Speaking on BBC Radio Shropshire this morning Shropshire Council’s leader partially backtracked on threats to remove discretionary business rate relief from charities contained in a recent letter. But he still wants to charge some charities. He said current media and councillor coverage of this is “scaremongering”. And, in one of the doublethink moments that some politicians excel in, he said that Shropshire Council had a “no blame” culture but “words would be had” with the officer who had sent the offending letter. So that’s no blame for anyone then.
The background to this story is a letter sent to all charities and other bodies, such as very rural post offices, warning that some or all the discretionary business rate relief awarded by Shropshire Council could be removed from April 2019. Shropshire Council was given £1,308,000 by the government for the 2017/18 financial year to cover the cost of discretionary rate relief. As far as I know, it did not contribute any of its own money. The government grant has been cut to £630,000 for this financial year. If the council spent all the grant last year – and I am checking on that – it is probably digging into its own pockets. The grant for 2019/20 is just £262,000 and the year after a mere £37,000.
Peter Nutting didn’t tell BBC Radio Shropshire listeners that. He accepted that the letter could have been misconstrued and assured listeners that it will only be the national charity shop chains that are hit because “some of the sell new stuff”. But it did sound as though he was making it up as he went along.
“Really, we are aiming at retail units where some of the charities sell new stuff and compete with shops up the road and we will be reviewing that. But we reckon that for 99% of the people receiving the discretionary relief now, there will be no change whatsoever… I don’t think it’s going to be local, it’s more the national charity shops… We do want to ensure that everyone on the high street is playing to the same rules… In terms of village halls, Ludlow Assembly Rooms, I can’t imagine there being any problem there whatsoever. They are not likely to be penalised.”
Clare Ashford asked “is this not a bit of scaremongering?”
“It is. It’s unfortunate that the letter that was sent out wasn’t perhaps the wisest worded letter that has ever happened. I didn’t see it. I have lots of portfolio holders… We will be having a conversation with certain members of staff around this letter and it may that some education is required.”
It’s not the general’s fault in Councillor Nutting’s mind. The blame lies with his troops, particularly Councillor David Minnery who holds the finance portfolio and the officer who is set to be educated. (How Orwellian is that? At least he didn’t talk of “re-education”.)
Rather unbelievably Peter Nutting said:
“We have a no blame culture at Shropshire Council and I truly mean that.”
He said “there are no targets financially on this” review – but how does that square with the reducing government grant? Is he going to brave face and take the money out of other budgets? I doubt it.
The review is happening because the council is reviewing its discretionary business rate relief policy. It is required to do so every three years. Given that it has known about need for a review for the last three years, why didn’t it do the review first and then send out any warning letters to charities and organisations getting discretionary business rate relief? Had no one in the council thought about the impact the letters would have on the volunteers that work for these organisations?
Charities and volunteer groups are at the heart of our community. They are needed more than ever because central government and Shropshire Council are cutting back on the support they are giving communities. They deserve better treatment than they are receiving from Shropshire Council at present.
Peter Nutting has made promises this morning. He will now need to deliver on them without damaging other spending commitments.