Coun­cil de­nies sit­ting on £80k rate re­lief for strug­gling busi­nesses

The Wokingham Paper - - NEWS - By PHIL CREIGHTON

THE COUN­CIL’S rate re­lief scheme isn’t for strug­gling re­tail­ers a se­nior coun­cil­lor has said af­ter a probe has re­vealed that un­less £80,000 is al­lo­cated to busi­nesses by Septem­ber it would have to be sent back to cen­tral Gov­ern­ment.

Cllr Ju­lian McGhee-Sum­ner, Wok­ing­ham Bor­ough Coun­cil’s ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber for fi­nance and cor­po­rate re­sources, said that the £400,000 it has re­ceived from cen­tral Gov­ern­ment was to help busi­nesses hit by the re­cent re-eval­u­a­tion to rates.

How­ever, a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest by trade mag­a­zine Re­tail Ex­press re­vealed that just £318,092 of this fund has been shared out among 333 busi­nesses – an av­er­age of £955 each. This leaves £80,539 that has to be dished out by the au­tumn.

The mag­a­zine said that small busi­nesses across Eng­land have been over billed be­cause coun­cils are “fail­ing to hand out £17.5 mil­lion of the dis­cre­tionary reval­u­a­tion rates re­lief that was made avail­able fol­low­ing the 2017 Spring Bud­get”.

Al­though the cut-off point for busi­nesses to ap­ply was April 1, Re­tail Ex­press has cre­ated a tem­plate let­ter for busi­nesses to use in a bid to get a share of the fund­ing pot. This will be made avail­able to down­load on our web­site, wok­ing­ham.to­day.

The news that the rate re­lief scheme has not been fully al­lo­cated comes days af­ter a clutch of town cen­tre busi­nesses shut up shop.

Last week The Grape Escape an­nounced that it ‘couldn’t stay open a mo­ment longer’ as the re­gen­er­a­tion works re­duced foot­fall by an es­ti­mated 80%.

On Sun­day, Wether­spoon pulled out of The Gig House – al­though it will re­open as a Bears restau­rant next month (see page 12).

And na­tional chain Prezzo has shut its Denmark Street branch as part of a na­tional clo­sure pro­gramme.

These are not the only re­tail­ers wob­bling. Ear­lier this week, fash­ion chain New Look an­nounced that it was to cut prices af­ter sales fell al­most 12% year on year. Re­tail Ex­press re­search shows that na­tion­ally, 42,958 re­tail com­pa­nies are “se­verely strug­gling”.

There have been calls from re­tail­ers for the coun­cil to act in a sim­i­lar way to Sal­is­bury, which helped shops and busi­nesses af­fected by the nerve agent at­tack in March, which led to parts of the city be­ing cor­doned off.

The city’s re­tail­ers were given a share of a £1 mil­lion fund specif­i­cally for busi­nesses hit by the down­turn in trade.

Ian Sloan, a char­tered sur­veyor, blasted Wok­ing­ham’s rate re­lief scheme. He said: “They have used £300,000 and said scheme ended 31st March 2018 and, oh look, an un­der­spend of 20%.”

He added: “It’s dis­ap­point­ing that even when they were warned, many coun­cils and coun­cil­lors still do not un­der­stand. Un­less they get their act to­gether this money will go to waste.”

But Cllr McGhee-Sum­ner de­fended the coun­cil’s po­si­tion, say­ing that the money wasn’t there to be dished out to busi­nesses strug­gling as a re­sult of the Mar­ket Place re­gen­er­a­tion works that have seen much of Wok­ing­ham’s town cen­tre closed to traf­fic since Septem­ber last year.

He said: “The re­lief scheme isn’t specif­i­cally for ‘strug­gling’ re­tail­ers, but to help busi­nesses ad­versely af­fected by na­tional changes to Busi­ness Rate fol­low­ing reval­u­a­tion.

“Not ev­ery busi­ness in Sal­is­bury re­ceived re­lief, as set out by the guid­ance set up by cen­tral gov­ern­ment, and just like Wilt­shire Coun­cil we are bound by the same cri­te­ria.

“We’ve given fund­ing to those busi­nesses that we can, un­der these rules, and will al­lo­cate any out­stand­ing fund­ing to those al­ready get­ting the re­lief be­fore the Septem­ber dead­line.

“We’re go­ing through the list of those busi­nesses who’ve re­ceived the re­lief from us, and check­ing which ones we can name un­der data pro­tec­tion rules.”

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