Criticised council says nearly £4m has been saved in Central Bedfordshire through stringent checks on coronavirus business support grant applications

Stringent checks on whether Central Beds businesses should be receiving grants earmarked for those struggling during the coronavirus crisis has saved the public purse nearly £4m so far.

Friday, 1st May 2020, 3:33 pm

Over the past few weeks, businesses have been applying for either the Small Business Grant Fund or the Retail Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund, with the scheme established by the government and delivered via local authorities.

Companies can be given grants of £10,000 or £25,000 to help them during the pandemic.

Central Beds Council has revealed that around one-tenth of applications have contained inaccurate/incomplete information. Its team has rejected hundreds of applications, including fraudulent ones, and weeded out scores of duplicates. It says its strict checks have averted a potential loss to the council of up to £3.8m.

Central Beds is processing the grants

It released the figures after coming under fire from Independent councillors who say it has taken too long to hand out grants and that there has been poor communication.

Cllr Adam Zerny said had spoken to seven pubs and claimed that only two had been paid the grant, and one of those had been forced to wait three weeks for it.

He alleged: “All told the same stories about forms being lost by CBC, new forms being created, lack of communication from the council, and having to chase repeatedly and ask question after question. One publican told me CBC had moaned the pub hadn’t given a bank account name despite the form not having asked for it!”

Cllr Dr Hayley Whitaker claimed: “One of my major concerns is that CBC has been so much slower to get things out. I wish they had set up a tracking system so people could see where they are in the system. I have had businesses contacting me saying ‘please can you help?’”

Cllr Whitaker claimed that last week a council director refused to look into queries from councillors who were contacting him on behalf of residents, because it would slow down the application process. Although she said this week they are now being looked into.

But the experience of LB First chairman Gennaro Borrelli, who runs Gennaro’s Organic Hair and Beauty in Bridge Street, is somewhat different.

He said: "Personally it all went ok, after filling the online form I got a phone call a couple of weeks later just to double check a few things and the grant was paid the following week (last Thursday) with a confirmation letter.

"I think for most it has been a similar case but I have heard about some who haven't heard anything after filling their form. Some have had the phone call and then nothing so it does seem a bit sporadic in some cases.

"I have followed this up with some CBC officers and they were happy to get the feedback and were ready to look into it but reiterated the fact that if the initial information wasn't complete or partially wrong it would slow down the process, plus they needed to be careful against any fraudulent claims and were having to follow stringent checks and government guidelines."

Central Bedfordshire Council has said supporting local businesses during the pandemic is an important responsibility for it to manage.

A spokesman said: “It’s been a big task to administer the business rate relief scheme and the new business support grants.

“The processing and validating of these applications is complex and takes time to complete thoroughly. This is really important as we are encountering cases of potential fraud and many omissions, and we need to take a responsible approach to handing out public money.

“It’s vital the right grants get to the right people. Businesses can help themselves, and us, by ensuring that any application is completed accurately with all the required details.

“We have beefed up the team dealing with this and they are working seven days a week to process applications.

“For grant applications where there are no queries, we aim to process the application within two weeks, if a case is more complicated or we need more information then those applications will take longer.

“Around one in 10 applications contain inaccurate or incomplete information. The team has rejected 220 and weeded out a further 100 or so duplicates. Our strict due diligence procedures have averted a potential loss to the council of up to £3.8m.”

CBC informed the LBO that as of April 29, it had contacted all 940 businesses eligible for emergency rate relief with amended bills, and approved business support grants of up to £25,000 to 1,962 firms – two thirds of those eligible who have applied so far.

This means businesses from corner shops to multi-nationals have so far benefitted from £50m of support.

Recently the eligibility criteria was extended by the government which means a further 200 businesses, including some charities and voluntary organisations can now apply for the grants at www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/info/26/public_health/737/coronavirus_-_covid-19/7.

Businesses must have been on the business rates register on March 11, 2020.