Monday, 25 May 2020

Last hope for businesses unable to claim rates relief

Last hope for businesses unable to claim rates relief

HENLEY businesses which have struggled to claim compensation for the coronavirus lockdown are pinning their final hopes on a new scheme being rolled out by the Government.

The directors of firms based at the Henley Building in Newtown Road, a three-storey serviced office complex owned by Regus, have been told they can’t claim a small business relief grant because their units aren’t signed up for rate payments.

When they applied for funding last month, they were rejected as the building hadn’t been assessed due to an administrative error by South Oxfordshire District Council, which collects business rates on the Government’s behalf.

The authority apologised and arranged for the Valuation Office Agency to inspect the premises, which were created by merging three existing premises and opened in December 2018.

But this week, the agency confirmed it would only value the complex as a whole and not the 91 offices within it, so individual tenants still don’t qualify for the grant. Instead, they must apply for a share of a nationwide discretionary fund of up to £617 million which will allow local authorities to issue grants of up to £25,000 to companies without a rateable value.

This was announced last week by Business Secretary and Reading West MP Alok Sharma following representations by Henley MP John Howell, who warned that businesses were falling through cracks in the original system.

The district council is drafting an application process and encouraging companies to register but says it can’t issue payments without further guidance on who qualifies. Mr Howell says this has already been explained and it is for the authority to take the next steps.

Meanwhile, the tenants, which pay Regus a single monthly bill incorporating rent, rates, utility and service costs, fear they could go under without financial support.

Adam Cotton, from Peppard, whose currency exchange firm SAT FX is among those affected, says he can’t get help from any of the Government’s schemes.

He doesn’t qualify for self-employment income support while Metro, with which he banks, has not yet been authorised to issue Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s interest-free “bounce back” loans. In an email to Mr Cotton, the district council agreed the Valuation Office Agency’s decision was “devastating news” but insisted it had to follow the rules.

An officer said: “The rules for the new discretionary scheme are still awaited and... until we know how it will operate, including the funds available to the council, we cannot provide any further information.”

Mr Cotton replied: “What sounded like tremendous support from the Government has failed to reach those that need it. It is ironic that those who exist to support small businesses are overseeing their demise.

“The sacrifices I have made and the suffering, stress and anxiety I am enduring due to the Government’s actions may leave me without a business and unable to support a family of five. My business was going from strength to strength in the first quarter of 2020 and had just opened its first overseas office in Spain. I am desperate for some help now.”

Mr Cotton told the Henley Standard: “The discretionary fund is an encouraging start and I’m glad we’ve been listened to but it remains to be seen whether we will be eligible or whether there will be enough money to go around. I’m hopeful but not letting my expectations get too high. There are plenty of soundbites about helping small businesses but it’s different on the ground as I don’t know many people who have actually received their money.”

Mr Howell said: “The initial relief schemes were put together in the face of an unprecedented crisis and it’s impossible to get them absolutely right from the outset. What matters is that the Government is listening, particularly to business interest groups and MPs like myself who’ve suggested how they might be improved. Local authorities have been issued guidance but must adapt according to circumstances.”

He said the Government was working to include more banks under the “bounce back” loan scheme.

The new grants are open to firms with under 50 staff which can prove “significant” losses under the lockdown. Councils have been asked to prioritise businesses in shared spaces. For more information on the discretionary fund, visit www.svbs.co.uk

Regus says it will pay all retrospective rate bills.

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