Calls for council leader Mark Hook's resignation after business debts accusations

CALLS have been made for a council leader to resign, after it was revealed that he held onto business debts for over four years.

Tuesday, 24th July 2018, 10:10 am
Updated Tuesday, 24th July 2018, 10:14 am
Gosport Borough Council leader, Cllr Mark Hook. Picture: Paul Jacobs

Politicians and members of the public are demanding that the leader of Gosport Borough Council, Cllr Mark Hook, steps down from the role, having accumulated the debt.

He faced no legal action from the council '“ unlike dozens of other businesses in the town which were in arrears.

The business rates, which reached a peak of £19,638.26 in 2016, were for Cllr Hook's shop in Gosport High Street, ELJ Furnishing.

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The debt was paid off in its entirety earlier this year, after the council leader retired from trading and sold the shop.

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The information, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Liberal Democrat Party, shows that Cllr Hook did not receive a single liability order from council officers in the 50 months that he owed the debt.

But Cllr Hook says that a liability order was never necessary, after he kept in communication with officers about how the sale of the shop '“ which was meant to happen in 2015 '“ would easily clear the arrears.

As of July 11, there were 320 other accounts in Gosport that were in arrears, with the earliest dating back to 2007/08.

Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party in Gosport, Cllr Peter Chegwyn, says that Cllr Hook and the senior council officers should leave their positions.

He said: '˜It's unbelievable stuff, both from him and council officers.

'˜The question I have is why he was allowed to build up this debt with no legal action being taken.

'˜More than 100 other businesses have faced legal action '“ it shouldn't be one rule for him and one for everyone else. I find it truly staggering and this ought to be the last straw.

'˜He needs to go, and he needs to go now.

'˜If he won't walk then the Conservatives need to get him out; he's disgraced his party and should not remain in power.

'˜As for the council officers, this is worse than them not knowing '“ he has racked up a debt while the rest of us were kept in the dark.'

Cllr Steve Hammond was the person who submitted the FOI request.

He says that everyone involved needs to be held accountable for their actions.

Cllr Hammond said: '˜There are so many questions and if nothing else it is immoral.

'˜I want to know why everybody else wasn't given four years to pay back their business rates arrears '“ he shouldn't be treated differently.

'˜What worries me if whether any of his colleagues on the council knew about it.

'˜If they knew and said nothing, then surely they should be held accountable as well.

'˜Cllr Hook and the council officers have to answer to the public '“ people put their trust into him and into this council and they have been let down.'

But Cllr Hook claims that he has no reason to resign '“ saying that the council officers were always kept informed about the future of the business rates.

He said: '˜The debt was at its peak in 2016 '“ I paid for 2017/18 and 2018/19, and the remaining debt was paid off in one lump sum when I retired and sold the shop.

'˜Arrangements for repayment were made with council officers and discussions took place to make sure the council was made fully aware of what was happening.

'˜The only advantage I had is that I'm in the town hall every day and can easily keep council officers updated.'

The council leader denies that he has been treated differently '“ saying that the council is intentionally soft on business rates.

Cllr Hook said: '˜I had tried to sell the business back in 2015, but that fell through.

'˜With regards to my personal circumstance, I was not unique in falling into arrears with my business rates, in fact another 320 businesses in the area are also facing this difficulty. 

'˜I fully co-operated with Gosport Borough Council to agree a mutually acceptable debt recovery programme, as many of the above businesses will also have done. 

'˜I am pleased that we take a softer line with businesses, because we don't want to put them in jeopardy and don't have to go down the legal route.

'˜Having now retired I believe this issue is no longer relevant as all monies have been paid and following an independent investigation it has been confirmed that no special treatment was received due to my position on Gosport Borough Council.'

The council leader has also hit back at those who have criticised him for the debt.

He said: '˜I haven't done anything illegal and I think Cllr Hammond needs to be careful, as he has said things that are incorrect in the past.

'˜I think it's a shame that they have politicised small businesses '“ if they put the same time and effort into helping their constituents then this town would be a much better place, but they're too busy playing politics.'

The council leader's wife and fellow councillor, Cllr Lynn Hook, says she is in no way responsible for the debts.

She said: '˜Whilst my husband and I owned the building as landlords, as one of the tenants my husband, who was the sole trader of ELJ Furnishing, was totally responsible for the payment.'

Chief executive of Gosport Borough Council David Williams also believes the council acted in the right way when it came to claiming back the business rates owed by Cllr Hook.

He said: '˜The council has dealt with this case in the same way that we deal with all cases of this kind. This approach has secured full repayment.

'˜At all times our concern was to act in the best interest of the council '“ to obtain payment of the outstanding amount with minimum delay.

'˜We secured an arrangement whereby the debtor had agreed to make payment on completion of the sale of his business and we have now collected all of the debt.'

Gareth Woodward, 32 from Gosport, said: '˜I think what Cllr Hook has done is absolutely sickening.

'˜My sister has just been downgraded to a two bedroom house, while people like him can get away with having thousands of pounds in debt for years.

'˜It's unbelievable that he can get away with this and also get special treatment '“ it's a terrible situation and I really do think that it needs sorting out as soon as possible.'

Mr Woodward believes that the council leader should step down immediately.

He said: '˜I think he should resign straight away '“ it's the right thing to do.

'˜But this goes deeper than just him; to me, it sounds like the council needs a complete reshuffle, and the officers responsible for what has happened to these business rates also need to be held to account for their actions.

'˜They have let him sit on thousands of pounds of debt while other people struggle to get their business to the end of the year.

'˜He should have paid straight away like everybody else has to.'

Other businesses in Gosport will be frustrated to hear that Cllr Hook has sat on his business rates debt for so long, according to one high street shopper.

Rachel Brombley, 41, right, says that it's an unfair situation for other businesses.

She said: '˜I don't think the other businesses that pay business rates around here are going to be very happy at all.

'˜If it's one rule for one and one for everyone else, then the shopkeepers here are going to be up in arms about that.

'˜Nobody who keeps their debt unpaid for that long should get away with it '“ if it was any of us with our council tax it wouldn't happen, so it shouldn't happen just because he's in charge of the council.'

Janet Nash, 74, agrees.

She said: '˜Someone in that sort of position should be setting an example for everybody else.

'˜If that is the example that's being set, then why doesn't everyone hold off on paying their debts until they sell their shops?

'˜It doesn't make sense and I think it is totally unfair '“ and if he can't set an example then he shouldn't be in charge.'

Adam Hawkins, 30, said: '˜I think that it's absolutely despicable, and he should be taken to court for it.

'˜Just because he is the leader of the council doesn't mean he should be exempt from paying his business rates.

'˜The fact that he has paid them back now is irrelevant '“ that's four years where that debt wasn't being paid.

'˜I don't know why someone in a position of power should be treated any differently to any other shop keepers '“ he should have been made to pay straight away.

'˜It's just awful '“ and it just goes to show that these people genuinely do think that they are above the average person.

'˜Thinking about it, it's actually made me quite angry '“ you think about the other people running small businesses in the town; yes business rates are very high, but they are out here struggling to get by.

'˜Some businesses have closed and others will be facing legal action '“ and the fees that come with that '“ while he's put off paying his for years.

'˜I can't see any reason why he should stay as council leader.'