A Burnham-On-Sea resident has called on the Town Council to be more cautious about awarding business support grants to commercial organisations.
Helen Groves, right, a former town and district councillor, spoke out during Monday evening’s Policy and Finance Committee meeting.
She started by saying: “I would like to make absolutely and unambiguously clear that I am not referring to long-standing organisations such as the Chambers of Trade in either town which are properly constituted and have always worked well both with the Town Council and the wider community – to the benefit of all, nor should this be construed as criticism of any form of the business people, who after all should and must act in the very best interests of their respective businesses.”
“It is the right of any resident to freely express their views and it should be clear that it is this right which is being exercised – a statement of opinion and genuine disquiet with the current situation.”
“Having clarified, I do wish to raise a number of concerns with this committee in regards to grant applications which have a primary or sole benefit to businesses within the towns, though with the possible exception of Christmas lights and floral displays I am not aware of any particular business support grants being made within Highbridge.”
“I, like a very large number of residents within both towns, feel a great deal of unease at the significant increase of these types of grants over the last few years and question whether it is appropriate for the Town Council, which receives no form of receipts from businesses within the area, to be financing this form of grant at all?”
She added: “The argument used to support this form of grant funding, which falls outside of the specific margins of the Tesco funding, is so far as I am aware that the event or other provision will either secure employment or increase employment. A laudable aim. But I would ask this council to provide a single shred of evidence that so much as one job has been secured or created as a result of the high level of investment it has made.”
“The secondary argument is amenity, this is a reasonable argument which can justifiably be used to award grants for Christmas lights, provision of street furniture, funding of some events if they are primarily geared towards community benefit, such as the town’s annual fireworks event or the Foodfest which are both well supported. But in many cases these events have not been well supported, are unsustainable without continued large scale support from this council and others and represent extremely poor value to the public who are actually financing the endeavour.”
“There is a reasonable question to be asked regarding what is a realistic expectation from the business community. Most councils require businesses to buy the hanging baskets from them for example. In our town and in some part due to confusion over what the Tesco funding is paying for and what the Town Council’s duties actually are, there seems to be an increasing perception that the Town Council is obligated to provide a support that it simply cannot without compromising other budgets.”
Helen added: “Further I am very concerned that there appears to be an unequal approach to due diligence on the part of this council. Some grant applicants seem to have very few checks imposed upon them (beyond the submission of accounts etc. which are the minimal requirements) whilst others are dragged over the coals.”
“Some seem to be expected to account for every penny, whilst others appear to mismanage funding, constitutional commitments etc. Yet are still able to return asking for grant increases or new grants and worse still are awarded them on what appears to be the line of reasoning, that as we have already awarded a grant, more will have to be given to ensure the initial funding is not lost. It is a good money after bad argument and implies insufficient checks have been made to begin with.”
“It is my view that this council suffers from mission creep. A one-off grant often becomes a yearly expectation and this frankly does not inspire faith in the observer.”
“It is my view and that of many others that the Town Council needs to set clear criteria for funding of businesses if it is to do it at all – and whilst business is important to residents in terms of employment and facility, it is necessary that if you financially support businesses you are clear about why you are doing so and exactly what the benefit is to residents – how is success measured, for example, and is the same criteria being applied to everyone.”
“Any such policy must be fair and apply to both towns. There should also be a yearly cap, because ultimately all the funding the Town Council has at its disposal is drawn directly from the pockets of householders, not businesses. You have a relatively small grants budget and it is vital that the importance of community based support is not overlooked.”
“To fail to address the reasonable concerns of the residents of both Towns will be read as contempt by the same. It is already creating unfair resentment towards the business community and generates an undeliverable expectation from all.”
“Setting a clear and unambiguous policy is the only way that this council can demonstrate it is acting in a fair, transparent and unbiased manner and protect itself from accusations of nepotism, which regardless of the opinion of elected members is precisely how many view the actions of their councillors.”