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Calls For Further Investigations Into Yorkshire Coast D-BID

Calls For Further Investigations Into Yorkshire Coast D-BID

Published by Local Democracy Reporter Carl Gavaghan at 6:56am 26th June 2020.

Scarborough councillors have called for more investigations into the “irregularities” centring around the ballot that lead to the creation of the controversial Yorkshire Coast Destination Business Improvement District (DBID) in 2018.

The authority’s Audit Committee yesterday examined the results of the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) review into the council’s role in the ballot, the validity of which has been called into question by a number of businesses.

The report by AEA chief executive Peter Stanyon found flaws with the 2018 ballot process but concluded that “on the evidence presented to me I am satisfied that the ballot process was generally undertaken in accordance with the process prescribed by the [BID] regulations”.

He went on to say that the ballot was “not administered as well as it might have been” and that he had “significant concerns” over parts of the process.

The Audit Committee decided yesterday that further investigations were needed and have asked that the authority’s Overview and Scrutiny Board be tasked to look into the DBID and where the council goes from here, with options to include how to terminate the council’s agreement with the DBID company.

Committee chairman Cllr Andrew Backhouse (Ind) said Mr Stanyon’s report had left “more questions unanswered”.

The DBID is made up of more than 1,300 businesses in the tourism industry from Staithes in the north to Spurn Point in the south with a rateable value of more than £12,000, who have to pay a mandatory levy into the DBID, calculated at 1.5% of their rateable value.

The 2018 ballot of businesses, which was run by Scarborough Council, was passed by a margin of 217 in favour with 175 against, on a turnout of just above 29%.

However, it later came to light that 68 of the yes votes came from the councils involved in the process, including Scarborough Council.

Committee member Cllr David Chance (Con) said he did not believe that the council had cast its votes “constitutionally” and that it showed the DBID was not “business-led” as without the council votes it would have meant the final total was 149 for to 175 against.

He said that as a result of this, North Yorkshire County Council, on which Cllr Chance also sits, had since decided it will not vote in similar ballots in the future.

Mr Stanyon responded that it was not against the Business Improvement District (BID) regulations for councils to vote but he was aware that other authorities had chosen not to take part in ballots.

During a presentation of his report to the committee, Mr Stanyon laid the blame for many of the ballot’s issues at the door of the BID regulations.

He said the “greyness in the regulations” did not help the borough council’s Electoral Services team, which ran the ballot.

Mr Stanyon, whose report was written before the Covid pandemic, added:

“The BID regulations are not the clearest. They are written by a Government department not responsible for elections.”

When asked by a member of the public if he believed the ballot had been democratic, Mr Stanyon said he was “genuinely satisfied” the ballot was run in line with the regulations but it was “open for discussion” whether that could be called democratic.

Cllr Chance to the committee that he was still troubled by the ballot.

He said:

“I have grave concerns still about the ballot itself and the irregularities.

They weren’t minor irregularities they were really meaningful irregularities and I don’t blame our Electoral Services department at all.

Those irregularities came out of confusion, came out of bad advice from several parties including Government.”

The council is to send Mr Stanyon’s report to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick MP along with the concerns about the BID regulations.

During the Audit Committee meeting, the councillors heard that the council is still legally obligated to collect the levies from businesses as the Government did not pass legislation during the pandemic that would allow payments to cease.

The bills for the DBID levy are set to go out to businesses in the area in August.

Business-owner Hero Sumner, a Whitby Town councillor and a member of the Yorkshire Coast Levy Payers Association which opposes the DBID, told the committee that many businesses in the area have closed “for good” due to the pandemic.

She added that many would not be able to afford the levy.

She said:

“Businesses will have lost fortunes and it will take them years to recover."

Cllr Backhouse said it had become clear that the council needed to “pause and reflect” on the issue. He also said it would be possible to have discussions with the DBID company to see if the levy could be reduced to the “absolute minimum” which is potentially just £8.

The matter is also to be referred to the Overview and Scrutiny Board. Cabinet member and deputy leader Cllr Liz Colling said the board could look at what further avenues were open to the council.

She added:

“I share some of the frustrations of some of our businesses around the DBID’s response to Covid.

I do think there is some detail that Overview and Scrutiny could go into, for example, what does the council get for its money, what are the options open to us.

There has been talk of Regulation 18 and there are other regulations in the BID regs about the variation of the levy as others have mentioned.”

Regulation 18 of the BID regulations gives the power councils to terminate the DBID if certain legal requirements can be met.

The Audit Committee voted to recommend that the council’s Cabinet asks the Overview and Scrutiny Board to continue the investigation into the council’s role in the DBID.

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