York Council wrong to turn down information request

Information Commissioner rules rates defaulter information must be made public

In a landmark ruling the Information Commissioner has said that the York Council acted improperly earlier in the year when it turned down a Freedom of Information request for a list of Business Rate debtors in the City.

The Council had said that it could not do so during the “purdah” period which precedes a Council election. It claimed that release of the information could “affect public support for a particular party”. In February 2018 – when the original request was lodged – a by election was taking place in the Holgate ward (although this would have been over before any information was likely to be published).

The withheld information in this case related to the value of individual unpaid business rate accounts and the associated recovery action planned or undertaken including any amounts of money that had been written off.

The Commissioner has now ordered the York Council to release the information within 35 days.

The information is unlikely to include any shocks. Debtor information was routinely reported publicly to a Council committee until recently. In some cases, it prompted inquiries which led to the recovery of the debt. A list of Business rate overpayments was also published prompting some businesses to claim a refund

Quite why this information was likely to influence a by election taking place in the Holgate Ward may remain a mystery. (Three of the four candidates there – at least – worked in the public sector and are highly unlikely to have had outstanding business rate debts).

This is, however, the second time that the Council has refused to divulge information quoting the Purdah restrictions. In 2017 they declined to say how many enquiries each individual Councillor on the authority had recorded during the previous year. The information was eventually supplied after the election campaigns of that year had concluded.

The Commissioners ruling therefore sets a precedent for how information requests must be treated by local Councils in the future.

FOI requests can only reveal facts. It will be for residents to judge whether those facts influence their actions.

If this includes their voting intentions, then so be it.

The full decision notice is being published on the ICO website https://ico.org.uk/

 

Liberal Democrats publish plans to cut taxes for businesses by 5% in York

The Liberal Democrats have published a comprehensive blueprint for replacing the broken business rates system, cutting taxes for businesses by 5% in York.

Local Liberal Democrat Economic Development Spokesperson
 Cllr Keith Aspden has described the plans as “exactly the sort of national policy we need to boost local investment and ensure businesses in York thrive”.The report –Taxing Land, Not Investment – calls for the abolition of business rates and its replacement with a tax on land values, the Commercial Landowner Levy (CLL).  The levy would remove buildings and machinery from calculations and tax only the land value of commercial sites, boosting investment and cutting taxes for businesses.Liberal Democrat members will debate and vote on the proposals at the party’s Autumn Conference in Brighton this month. (more…)

York Council – “We can’t tell you the facts because they might influence an election result”

Readers may recall an incident last year when the York Council refused Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in the run up to the General Election in June.They said the information might “influence how electors cast their ballots”.

They claimed, for example, that residents should not be told how many issues individual Councillors had raised with the Council on behalf of their constituents.

We pointed out that, as none of the Councillors were election candidates, this information couldn’t have influenced their chances.

It could be argued, in any event, that – as FOI requests can only be made for factual information – the more facts that are known, the more likely electors are to make an informed choice!

That issue is currently with the Parliamentary Ombudsman to investigate. That referral is on the basis that the Information Commissioner should have issued guidance to Local Authorities on what may, and what may not, be published.

Most Councils continue to respond to FOI requests during election (“purdah”) periods.

York is in a small minority that don’t.

Now a similar situation has arisen just 4 days before a Council by election takes place in the Holgate ward,.

The Council has refused to publish a list of businesses who have not paid their Rates bills during the last 3 years. This is information that used to be routinely reported to a public Council committee meeting. That committee might, on occasions, authorise some debts to be written off.

Quite why a list of businesses, with outstanding debts, could influence the way that the electors of Holgate will cast their ballot is open to conjecture.

It may make some people wonder if there something to hide? 

Time will tell.

York businesses benefit from £700,000 rate relief

Over 1,000 small businesses and charities in York will benefit from £700,000 in business rate relief over the next few months.

No business or charity with a rateable value below £200,000 will have to pay an increase in their business rates in 2017/18.

The decision follows a recent business rates revaluation exercise carried out by Central Government, which saw many businesses facing rates rising 12.5% or more. The decision will mean that £700,000 in government money will be automatically redistributed to businesses across the city, without the need for an application process.

Rates discount plan for Acomb may miss target

Dumping on Acomb shops car park

Dumping on Acomb shops car park

The Council may decide on Tuesday to introduce a 50% discount on Business Rates for any “empty” shop brought back into use in “Acomb”. The discount would apply for up to 18 months.

The Council still continues in a state of denial about public service standards in the Front Street area.

Weeds, potholes, litter and graffiti all add to the “run down” appearance of parts of the area.

Weeds taking over several streets in Acomb

Weeds taking over several streets in Acomb

Now the economic recovery is well established  properties are already being brought back into use. There are currently only 3 premises in “Acomb” which have been empty for 12 months or more.

The proposed discount scheme is similar to that introduced by the Coalition Government last autumn which awards 50% relief after a shop, that has been empty for 12 months, is reoccupied.

The Coalition Government had previously given powers in April 2012 to Councils who wished to extend Rate discount schemes to commercial premises. Quite why it has taken the York Council over 2 years to consider using these powers in Front Street has not been explained.

The Council will now consider making the 50% discount available to premises from the moment that they become empty. Although it is intended to fill the gap in provision for the period up to 12 months (when the mandatory government scheme kicks in) there is clearly a flaw in using taxpayers money to subsidise national chains who move into  prime sites immediately leases become available.

No doubt their shareholders would be delighted to receive a profits boost of this sort while existing shops might rightly brand the subsidy as unfair competition.

A more sensible approach would be for the Council to focus its discounts on properties which have been empty for over 3 months.

Business rates are not payable on a commercial property for the first 3 months that it is empty anyway.

Empty properties with a rateable value of under £2,600 are entirely exempt from Business Rates

The terms for the discounts in what the Council labels the “Acomb Business Development District” appear to have been thrown together in some haste.

  • The area that the discount will apply within is not defined (the Council papers refer only to “Acomb”)
  • The Council scheme is restricted to retail premises. The government scheme applies to all businesses
  • It is unclear how the temporary occupation of shops (so called “pop up” units, display only exhibitions and voluntary organisation use) will affect entitlements.
  • Para 15 of the paper suggests that applications have to be linked to “the three ambitions set out above” These refer to young enterprises, listed buildings and re-locations
  • The paper also suggests that applications will only be considered once a year with a September deadline (!)

Footnote

  • Small retailers are entitled to £1000 off their Rates (Rateable value of £50,000 or less) although not all traders have, as yet, applied for this discount.
  • Rates relief is available for existing small businesses (premises with a Rateable value of less than £12,000)
  • Charities and amateur community sports clubs get at least 80% Rates relief

Government scheme to see £1 million reduction in York Business Rates

£1000 a year benefit for York businesses

List of qualifying business types. click to enlarge

List of qualifying business types. click to enlarge

The Government announced in its Autumn Statement on 5th December 2013 that it will provide relief of up to £1,000 to all occupied retail properties with a rateable value of £50,000 or less in each of the years 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Potentially as many as 1700 York businesses could benefit

The purpose of this new relief is to support the ‘high street’ which has been affected by changes in consumer spending preferences such as online shopping. The relief is temporary for two years from April 2014.

A wide range of businesses could qualify for the reduction (see list right)

Areas like Front Street in Acomb are likely to benefit from the scheme.

It will be necessary for any business wishing to claim this relief to make an application to the council and complete a state aid declaration form.

More York companies to get rate relief?

Cabinet to decide individual applications

The York Council is set to make available Business Rate reductions for “young” businesses. The businesses must be independent and less than 2 years old. They would enjoy a 50% reduction in rates payable during the first year.

Tax haven

They must be operating in one of the following sectors.

  1.  Bio-medical/sciences
  2. Agritech
  3. Insurance & Professional Services
  4. Rail & related industries
  5. Business software innovation
  6. Creative medicine

The scheme will also apply to proposals to bring empty Listed buildings back into commercial use AND MAY BE EXTENDED TO COMPANIES WISHING TO RELOCATE TO THE CITY.

With the local economy in danger of overheating – early in the economic recovery we are already approaching full employment – the scheme is not targeted on depressed parts of the City.

Local shopping centres like Front Street have fared poorly in recent years. The last thing that businesses in locations like that need is subsidised competition.

The scheme has also been criticised as the plan is for decisions, on which companies will get the award, will be taken by a single party committee (the Councils “Cabinet”).

Companies that apply are not required to reveal what donations to political parties they have made or are planning to make.

The Council has not revealed how much the discounts will cost. The total amount of state aid to an individual company under EU regulations is limited to € 200,000.

£16 million owed to York Council

The Council has published a list of the outstanding amounts owed to it in each of the last 3 years.
Uncollected debts
The size of the debt shows an upward trend which could lead to cash flow problems if not reversed.

Although many of the debts will eventually be recovered, some will not.

There have been significant increases in the amounts owed on business rates, former tenant arrears and sundry debts.

In total the amounts owed have increased from £12 million to £16 million over a 3 year period.