15th December 2016
By Graham Smith
A business rates dispute between a refugee support group and Cornwall Council has taken a new turn after senior officials sent emails to all members suggesting possible divisions in their approach.
The council’s chief executive, Kate Kennally, sent one email suggesting that the authority’s previous “no exceptions” policy might, after all, contain room for manoeuvre which would allow the Wadebridge-based support group to escape liability for the £1,600 rates demand.
Ms Kennally wrote: “I will be looking into this, because whilst I do not want to set precedents for the future as this could lead to other charities making the same case, on the face of it, this appears to the public as unfair for the charity who have been offered the use of the unit free of charge by the premises holder.
“I want to understand what liability for business rates should or could sit with the premises owner rather than the charity.”
Ms Kennnally’s email implies she did not know that the Wadebridge refugee support group is a not-for-profit organisation, not a charity. It also prompted some councillors to question whether various worthy causes in their own areas might also find ways round the business rates rules.
The council official responsible for the revenues department, Mark Read, then issued a further email attempting to clarify the rules: “In view of the continued emails circulating regarding this topic it might be useful if I set out the position regarding this case.
“As various members have pointed out, we do have a well-established Discretionary Rate Relief policy & guidelines which has been formulated from members working groups etc , prior to formal member agreement. It clearly states the maximum relief available to various types of non-profit making and charitable organisations regarding business rates and is accessible online.”
The issue has been further clouded by questions over whether the refugee support group, a not-for-profit organisation which has no money and does not even have a bank account, should register as a charity – even though the council’s rules say that both types of organisation are eligible for 100% discretionary relief. A more detailed examination of the council’s rules then state that only village or community halls can get 100% relief.
Amanda Pennington, founder of the Wadebridge refugee support group, said the emails revealed the council’s business rates policies were in need of an overhaul. “The council is not exactly speaking with one voice,” she said, “and that’s part of the reason we are pursuing a complaint with the Ombudsman. “Rates relief for not-for-profit organisations like us is either discretionary or it isn’t. If it is, then who decides?”
The group operates from a small business unit on the edge of Wadebridge, donated free by its owner. The council said it has already applied a generous discount and has to be consistent in the way it treats similar organisations.
A lorry load of aid, collected by the Wadebridge group, is currently on its way to Syria to help the escalating refugee crisis.
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