Thursday 14th November 2019,
North Yorks Enquirer

DBID: A Red Herring in MOTION

DBID: A Red Herring in MOTION

  • an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, keeping readers up-to-speed on developments in the Yorkshire Coast DBID saga.

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Unsurprisingly, news that Councillors Alf ABBOTT [Con.] and Bill CHATT [CIM] have tabled a Motion seeking an independent investigation into the way Yorkshire Coast BID (YCBID) polled businesses – seeking its mandate for the introduction of a 1.5% levy or surcharge on businesses with non-domestic business rates in excess of a £12K per annum threshold) – has been greeted with considerable optimism by the Yorkshire Coast Levy Payers Association (YCLPA).

The YCLPA, having had one Appeal to the Secretary of State (SoS) disqualified on the technical grounds of its falling short (by 1%) of the necessary percentage of signatories, has launched a fresh Appeal to the SoS. Not only has the 5% threshold now been comfortably exceeded but the new Appeal apparently includes further evidence of inadequacies and/or improprieties. The initial evidence, of course, has also yet to be considered by the SoS.

Further, the YCLPA has conducted a ‘duplicate’ of the original consultation sample comprising nine searching questions – with vastly different results to the original DBID consultation that demonstrate quite unequivocally an overwhelming opposition to the DBID, with or without the spurious votes of the local authorities.

But despite the mounting case for prudence, it would, in my view, be hasty to assume that the ABBOTT/CHATT Motion is home and hosed.

Before explaining, let me remind readers of the history of the Motion thus far.

Version 1 (Councillor ABBOTT’s original form of words):

Motion

Pending an independent and impartial investigation of the legitimacy of the ballot process, or the outcome of a fresh ballot, this Council set a moratorium on collection and enforcement of the levy.

Version 2 (Legal Director Lisa DIXON’s drastically diluted form of words):

Motion

I therefore propose that in the interests of prudence and good practice, this Council instigates an independent and impartial investigation of the legitimacy of the Yorkshire Coast DBID ballot process.

Version 3 (Councillor Liz COLLING [Lab.] has now floated an Amendment which further dilutes the Motion – see below):

Motion

I therefore propose that in the interests of prudence and good practice, this Council instigates an independent and impartial investigation of the role of Scarborough Borough Council in carrying out the DBID ballot.

[typos corrected, my emphasis in bold]

Do you see what Liz has done there?

She has attempted to direct the mooted “independent and impartial investigation” of the Motion away from YCBID Ltd, twisting it back on the Borough Council – never the intent of the Motion, which cast no aspersions whatsoever on the Council’s role. Councillor COLLING wants “an independent and impartial investigation” which can serve no useful purpose.

The stated intent of the original Motion was clearly set out in Councillor ABBOTT’s preamble, as published:

Motion in respect of the Yorkshire Coast DBID

Following meetings with business proprietors throughout the Borough, including members of the Yorkshire Coast Levy Payers Association (YCLPA), in our opinion it is readily apparent that there exists sufficient evidence casting doubt on the integrity of the ballot process underpinning the establishment of the Yorkshire Coast DBID as to render the Council’s involvement unsafe in the present circumstances.

YCLPA is in the process of conducting a formal consultation of qualifying businesses. In our opinion, early results demonstrate that a lack of clarity regarding both the definitive geographical boundary of the scheme and the criteria applied to establish which businesses are genuinely tourism-related have resulted in certain qualifying businesses having been omitted from the original ballot, while certain non-qualifiers have been wrongly included. This data falls within the remit of a revised appeal to the Secretary of State.

Let us carefully examine this form of words, beginning with the title of the Agenda Item – Motion in respect of the Yorkshire Coast DBID – which is explicit in identifying Yorkshire Coast BID as the subject of the Motion – not Scarborough Borough Council. The COLLING Amendment seeks to negate this particular.

The first paragraph makes clear that the concerns raised by the YCLPA are specifically directed towards protecting the Council, both financially and reputationally, from the consequences of any possible improprieties attributable not to the Council, but to the DBID.

The second paragraph addresses its concerns regarding the criteria applied by the DBID to the list of businesses above the £12K qualification threshold in the determination of which businesses to include in the ballot – the non-existent boundary map and the too-sloppy-for-words “tourism-related” criteria. Again, this does not reflect on the Council’s more limited role of merely counting the votes and declaring the result, the integrity of which has never been in question.

Nothing in the Motion, or in the Preamble, suggests that the concerns raised by YCLPA point a finger at any aspect of the  Council’s role in the ballot. It is explicitly the concerns raised by YCLPA about YCBID’s conduct that have informed the original Motion.

To twist the Motion around in the direction of the wrong protagonist, as does the COLLING Amendment, is effectively to negate the Motion. As a matter of law, no Amendment may negate the intent of the substantive Motion which it seeks to modify. But do not expect Lisa DIXON to nip that stroke of nonsense in the bud.

In short, Labour Councillor COLLING has thrown a red herring into the mix. It is also something of a googly, insofar as Councillor COLLING wants, for first choice, Councillor SIDDON’s coalition partner Councillor Sam CROSS [Ind.] to second the Amendment, rather the Leader himself – this to create the impression that the Independent Group be seen to be supporting the administration on this (and, by inference) every other issue – the first occasion upon which Labour is looking to the Independents for support on a contentious decision.

Smoke and mirrors.

The reality is that Independent Group Secretary, former Councillor Norman MURPHY, has written a Letter to the Editor published in the Enquirer expressing his own grave concerns about YCBID. His letter has been warmly received – and not only by fellow members of the Independent Group (who have been busily ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ it on Facebook) and the YCLPA.

This is an appropriate moment to remind readers of the Leader Councillor Steve SIDDON’s position, albeit when he was Leader of the Opposition, before the May 2019 local elections:

“I too have many reservations regarding the DBID process and am not convinced of its benefits for the average business in the Borough. I will certainly look again at the points you raise and intend to ask more questions. I was absolutely unimpressed by the presentation given to councillors by the DBID Chair and Chief Officer. However, I seemed to be the only one asking awkward questions and they didn’t like it.”

The CHATT/ABBOTT Motion seeks to obtain answers to the Leader’s “awkward questions”, but Councillor COLLING, his fellow Tony BLAIR fan, has tabled an Amendment that focuses all scrutiny towards the Council (which is not, as far as I am aware, the subject of any suspicion of impropriety in this particular matter), leaving the real subject of the “awkward questions” – YCBID – safely out of the spotlight. Are BIDs a protected species?

I have known Councillor CROSS on a close personal basis for a number of years. In my view, one would have to be out of bed very early indeed to put anything past Sam, who, like Councillor ABBOTT and Councillor CHATT, has attended YCPLA meetings, talked to the business-proprietors and knows very well the grounds upon which the anti-BID lobby are doggedly insisting upon an independent and impartial investigation.

So why would Councillor COLLING (whose impartiality has already been sullied by her reported statement to the effect that Whitby’s hardcore anti-BID businesses were putting YCBID investment in the whole of Whitby in jeopardy) wish otherwise – ignoring the concerns of the present and past Leaders, ignoring our MP, ignoring the widely-publicised opposition of the businesses and even going so far as to threaten them with the bailiffs?

One reason could be that the Council welcomes with open arms the opportunity to devolve as many tourism-related cost-burdens to YCBID. That way, the tourism-related businesses would receive much the same sops (and they do not get much), but will have paid twice for the privilege – once through their normal business rates, and then again with their 1.5% levy payments. The money thus saved by the Council would claw back some of the Leader’s unbudgeted populist disbursements like re-opening the public toilets. It might even cover the recent commitment made by the Leader to throw more money (good after bad?) at Welcome 2 Yorkshire and the TdY (though I see no mention of that on the Agenda – is it sub judice?).

It has not taken long for Labour’s principle-led stance while in Opposition to succumb, in Office, to Mr Nick EDWARDS’ budgetary imperative. As ever, it is all about the money. It is expediency that has driven the Leader into a series of U-turns and go-slows. When money is tight, principles tend to be the first victims to fall by the wayside.

The Leader’s bold talk of a new, member-empowering Committee system by September is no longer even a whisper. I can disclose that virtually nothing has been done about it; and we can expect nothing further until at least the AGM, in May 2020. In fact, the Council payroll has halved in the last ten years; there are simply not enough qualified Officers to service a phalanx of new ‘advisory’ Committees. And no budget to recruit or re-train.

On coming to Office, the Leader spoke of revisiting the Council’s arrangements with Benchmark (Roland DUCE) and Flamingo Land (Gordon GIBB). Again, no progress. The impediment is the cost implication.

Councillor SIDDONS’ grand vision is looking more like a wish list.

So Councillor COLLING wishes to turn this Motion towards a quite pointless investigation of the Council’s irreproachable role in the ballot rather than risk legal action from YCBID by pointing the spotlight in the right direction – and the businesses are free to like it or lump it.

Which brings us back to the Motion.

Will a majority of the Council’s 46 elected members really be willing to run the risk of propelling the Council down the path which leads to increased risk of being required to repay levy-payers and attempt recovery of monies paid over to YCBID and its sub-contractors? Or will they vote in favour of due diligence? Is it not better for everyone – Council, YCBID, businesses and the wider public – to take a step back and ascertain that the foundations of this relationship between local government and private enterprise are suitably robust and stable? ‘Live’, as you read these words, another relationship between local authority and private enterprise (another ‘tourism enhancer’) hangs over the abyss of bankruptcy and irretrievable losses. From the public purse.

Remember, the ABBOTT/CHATT Motion does not call upon the Council to stand derelict in its duty to collect the levy. Rather, it calls upon the Council only to exercise the prudence and caution to ‘hit the pause button’ (just as former Leader Councillor Derek BASTIMAN [Con.] and his Cabinet did on 12th February 2019) until such time as the ballot (and other aspects of the YCBID process) can be shown to have been conducted flawlessly or, if such is not the case, to be conducted anew in a flawless manner – at least until either the Secretary of State or an “independent and impartial investigation” has considered the evidence. Surely, this is simply sound sense and good practice. In the light of the many disturbing reports, it could be said that the Council would fall derelict in its duty were it not to commission a thorough-going investigation.

Besides, the BID Levy Operating Agreement of 31st July 2019 offer no impediment to a prudent pause in levy collection, since it compels the Council to collect payment of the levy only on an annual basis [Article 5, paragraph 6: “The Council shall collect the BID Levy in a manner which is consistent with its usual procedures for the collection of non-domestic rates (save that the BID Levy collection shall be on an annual rather than monthly basis)”]. Why rush? (Article 5, paragraph 3 also gives rise to concerns, insofar as it commits the Council to the sharing with YCBID Ltd personal financial information protected under GDPR – as evidenced here. No doubt Mrs DIXON will be notifying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) of the breach).

Hopefully, Councillors will set aside party loyalties and act (and vote) in accordance with the best interests of the Council and the qualifying businesses.

Related reading:

http://nyenquirer.uk/freeze-the-bid-wheels-in-motion/ (22nd October 2019)

http://nyenquirer.uk/dbid-crisis-the-way-out/ (24th October 2019)

http://nyenquirer.uk/dbid-truth-or-dare/ (27th October 2019)

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