They say that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Both are sometimes mysterious as well. Certainly there is a bit of a mystery concerning Alfington Stores & Service Station in Devon. Dave Moss sent me an urgent query on business rates relief. For several years Dave’s business rates demand had arrived with ‘zero to pay’ marked on it. Then this year’s arrived with its usual huge heart-stopping total but with no apparent reduction this time.

What had happened? “Do you know if the 100 per cent business rates relief, which was granted for several successive years by the government to all shops, post offices, etc where they were they only such outlet in a village, has suddenly and quietly been withdrawn?” asked Dave. “Because if it has, this shop is not long for this world.”

I spoke to Mike Goodman, resources manager at the Village Retail Services Association (ViRSA), for clarification. He explained that mandatory relief was only ever 50 per cent – and this had not changed – but that local authorities could up it to 100 per cent if they felt so inclined. Looking it up in my files I unearth that since April 2001, sole petrol stations with rateable values of no more than £9,000 in designated villages qualify for 50 per cent mandatory relief and local authorities can also offer hardship and discretionary relief of up to 100 per cent in any rural area for rateable values of up to £12,000. Mandatory relief is fully refunded by the government whereas discretionary relief is only 75 per cent refunded.

Mike Goodman suggested that Dave’s council may have been having a hard time balancing its budget this year. “They’re all having a hard time and relief is very much the dry end of the barrel. Retailers must be prepared to prove hardship via their profit and loss accounts for the year. It used to be called ‘hardship’ relief rather than ‘discretionary’ and a lot of councils still think that way.”

He suggests that, when applying for relief, you use the long-term versus short-term argument. “The long term scenario is that, if there are no services, properties will devalue and there will be higher demand for access to amenities outside the area so a better bus service, better roads and so on. They might save a few bob in the short term but in the long term there will be more traffic and greater costs in maintaining roads.”

Dave is quite used to arguing his corner with the council and is in the process of doing just that.

When the council didn’t reply to his first letter asking where the relief had gone, he wrote again in a rather more robust fashion. Now he has a partial answer. Instead of rate relief being subject to a committee as it once was, it is now in the hands of a single man who handles the ‘resources portfolio’. He is known to be sympathetic to independents having taken their side in a previous planning application battle against a superstore intent upon encroaching into the area. It could be that Dave’s rate demand was just an admin screw-up following the restructuring of the council.