Council urged to give Leeds businesses nine-month rent 'time-out' to survive Covid-19 pandemic impact

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Leeds City Council’s ruling Labour group has been told to “admit it has made a mistake” around grants to help local businesses through the Covid-19 pandemic.

The authority’s Conservatives group presented a motion to this week’s full Leeds City Council meeting, calling on the authority to reintroduce free parking and give small businesses nine-month rent “time-outs” on their properties.

They also claimed current attempts by the council to distribute government cash to help businesses had not been spent in time due to complex bureaucracy, leaving hundreds of the city’s businesses out of pocket.

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Labour councillors hit back at the claims, adding they had already given financial help to hundreds of businesses, and that the Conservatives’ plans were unrealistically expensive.

City centre shops could be missing out, Leeds City Council's tories claim.City centre shops could be missing out, Leeds City Council's tories claim.
City centre shops could be missing out, Leeds City Council's tories claim.

But Coun Matthew Robinson, presenting the motion to council, argued such a scheme would cost the taxpayer “nothing”, and would in fact help the hospitality and leisure industry.

He added: “We are responsible for our own future in Leeds – we can help ourselves, rather than ask somebody else for a handout.”

His motion stated £7.8m was provided by Government to Leeds for the COVID-19 Discretionary Grant Fund for businesses, but £4m of this was unspent by the end of August, meaning some would have to be paid back to the government’s coffers.

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Coun Jonathan Prior (Lab) said: “There is a much wider area where the council has supported businesses that has been overlooked by this white paper.

“As of this morning, we have assisted 543 businesses (with the discretionary grant fund). Coun Robinson hasn’t given suggestions on how we might afford (the schemes).

“The government has literally taken hundreds of millions of pounds away from Leeds. Your suggestions are great, but when the government is still cutting money and not paying for what Covid will cost the city, it is not clear how Coun Robinson proposes we pay for these things.

Coun Stewart Golton (Lib Dem) added: “I was hoping Coun Robinson would show how we could do a local version of that and where the money would come from to help it to happen.

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“I really do want to support a motion which says ‘we can do things in Leeds, and we shouldn’t rely on government’, but on the other hand, we have much less money in Leeds at the moment, so let’s see the money.”

Conservative councillor Billy Flynn said: “Reintroducing car parking charges in the run up to Christmas is short sighted and sends out entirely the wrong message.

“It’s all about attracting people into the city centre, and that is all about getting people to go back to work as long as it is safe to do so.”

He went on to claim “hundreds if not thousands” of the city’s businesses could have been helped with money given by the government to Leeds City Council to help businesses, but that complicated council-imposed criteria had prevented this from happening.

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Conservative group leader Coun Andrew Carter said: “Can this Labour administration own up to the fact that it too can make mistakes? It has made a massive mistake here, which will result in money being handed back to the government, which is not necessary.

“Every time we hear someone speak from the controlling group, they have to blame somebody – sometimes the government, sometimes us, sometimes the officers – the art of leadership is to own up when you have made a mistake, and you have made one here.

“The people who have lost out are a number of small businesses, who were helped by other authorities who were more flexible.”

Coun Robinson added: “At the time when we are supposed to be championing a devolution deal, we will be handing a cheque back to the treasury. They must be wondering what is going on in Leeds.

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“Other speakers have talked about challenges for low earners – but this is a way of helping some of the lowest earners, and helping to find a way through this pandemic.

“There has been an absence of leadership here. The leader of the council (Coun Judith Blake) is lead member for the economy, and she has said nothing in today’s debate about this.

“These can be delivered very quickly and can deliver a positive impact for lots of people.”

The motion was voted down by councillors.