Independent Councillors question business support grant conditions

Two grants schemes are open to Central Bedfordshire businesses after criteria to distribute the funding was agreed by the local authority’s executive.

But the conditions imposed on applicants by Central Bedfordshire Council have been heavily criticised by Independent councillors.

One of CBC’s main aims has been to target sole traders and companies which have been unable to access previous Covid-19 related support grants.

Only five out of nine executive members agreed the package of measures surrounding the latest government grants.

The remaining committee members announced personal interests preventing them from being involved in the decision-making process.

Local businesses told the council’s corporate resources overview and scrutiny committee, five days earlier, that the qualification criteria is too complex.

Independent Potton councillor Adam Zerny asked whether it should be made public if any of these councillors had benefited personally from grants.

CBC’s monitoring officer Stephen Rix replied: “Members have revealed they have a disclosable pecuniary interest in this item and that’s all they have to declare.”

Among the concerns of some councillors regarding the finance distribution are:

  • receipt of income support grants should be removed from preventing businesses receiving further funding;
  • businesses set up after March 2020 should qualify;
  • reduction in income compared to 2019 avoided as a claiming factor because many firms were not set-up then.

The additional restrictions grant (ARG) is designed to support businesses struggling because of the pandemic.

The local restrictions support grant for those with rateable business premises can be accessed if the tier system returns.

Conservative Arlesey councillor David Shelvey said: “It’s been extremely difficult to put this policy together.

“We’re aware of the effect Covid has had on businesses. Many have gained help through the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS).

“We’ve distributed about £1m and we plan to accelerate this with some greater flexibility.

“We also need a straightforward system administratively, so funds can be paid out swiftly without extra paperwork.

“There are about 21,000 potential self-employed businesses, with 14,000 eligible for SEISS payments.”

Councillor Zerny told the committee: “It takes guts to run your own company and I feel we’re making business owners beg for handouts here.

“It has no impact on Central Beds funds,” he explained. “If we don’t pay it out, we lose it.

“I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories in recent weeks, successful businesses on the edge of going under, business owners having to throw away stock worth thousands of pounds.

“We can do something about this with more than £7m government funding, and that means changing the rules.

“We must do better and help these businesses by spending the money now.”

Independent Flitwick councillor Gareth Mackey said: “SEISS was the most divisive part of this. We really should be thinking again about this.

“The key aspect of SEISS is it’s an income support rather than a business support scheme.”

Independent Biggleswade South councillor Hayley Whitaker agreed SEISS should no longer be a criteria, saying that many local businesses are selling off their assets to stay afloat.

“We’re reliant on these small local businesses to be the heart of our communities,” she warned.

Conservative Amphill councillor Paul Duckett said: “We need to continue lobbying because we need more funding, as £7m sounds a lot, but it isn’t. The level of need is painfully apparent.”

SOURCE: Central Bedfordshire Council extraordinary executive committee meeting via Microsoft Teams.