6th January 2017
By Graham Smith
The local government Ombudsman has told Cornwall Council to think again about its decision to charge business rates on a Wadebridge industrial unit used by a local group set up to help refugees.
The council is demanding £1,600 from the Wadebridge Cornish Refugee Aid group, and is threatening legal action. But the volunteers, who collect and distribute clothes and equipment for shipment to refugee camps overseas, have no money and do not even have a bank account.
James Peters is investigating for the Ombudsman a complaint that the council has not properly considered its own rules. The council says on its website that it has discretion to grant 100% relief of business rates to both charitable and not-for-profit organisatons – but a more detailed investigation of the council’s approach reveals an underlying structure of rules and definitions which means that, in practice, only village or community halls can qualify for the full discount.
Mr Peters says that this means the council has “fettered its discretion” and that officials should consider further whether the group can qualify for 100% relief.
In a letter to the council’s chief executive, Kate Kennally, Mr Peters says: “While the Council does have the discretion to set limits, consideration must also be given to whether individual applications could be considered for greater relief in exceptional circumstances. If the Council refuses to consider exceptional cases, it has fettered its discretion.”
Mr Peters goes on to tell the council: “Please give consideration to whether there are any exceptional reasons” as to why the refugee group should get 100% business rates relief. One interpretation of this could be that regardless of the merits, or relative worthiness, of any charity or not-for-profit organisation, that organisation’s ability to pay should also be considered.
Mr Peters has given the council until 11th January to reply. The council has put its threat of legal proceedings “on hold” while it considers how to respond to the Ombudsman.
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