out their buildings.
He said: “If you were to go to your office or warehouse and start removing furniture not only would you be breaching government guidelines, which no-one would choose to do, but you would risk being sent home or fined by the police.
“There are many clients and businesses who meet the ‘unoccupied’ requirement as they have been instructed to work from home, however it is not currently possible to meet the second test.
“I have explained to officials that what they were tacitly encouraging was for businesses to break the law as the only way to get the relief, that would normally be given, was to hire a van and remove the furniture.”
Mr Shearer added: “My view is that the government is 100% wrong on not making the change and could be responsible for desperate businesses breaking the law and, even worse, risking their health and that of others.
“It is hard to understand how their position is compatible with ‘stay at home’ advice.”
The property firm says many of its clients are unable to claim the three months discount – halving the sum they would pay – because of the rules.
Mr Shearer wrote to the Scottish Government pushing for the need to remove furniture to be relaxed during the crisis to allow firms some respite.
And in a letter, a spokesman for the government’s non-domestic rates team said interpretation of the relief awards was “entirely a matter for local authorities”.
They added: “A premises is required to be vacant to be considered unoccupied and while premises are prohibited from opening, they may still be considered occupied if they are not empty.
“I would reiterate that the interpretation of the law and the awarding of the empty property relief is a matter for the local authority.”
With this guidance, Mr Shearer approached Aberdeen City Council – prompting administration co-leader Douglas Lumsden to write to local government minister Kevin Stewart pushing for a clear change in the law.
The Conservative said the government correspondence “did not help anyone and muddied the waters by passing the responsibility to the council”, when the responsibility for the law lies with the Scottish Government.
“I am calling on the minister to change the law for the period of the coronavirus pandemic to agree that a property which is unoccupied during this pandemic does not need to remove all moveable items to qualify for Empty Property Relief,” Mr Lumsden said.
“This avoids any ambiguity around interpretation of the regulations while the relief could be the difference in whether these businesses open up or otherwise again in the coming weeks or months.”
The same issue of empty rates relief was raised in a letter from Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber Of Commerce this week, encouraging MPs and MSPs to back a raft of changes to help businesses.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Premises that are prohibited by law from being occupied may be entitled to receive 100 per cent unoccupied property relief.
“However, a premises is required to be vacant to be considered unoccupied.
“The non-domestic rates system, including the awarding of all relief reliefs, is administered by local authorities and the interpretation of the relevant empty property relief regulations is a matter for local authorities.
“We are also investing £2.3 billion, which is more than the money we have received from the UK Government for this purpose, to provide a package of business support and would encourage businesses to liaise with their local authority on what other support might be available to them.”