FREEZE the BID? Wheels in MOTION
- an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, reporting on a significant development in the Yorkshire Coast DBID saga – a Motion to Full Council to set a moratorium on the collection and enforcement of the 1.5% levy, pending investigations.
For well over a year now, there have been more questions than answers surrounding the Yorkshire Coast Destination BID and, try as one will, it would appear to be impossible to extract clear-cut answers from the company’s public-facing Chief Executive Office, Ms Kerry CARRUTHERS, despite a series of courteous enquiries. (More on this presently).
Briefly, for those as yet unaware, the Yorkshire Coast Business Improvement District Ltd (YCBID) [Reg.No. 11820859] is a private enterprise limited company claiming to provide five million pounds’ worth (over five years) of enhancement to the area’s ‘tourism offer’, financed by a 1.5% levy on the business rates of ‘tourism related’ businesses whose business rates exceed a £12K per annum threshold. Supported by 2004 legislation, the YCBID has been authorised pursuant to the outcome of a ballot of qualifying businesses, undertaken by Electoral Services at Scarborough Borough Council, the billing authority responsible for collecting/enforcing payment. (More than twenty articles addressing every aspect of the YCBID story so far available, here).
However, because of an apparent laxity in the way the ballot was conducted by former Returning Officer and CEO of the Council, Mr Jim DILLON, there has been fierce opposition to the scheme. This opposition has been consolidated under the auspices of the Yorkshire Coast Levy Payers Association (YCLPA), based in Whitby, but with a burgeoning membership in Scarborough, Bridlington and points south.
Amongst the many allegations of electoral impropriety raised by the YCLPA, consider the following:
1) In the absence of a definitive map clearly defining the geographical boundaries of the YCBID area, it is impossible to determine whether or not ALL qualifying businesses received ballot papers; the ballot may have been incomplete. YCBID has offered statements to the effect that the DBID covers 80 miles of coastline bordering 160 sq. miles – without confirming that this amounts to a coastal strip of an average width of just 2 miles. Requests for a copy of the definitive map have been ignored by YCBID’s Kerry CARRUTHERS, formerly the Project Manager, who now styles herself Chief Executive Officer. Was there ever a definitive map? Or, as has been alleged, were businesses included primarily because pre-marketing exercises indicated that they were likely (or certain) to vote in favour of the YCBID? Many businesses received ballot information from YCBID addressed only to ‘The Occupier’. One can only imagine how many of them went straight in the bin. But how many ‘qualifying’ businesses would have exercised their right to vote had the papers been addressed by name, as all other electoral papers and business rates invoices are? Would they then have supported the YCBID? Would they now?
2) Conversely, it is equally impossible to determine whether or not ALL qualifying businesses within the YCBID area can truly be said to be ‘tourism related’. The inclusion of many of the levied businesses is difficult to reconcile within this blanket criterion; one startling example is a Scarborough funeral director. Quite obviously, the stated ‘tourism related’ criteria are so loosely defined as to be meaningless.
- Food & Drink
Nevertheless, it requires a macabre interpretation to include an undertaker, even one who is occasionally called upon to embalm a dead tourist. Requests for copies of detailed and definitive qualifying criteria have also been ignored by YCBID’s Kerry CARRUTHERS. Were there ever any definitive criteria? Or, as has been alleged, were businesses selected ad hoc, or included primarily because pre-marketing indicated that they were likely (or certain) to vote in favour of the YCBID?
3) Other Councils, in other DBID areas (and Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council, within the original YCBID area), sensibly waived voting rights for their own ‘hereditaments’ (rateable units of property) in the public ownership. Typically, Scarborough Borough Council exercised its own votes (including unoccupied hereditaments such as car parks) in favour of the YCBID – an action considered by many to be a serious conflict of interests, since the Council would benefit by a YES majority. Without these votes, the proposal would have been defeated and the YCBID would be a footnote to history. If the Council’s involvement in this purportedly ‘business-led’ scheme is purely as billing authority, why is SBC Commerce Director Mr Richard BRADLEY on the YCBID Board? Surely that risks another conflict of interests?
4) There appear to have been wide-ranging breaches of the GDPR in the manner in which business proprietors’ personal data has been shared between the Council and YCBID. To be clear, though the Council collects the levy on behalf of the YCBID, it has neither reason nor authorisation to identify to YCBID which individuals have already paid (or not paid) their levies. I have irrefutable evidence that this has taken place. And I have informed Ms CARRUTHERS of other shortcomings in the company’s procedures under GDPR, resulting in (belated) amendments to YCBID’s “internal policies” – or so Ms CARRUTHERS tells me. No thanks received. No surprise there.
I first raised GDPR issues with Kerry CARRUTHERS on 15th August 2019, simultaneously lodging a Subject Access Request (hoping to establish with whom Ms CARRUTHERS had been sharing my data). This was belatedly acknowledged on 21st August, but Ms CARRUTHERS neglected to mention that YCBID was not, at that time, a Registered Data Controller with the Information Commissioner’s Office. That registration finally took place on 11th September 2019, meaning that YCBID had processed personal data from hundreds of businesses for over a year unregulated:
The assumption can only be that, but for my Subject Access Request of 15th August, YCBID would be processing data without ICO regulation to this day.
Question: Why did Scarborough Borough Council share the private data of business rate payers with an unregulated body? What does that say about the propriety of the ballot process? What does that say about the due diligence of the Council?
5) The correspondence record shows that Ms CARRUTHERS has been particularly evasive – declining (or ignoring) requests to provide public interest information and documentation. Some of this correspondence was previously shared with some, but not all, of the company’s Directors. This can only lead to speculation that at least some of the Directors are not fully privy to the degree of scrutiny under which the company now finds itself.
In addition to the YCLPA campaign, a number of Councillors and former Councillors, from across the political spectrum, have publicly expressed grave concern regarding these and other misgivings. I have previously quoted, in an Open Letter to SBC Leader Councillor Steve SIDDONS [Lab.], the Leader’s own words of scepticism about the YCBID:
“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.”
Following feedback from businesses, former Leader Councillor Derek BASTIMAN [Con.] expressed, in Council, his view that Full Council should have the final word on the future of the YCBID. Several Councillors, past and present, have publicly expressed their opposition to the DBID – some in the Enquirer (including Councillors Michelle DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF [Ind.Ind.], Rob BARNETT [Lab.] and Norman MURPHY [Ind.]), others in the local media (including Councillor Alf ABBOTT [Con.] and former-Councillor Sandra TURNER [Con.].
Even Scarborough & Whitby MP, Robert GOODWILL [Con.] has confirmed, in writing:
“Certainly I was not an enthusiastic supporter of the BID in Whitby and the way that the ballot was carried out I believe had many flaws.”
However, following the May local elections and the inauguration of a new administration, Councillor SIDDONS’ nominated Portfolio Holder for Economy, Communities & Commercial – Councillor Liz COLLING [Lab.Co-Op.] – has insisted that the DBID will go ahead forthwith and defaulters will be pursued with the full vigour of the Council’s highly dubious Summons/Liability Order procedures.
Setting aside, for the present, the serious allegations regarding the regulatory propriety of the ballot, Councillors have also questioned:
A) the need (or otherwise) for a YCBID at all – given that the Council is already committed to throwing more money at the deeply discredited Welcome2Yorkshire (Lord SCRIVEN has been quoted as stating “It’s staggering that the poor taxpayers of North Yorkshire are bailing out a company which is clearly non-viable”), purportedly for the same purpose of enhancing the Borough’s ‘tourism offer’. “Isn’t the DBID simply a way of forcing businesses to fund a private sector enterprise that exists only to duplicate that task – whilst trousering 20% (£1M) for itself?”, asked one former Councillor. (The Council, it should be remembered holds no statutory remit for promoting/supporting tourism, but has long done so under the thin disguise of promoting ‘commerce’).
B) the fairness (or otherwise) of grouping together, within one long, narrow (albeit ill-defined) area, communities as diverse as Whitby and Withernsea, with the former already attracting far more tourists than it can adequately serve, and the latter crying out for more footfall.
C) the propriety (or otherwise) inherent in certain coercive remarks attributed to Councillor Liz COLLING (by Councillor Mike STONEHOUSE [Lab.] (Whitby Streonshalh) to the effect that Whitby businesses refusing to pay the levy will do so to the cost of Whitby more generally.
D) the value for money (or otherwise) of the announced projects: a ‘re-branding’ of the A171 and the A165 as ‘The Yorkshire Coastal Road Route’ (that should lure them in, in droves, eh?) and a subsidised bus service (with strings attached) between Sheffield and Bridlington. As my Welsh neighbour opined, with dripping irony, “There’s genius for you!”
On 1st October 2019, all 46 Councillors received the following notification from the Town Hall:
“Please note that Kerry Carruthers, Chief Executive, and Clive Rowe-Evans, Chair of the Yorkshire Coast DBID have been invited to provide an update on the DBID to all Members of the Council before full Council on Monday, 4 November. The briefing has been arranged for 12.30pm-1.30pm in the Council Chamber”.
We shall see whether or not Councillor SIDDONS remains “absolutely unimpressed” and continues to “ask awkward questions”.
Councillors who have taken the trouble to examine the matters reported above (and in previous articles) with appropriate rigour and due diligence may wish to take the opportunity to interrogate Mr ROWE-EVANS and Ms CARRUTHERS very closely indeed – if only because, approximately one hour later, Councillors will be called upon to debate and vote upon the following Motion – Proposer Councillor Alf ABBOTT [Con.] (Whitby West Cliff) and Seconder Councillor Bill CHATT [CIM], both of whom have attended YCLPA meetings and know full well how bitterly this YCBID ‘stealth tax’ is opposed:
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.
Readers may recall that, on 1st March 2019, a Motion tabled by Councillor Sam CROSS and Seconded by Councillor Michelle DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF, reading “Full Council resolves that in recognition of legitimate criticism of the ballot process underpinning the Yorkshire Coast DBID, to set aside all involvement with this and other DBIDs for a period of five years” was subverted by an Amendment from Councillor John NOCK – who paid the price by losing his seat at the May elections.
Readers may also recall that, on 18th February 2019, a lawfully enacted Requisition (signed off by a cross-party group comprising Cllr. Sam CROSS [Ind.] [Proposer], Cllr. Norman MURPHY [Ind.] [Seconder], Cllr. Tony RANDERSON [Lab.], Cllr. Rob BARNETT [Lab.], and Cllr. Jonathan DODDS [Ind.]) to the then-Mayor Councillor Joe PLANT [Con.], calling for an Extraordinary Meeting to consider freezing the YCBID. These five co-signatory Councillors issued a joint press release to the local news outlets:
The Requisition was promptly blocked, contrary to the Council’s Constitution, by the then-CEO Mr Jim DILLON. On that occasion, the present Leader Councillor SIDDONS – at that time, the Opposition Leader – led his Group out of the Chamber in protest. Three of the five co-signatories have since left the Council. However, Councillor SIDDONS’ coalition partner Councillor Sam CROSS [Ind.] and his present Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance, Councillor Tony RANDERSON [Lab.], having already publicly expressed grave misgivings about the YCBID (see above), later raised the matter in Council. They and their respective Groups (totalling 23 Councillors out of the 46) can surely have no morally or politically defensible option but to support the Motion un-amended. Councillor Bill CHATT’s 3-strong Cluster of Independent Members also support the Motion.
So, with all the ‘major players’ on the Council either strongly opposing or holding grievous doubts about the YCBID, how – one may ask – can the Motion fail to carry?
Yet I fully expect the Council’s Monitoring Officer, Mrs Lisa DIXON, to produce one of her curiously idiosyncratic interpretations of the Constitution to disqualify the Motion (perhaps on telephonic advice from Bevan Brittan LLP?).
The will of the people, and their elected representatives, is neither here nor there when the tail is wagging the dog.
Directors Mike GREENE (CEO), Nick EDWARDS (Finance), Lisa DIXON (Legal) and Richard BRADLEY (Commerce)
Before submitting this article for publication, I emailed YCBID CEO Ms Kerry CARRUTHERS offering her the opportunity to comment – or at least to respond with ‘No comment’ – alas, to no avail. Requests for current photos of Ms CARRUTHERS and YCBID Chair Mr Clive ROWE-EVANS have also been ignored. It would, of course, be quite wrong to conclude that the YCBID leadership has reason to withdraw from public view, to ‘duck below the gunwhales’, so to speak. Equally, the recent resignations from the YCBID Board of Directors – of Mr John SENIOR and Mr Andrew CLAY) – should not necessarily be likened to hasty departures from a sinking ship, even if more go the same way in the coming weeks.
Tom RICHMOND’s Yorkshire Post article on Welcome2Yorkshire; a salutary caution against the dangers of mixing local government with private enterprise. The transparency he promulgates could equally be applied to the YCBID.