COMMENT: Taxes are not optional but avoid the witch-hunt

The 21st century has not been kind to the high street. The roll call of traders which were once pillars of the retail industry but have disappeared in recent years makes for grim reading.

From Woolworths to Dixons, via Toys'R'Us and many more, it shows that no company is '˜too big to fail'.

With that in mind, survival as a small, independent retail business in the current climate is almost miraculous.

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The saga of ELJ Furnishing in Gosport High Street, with just shy of £20,000 in unpaid business rates, has been a long one. And it has been further complicated by the fact that its owner is Cllr Mark Hook, the leader of Gosport Borough Council.

There is nothing to suggest that the Conservative councillor has acted improperly. It could be said his opponents in the council chamber have deliberately sought to make political capital out of the issue.

Gosport town centre has famously been hit harder than most. But the fact does remain that during the same period as ELJ's rates went unpaid, the council issued a liability order against 166 other business with outstanding debts for non-payment up to the same amount.

Those business owners and others in a similar boat might look on in bewilderment at how ELJ has avoided legal action. And that would be understandable '“ taxes are not optional.

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So is the system broken? Was Cllr Hook given undue leniency because of his position?

He says that, more than most businesses, he is uniquely positioned to keep council officers abreast of the situation. And that the money would have been repaid long ago if the sale of the shop had gone through as planned in 2015.

It is right that the council leader should be as accountable as anyone else. But in this instance, he has cleared his debts and did keep the council informed.

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