Central Bedfordshire Council sign

A local authority’s “failure” to widen the number of small businesses entitled to government grant support to cover lockdown costs has been labelled “a scandal” and “shocking“.

Central Bedfordshire Council wants to adopt the fairest method of sharing the £8.33m it has received to help firms or sole traders who have received no funding to date.

An additional restrictions grant allocation of £2.56m for the area was announced in January, after top up funding of £5.77m in November.

More than 450 applications have been received by CBC and 119 grants have been awarded, a corporate resources overview and scrutiny committee meeting heard.

You can see the process is slow even allowing for the simple scheme we had, with limited requirements.” said Conservative Arlesey councillor David Shelvey.

We updated the criteria and size of the grants very quickly once we had a better idea of numbers.

We’ve awarded £1.56m which may reach £2.5m, based on the current rate of approval and the grants in the system.

It’s good news. We’ve paid out to quite a number of businesses which have had no help at all, those targeted by the government for this grant.

We need to allow revenue and benefits time to process the applications before we do a further review,” he added.

The intention is to use the money as quickly as we can and not keep it until next March.”

Conservative Ampthill councillor Paul Duckett said: “The scheme is proving fluid enough as evidenced by the rapid changes which were made in extending its reach.

Extensive lobbying was going on and Westminster has announced there’ll be further funding, although we’ve heard nothing yet.

If the government had assessed the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS) based on turnover we wouldn’t be having any issues, but because it was based on profit it’s got in the way.

It’s not been very satisfactory for recipients of SEISS. Certainly we’ve had alot of sectors contacting us, so it’s really important we stay on top of this.”

Independent Flitwick councillor Gareth Mackey wondered why only around a quarter of all applications have been approved.

Councillor Shelvey, who’s the executive member for corporate resources,  replied: “Revenue and benefits are struggling to deal with it, even though our scheme doesn’t involve much paperwork.

There are more than 300 they’ve asked for extra information about.

It’s likely 50 per cent of those 450 will be rejected, most because they’ve had SEISS or furlough payments.

We’ve made no decisions about how we widen the scheme or who we offer it to next.

Councillor Mackey asked: “If we can now potentially widen the criteria, are we accepting we were wrong not to eliminate SEISS in the first place?

Increasing the size of the grants to a small number of people, while welcome, it’s just papering over the cracks of the failures of this council and artificially inflates the amount of money we’re giving out.

We’ve absolutely not supported the people who desperately needed help. I think it’s a scandal.

It shows we could extend this out and it’s shocking we haven’t done so.”

Councillor Duckett, who chairs the committee, replied: “The important thing here is fairness and being equitable.

We did agree in our recommendation (previously) to allow flexibility and that’s being used.

We don’t want to be accused of handing out money to fraudulent claims because we haven’t checked them properly.”