Labour Council bosses have come under fire over plans to return millions of pounds to the Government that was supposed to be for Merton’s businesses.
Local authorities were given money to cover the Business Rates of premises in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. Within the guidance they were allowed a discretion to support businesses that were similar to those specifically listed.
Lots of councils up and down the country are doing this. Merton however, is refusing to use this discretion and therefore denying support to businesses like Wimbledon’s three English Language Schools and large numbers of other other companies.
Wimbledon’s Lib Dem Parliamentary spokesman Cllr Paul Kohler said:
“Given that Merton still has money to support local businesses I am at a loss to understand why we have not adopted a similarly more expansive approach, particularly as the Government guidance explicitly states "[t]he list… is not intended to be exhaustive as it would be impossible to list the many and varied uses that exist within the qualifying purposes" and continues by saying "[a]uthorities should determine for themselves whether particular properties not listed are broadly similar in nature to those above and, if so, to consider them eligible for the relief."
“I am concerned that Merton is taking an overly legalistic approach that fails to recognise the flexibility that they have clearly been given. This is not in keeping with its claims to be a business-like and business-friendly Council. I understand that Merton is proposing to return undistributed funds to Central Government - over currently £3 million- which makes the failure to fully exploit the discretion they have even more perverse.
Businesses have cried out for help.
Jane Dancaster, Managing Director of the Wimbledon School of English said:
“Wimbledon School of English is a family company which has been in Wimbledon since 1964. We have dedicated years to developing a successful business that brings financial and other benefits to the community, and are proud to be ranked as the number one English language centre in the UK. Covid 19 has had a devastating effect on our business and we are asking the London Borough of Merton to use the Government aid at their disposal to help us survive”
Peter Allan, Managing Director of plusfour market research Ltd in Wimbledon said:
“Why would Merton Council ignore the plight of local businesses, instead choosing to return £3m to the Government? For probably less than 5% of that they could help all of the businesses they are currently rejecting. Why are they not recognising the scope that the Government has given them? Don’t they care about local businesses?”
We want local planning decisions to be transparent, and for residents to have a real say.
So we were disappointed by Merton Council’s decision last year to stop publishing residents’ comments on planning applications. At the Council meeting in February Merton Liberal Democrats put forward a motion to reverse that decision. Unfortunately our plan was blocked by Labour councillors.
At the time we argued that as well as making planning decisions less transparent, the Council’s actions would make it harder for residents to send in effective comments, and for councillors to do their jobs.
Unfortunately our concerns have been realised, and recently a councillor was unable to access all public comments on a planning application - making it more difficult for him to stand up for local people.
We asked the Council what steps they were taking to prevent similar issues in future, and were told it would be looked into.
Cllr Paul Kohler said:
“As councillors our job is to make sure that residents’ voices are heard. By making the planning process more restrictive the council is making this difficult.
“The Liberal Democrats believe that democracy is more than voting once every four years - residents should be able to engage with the council’s decision making process at all times. That’s why we’ll continue fighting for transparency in planning.”
Almost 5,000 Merton businesses have closed in past three years.
Figures released by the Liberal Democrats today on Small Business Saturday (Saturday 7 December) have revealed that 4,715 Merton businesses closed over the last three years, in the clearest sign yet of a Brexit hit to local high streets.
The rate of business closures in the borough has spiked since the 2016 EU referendum, with 29% more closures in the three years between 2016 and 2018 than in the preceding three years.
Across the UK one million businesses have closed their doors between 2016 and 2018, an increase of almost a third compared to 2013-2015.
The Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Wimbledon, Paul Kohler, has blasted the Conservatives for their failure to protect local businesses. “These figures are a damning indictment of the Conservative Party’s attitude towards local businesses”, said Paul Kohler.
Merton's "Local Plan" is the name for the new draft planning rules. These will provide the basis for planning decisions in the borough over the coming years.
As such, it is crucial that the Council get the plan right.
Merton Liberal Democrats have submitted a response to the Council's consultation on the Local Plan, and have suggested a number of improvements. In particular we would like to see a greater emphasis on the environment, community-led planning, and real action on affordable housing. We are also calling for a genuine debate on building heights and design, especially in Wimbledon town centre.
You can read our response in full here.
The Future Wimbledon Masterplan has been prepared by Merton Council to guide a long-term vision for the development of Wimbledon town centre. A consultation was held on the plan (which closed on 6th January), to which Merton Liberal Democrats submitted a response.
While we welcome the establishment of a Masterplan, we have strong reservations about the current document. It is heavily dependent on the Government deciding to proceed with Crossrail 2, shows an unhealthy interest in over-developing office space and branded retail establishments. We are calling for a genuine debate on building heights and design - missing from the draft Masterplan. Additionally, we would like to see more in the plan about ways to tackle air pollution, build new housing, and develop Wimbledon's cultural centre and as a place for the creative industries.
Unfortunately, as currently conceived, the Masterplan represents a missed opportunity to develop a scheme that could have garnered real community support.
Our response to the consultation can be read in full here.
The Liberal Democrats have published a paper setting out the challenges facing the UK’s creative industries as a result of Brexit.
The Power of Creativity and Brexit paints a testing picture for the industry, with potentially huge impacts from changes to freedom of movement, loss of investment and funding and less access to markets after Brexit.
The creative industries are of huge importance to Britain’s economy - the music industry alone contributes £3.8bn to the economy.
The value of exports to the EU across the creative industries is £19.8bn, and these products are not fully covered by WTO rules - a future option the government has failed to rule out.
6.1% of the creative industries workforce and 10% of the design, publishing and advertising workforce are EU (non-British) nationals. Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond has consistently refused to back guarantees for EU citizens rights after Brexit.
Baroness Bonham-Carter, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport said: “Liberal Democrats have always been proud to back the fantastic creative companies and individuals who are based in Britain. We will stand up for them as the government pursues a hard-Brexit that poses a real risk to their future prosperity. The Government have rightly recognised the impact of changes to market access for banks and financial services but they must think about other industries and sectors too."
Read the creative industries paper here.
Merton Liberal Democrats found out on Wednesday (embargoed until yesterday) that WHSmith will also be returning to Wimbledon in the Summer.
It's just been announced that Waterstones will be opening a new shop in Wimbledon in the Autumn.
The new shop will be at 40-42 The Broadway opposite The Piazza (currently Halfords).
In January Wimbledon’s large WHSmith and Waterstones will be closing, as their lease in Wimbledon Bridge House is up, and instead Metrobank will move in.
An application was made in February 2014 to allow the shops to be converted into a bank, with the landords supporting the change.
In December, when we asked if they would open other branches in the town - Waterstones said "there isn't a plan at this point" and WHSmith didn't respond to us. So in January, we launched our petition: