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Widespread relief as VAT challenge on student accommodation fails

Landlords, universities and construction firms involved with developing student housing breathed a sigh of relief after HMRC’s appeal against a ruling that overturned its student accommodation VAT policy was rejected in a case once again taken to the Tax Tribunal by Glyn Edwards, VAT director at MHA MacIntyre Hudson.

The decision not only provides reassurance to the student housing sector that subcontractors do not have to be paid VAT on new build student accommodation, but has additional implications beyond cash flow for all parties involved.

The main contractor at Primus Place had received a certificate from the developer-landlord claiming relief from VAT because the new building would be used for a relevant residential purpose (RRP) i.e. a communal building for students.

Ordinarily sub-contractors working on RRP buildings are not entitled to zero-rate their services; VAT must be charged at 20% which the main contractor must then reclaim on a VAT return.

But the units were designed as self-contained living accommodation including kitchenettes and en-suite bathrooms.

While planning consent restricted use to students, there was no clause preventing each unit from being separately used or sold.

Summit argued the zero-rate could be applied as they were working on ‘dwellings’. The relief for dwellings is broader than for RRP buildings and allows both main and subcontractors to zero-rate their services. 

The tribunal agreed student accommodation could be treated as ‘dwellings’ for VAT purposes. It dismissed HMRC’s argument that a planning condition which restricted occupation to students of named universities prevented the accommodation from being dwellings for VAT purposes.

If HMRC had succeeded, main contractors would have been forced to pay VAT to subcontractors whenever planning consent referred to students of particular universities. While reclaimable, the VAT amounts involved are large and the cash flow impact is significant.

HMRC have been taking a strong approach to repayment claims, disallowing VAT charged by sub-contractors where student accommodation was being constructed. Time and money was being wasted by the lack of clarity in this area.

The tribunal’s confirmation that wider relief of zero-rating of dwellings still applies is important; it allows landlords to let student accommodation out to others during the holidays without incurring VAT which they would otherwise be unable to reclaim, in whole or in part, due to VAT exempt lettings to students.

Glyn Edwards, VAT Director at MHA MacIntyre Hudson, commented: “The Tribunal’s decision reaffirms that the VAT policy for student accommodation needs clarification. HMRC must acknowledge this and provide better guidance for the construction sector to avoid similar situations arising.

“Confirmation that wider relief for zero-rating of dwellings still applies has been welcomed by landlords, planners and universities, reducing VAT costs that would otherwise have applied to those renting out student flats during holiday periods.

“This is vital to student accommodation projects as incurring a VAT charge that could not be reclaimed would make many developments unviable, reducing availability of accommodation for new students.”

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