‘I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake with my council tax,’ I said to the lady at Guildford Borough Council.
‘Right,’ she said, only just disguising a yawn and starting to tap away doing something else on her computer. I wasn’t surprised. I had just been through a series of recorded options that more than adequately summed up what Guildford Borough’s expectations of its customers were. Pretty much: ‘Press one if you’ve had a letter about a bailiff’s visit, press two if you feel you’ve got some vague, tenuous piece of information which will persuade us to let you off your council tax, only it won’t. Press three if you want to hear those options again. Or, if you still feel you need to speak to someone, press four, although there’s really no point because we are never going to let you speak to a human being and pressing four will actually just tell you slowly and sarcastically that you can manage your account online by going to: double-you… double-you… double-you dot… Guildford dot… gov dot…UK backslash… how to pay my council tax and stop making a nuisance of myself.’
But I managed to circumnavigate this by using the same trick I employ with the bank, which is to refuse to press any option and, when it switches to ‘Please say what you are calling about’, to repeatedly say ‘bowl of soup’ until they give up and declare: ‘Please hold, we need to connect you to one of our customer-service representatives. All calls are recorded because you’ve really hacked us off now, wasting our time, I bet you only want something that was in the options.’
But once I was through that little lot, a nice lady said hello, and I began to argue about a shock demand for £3,100 a year in council tax for my two-bedroom ‘dream’ cottage.
A reader asked me the other day whether I was going to call this column Unreal life now that I’m living an idyllic existence in the country. He seemed to think I might become happy, live peacefully and have fewer mishaps now that I’ve left the London Republic of Lambeth.
I am pleased to assure him and anyone else with similar concerns that I am piling up the mishaps quite nicely in my rural idyll, chief among them this demand from Guildford Borough for £260 a month.
I had to lie down when I got the letter. I did the sums over and over. I just couldn’t get my head around it.
I’d gone from band D in Balham to band F here, where ‘F’ clearly stands for the expletive you scream out when the bill lands on your mat.
‘No, I’m serious,’ I told the lady. ‘There’s been a mistake. I’m living in a £500,000 mid-terraced cottage and you’ve billed me for the same as a seven-bedroom manor house.’
‘Hmm,’ said the lady, ‘I’m afraid you’re in an expensive area.’
‘Yes, I understand that. But I’m not in an expensive house. My neighbours aren’t paying anything like this amount.’
‘I’m afraid the only thing you can do is challenge the banding.’
Here we go. I also thought I was going to be getting away from all this. But of course, it is the truest saying out that you cannot get away no matter where you go because you take yourself with you.
It’s a shame that reality has reared its ugly head because I love living here. There’s a monthly farmers’ market, an annual bonfire (which I’m hoping doesn’t feature me), an antiques fair at the village hall, and a man on a ride-on mower who trims the green outside my house.
Oh, and there are complimentary poo bags, provided from a dispenser for dog- walkers.
I’m just not sure that even with two dogs I’m going to be able to get through £3,100 worth of poo bags each year, though lord knows, I will try if it comes to that.
So I rang the Valuation Office. ‘Thank you for calling… please select… you can get information online at… double-you…double-you… double-you…’ and so on and on, with jazzy hold music, until finally, after I had said ‘bowl of soup’ about 25 times, I got through to someone.
He was terribly nice. He took my postcode and informed me that he could see my house on the system: ‘You’re the big semi-detached,’ he said. ‘No, I’m the tiny mid-terraced.’ ‘Oh, well we’ve got you down as a semi.’
‘Then I think you’ve got the wrong house,’ I said, feeling a surge of hope.
‘I’ll post you out a form and you can challenge it.’ ‘Can you not just check you’ve got the right house?’
But of course that wasn’t an option. The valuation appeal is going to take two months and I’m very much braced for a full range of mishaps.