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