Spark container village – payments to Council revealed

In response to a Freedom of Information request, the York Council has revealed that it has received £13,333 in rent from the Spark container village on Piccadilly since they first arrived in September 2017.
Spark April 2018

This amounts to little more than £700 a month since the organisation took over the prime site.

No payments have been received by the Council from the “profit sharing” scheme agreed as part of the deal to allow shipping containers to be installed on the site. The council says it is still awaiting receipt of accounts for last year. The last accounts filed by Spark were for the year ending March 2018.

£19,856 is owed by Spark and its tenants for Business Rates. The Council says that it is taking recovery action.

The original Spark business pitch to the Council talked about a £71,000 profit each year. Part of this was to be used to repay the Council’s initial investment (which cost over £40,000) in new utility infrastructure,

The container village has been controversial from the start with long delays in meeting some planning conditions. An instruction to replace graffiti style street art with cladding on the Piccadilly frontage is still outstanding (click for background)

The contract allows for the Council to take back the site if, after 21 days, the tenants have failed to pay the rent or complied with their obligations under the Lease.

Many of the individual units have been empty over recent months.

Although warmer weather may give the containers a temporary boost in customer numbers, it is surely long overdue for the Council to test the market by advertising the site for permanent redevelopment.

York Council response to Freedom of Information request 29th April 2019

Business Rates reduction scheme gets nod

Council reveals who pays the most and least in rates

Tesco has largest rates bill in York

The Government scheme to reduce business rates by 33% for medium sized retailers has been approved. New bills are expected to be sent out shortly.

The decision comes as the Council lifts the veil on business rates (NNDR) in York. A report to a meeting next week says that 2000 local businesses are entirely exempt from paying rates. (Businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000 are exempt from paying rates).

The bottom 50% of businesses pay an average of less than £1000 per annum.

The biggest bill is paid by Tesco which alone has a bill in York of over £3 million.

7 of the top 10 charges are for superstores, including those at Vangarde.

The top 3 non-retail rates bills are for Nestle (£1.4m), Defra (£930k) and CYC’s West Offices (£730k).

Hotels are large contributors, The Grand having a net charge of £680k, The Principal paying £547k and the StayCity Aparthotel on Paragon Street contributing £343k.

Within the city centre, the highest charges are paid by Marks and Spencer for their Parliament Street store (£527k), Primark (£366k) and Boots (£355k).

The highest rateable value of £7m is for the University of York, although the University is a charity and receives 80% relief on its liability.

Coney Street and Parliament Street still have the highest rateable values. Click here to see a list of the values in each City Centre street.

The York Council is increasingly dependant on business rate income to fund public services.

The report reveals that, although rates are payable on empty properties (after 3 months), the BHS store on Coney Street has been exempted from the charge by the Valuation Office. There are other exemptions mainly for charities and amateur sports clubs.

Business rate levels are set by central government. Income is shared between the local authority and central government.

28% of the York Council’s budget is now funded from business rates .

The Council is expected to submit an expression of interest in the new “Future High Street Fund” at a meeting being held on 22nd March.

NB. The Council refused recently to publish a complete list of long term business rate debtors.

Over 1000 business in York likely to get a 33% reduction in business rates

Retail businesses qualifying for rates relief

The Council has announced how it proposes to implement the governments rates reduction scheme for retailers.

In order to help the beleaguered High Street, retailers will get a 1/3 reduction in business rates.

Small businesses with Rateable Values of under £12,000 don’t pay business rates anyway. Now those with Rateable Values of up to £51,000 will get more help.

The purpose of this new discount 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 2019.

A report to a meeting next week says, “The purpose of this new discount 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 2019”.

There are some notable exclusions from the scheme. These include professional services, cinemas, theatres, museums, night clubs and music venues.

Some eyebrows will be raised that restaurants and bars operating in the profitable hospitality economy in the City centre may qualify for discounts.

The Council will implement an “appeals” process for any businesses that feel aggrieved with their categorisation.

The scheme does little to address the underlying problem of low-cost on-line retailers who many think provide unfair competition.

Spark – Rates bill arriving

Looks like the Valuation Office has started to issue decisions on the rateable value of units at Spark on Piccadilly.

Units 1 and 2 are now listed as having a rateable value of £12,750 for their 30 sq. mtr ground floor sales area. The price per sq. mtr applied by the VO is £430 which is typical for the area.

The actual business rates payable would be around £6000, with a discount for small businesses.

It appears that valuations are being undertaken per container, so it is unclear precisely how much the Council will receive in total.

The rates are payable with effect from May 2018, so it appears that taxpayers will at last start to see some benefit from their investment.

Separately, Spark have now applied for planning permission to install the canvass roof on their enterprise. This has actually been in place for about 2 months already.

There is still no sign of the promised cladding to the Piccadilly frontage. This was a condition of the planning consent and has been outstanding for over 6 months now.

Over £576,000 owed in rates by York businesses

So which firms owe the York Council money?

It has taken long time, but we now know which companies haven’t paid their NNDR (business rates) in York during the last 3 years.

In response to a Freedom of Information request, the Council has listed 138 traders who have arrears of over £100.

Some have gone into administration while others have decided to repay debts gradually. In some cases, the bailiffs are being sent in

…and it must be said that no business is guaranteed to be a success. Times change, tastes vary and sometimes business do go under. Propriators can be taken ill, some even die.

That is the way life works so there will always be some bad debt.

….. but the total outstanding debt is now over £576,803 and other taxpayers must make up that deficit if public services are to be maintained.

So it is also important that lists of long term debtors are made public.

This allows residents to provide information on the whereabouts of business people and taxpayers who may have absconded. For many years the York Council did this routinely with some useful leads providing a way for money to be reclaimed from those who were seeking to evade their responsibilities.

In some cases, unscrupulous individuals were found to have amassed large arrears before going into administration and then setting up a new company with a similar name and providing much the same service. Often, they operated out of the same premises.

Now a new barrier to transparency has emerged.

The Council is refusing to divulge the names of companies where this may lead to an individual being identified. In some cases, these may be single traders operating under their own name.

The Council says, “some of the business names are names of individual’s and have been withheld as they are exempt under Section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act (2000), as they constitute personal information under the Data Protection Act (1998)”.

Hmm!

The names of some companies have, however, been revealed. This means that the names of their directors can be found simply be searching records at Company’s House (which can now be done “on line”)

The Councils position doesn’t entirely add up.

Debtor information like this was published as recently as 2013 by the Council.

They also take legal action to recover debts (essential before bailiffs can be used) and these preceding are not taken “in camera”. The information is in the public domain.

In this case we think that the public interest outweighs any right to anonymity and we will appeal against the Council’s refusal to provide the names of business owners.

In the meantime, the list of those debtors owing more than £100 is provided here.

No doubt the Councils finance department would appreciate any information about the whereabouts of any who may have absconded.

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.