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Tug Boat Dweller Must Pay Council Tax

In a ruling of importance to all boat dwellers, a family man who lived on a tugboat in the River Taw estuary, in Barnstaple, has failed in an epic legal struggle to avoid paying council tax. The Court of Appeal ruled that, the vessel having remained on the same mooring for more than two years, it had achieved a sufficient degree of permanency to give rise to liability to council tax.

Tug BoatRandy Northrop moored his lovingly restored Thames tug – ‘Cannis’ – in the estuary between December 2008 to October 2011. He insisted that the registered sea-going vessel was not a ‘house boat’ and that he and his family should be viewed as ‘wayfarers’ rather than permanent residents.

However, the local authority took a different view and the vessel – which has a galley kitchen, music room, two bedrooms and a modern bathroom – was placed in Band A for council tax purposes. The Valuation Tribunal later allowed Mr Northrop’s appeal against that ruling but that decision was subsequently overturned by the High Court on the basis that the mooring was sufficiently permanent for Cannis to be classified as a ‘domestic property’ subject to council tax.

Challenging that decision, Mr Northrop emphasised his itinerant lifestyle and quoted Mark Twain with the words: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Although Cannis was anchored to the riverbed, fore and aft, as a sensible precaution against unsettled weather, the Northrops had to use a tender to get on board at high tide. With no access to sewerage or other land-based services, Cannis’ water supply came from a hose pipe and no other vessel on the estuary had previously been entered on the council tax valuation list.

Ruling upon the appeal, Sir Alan Ward observed that the definition of ‘domestic property’ within the Local Government and Finance Act 1988 was profoundly confusing. After quoting the statute, he noted: “If prizes are to be offered for legislative gobbledegook then the foregoing would surely qualify”.

However, dismissing Mr Northrop’s appeal, he ruled that the local authority’s interpretation of the statute was correct. On the particular facts of the case, the family had ‘put down roots’ in the estuary and the length of time that Cannis had been moored in the same location was decisive.

Referring to Mr Northrop by his first name, the judge, sitting with Lords Justice Hughes and Patten, said: “I have a sneaking sympathy for Randy because he did not use many of the services which council tax is supposed to provide and it may have been harsh to list him in Band A.  But all of that is of no moment.”

Cannis has since moved on from the estuary and the judge added: “Randy has thrown off the bow lines and sailed away from the safe harbour, though whether to catch the trade winds in his sails or just withstand the buffetings of the gales in the English channel, I know not.”

The judge, who recently retired as a Lord Justice of Appeal, concluded: “In as much as this is the penultimate judgment I shall write after 18 years in the Court of Appeal, I am a kindred spirit who has sailed away from the safe harbour of the Royal Courts of Justice, not at all sure how to explore, or what to dream or what I am about to discover.”