Call for probe into Gosport council leader's backlog of thousands of pounds in business rates

CALLS have been made for an independent inquiry after a council leader admitted to having finally paid outstanding business rates understood to have run into thousands of pounds.

Wednesday, 20th June 2018, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 21st June 2018, 1:33 pm
Gosport Borough Council's leader Councillor Mark Hook. Picture: Allan Hutchings (141422-200)

Councillor Mark Hook, the leader of Gosport Borough Council, said the outstanding amount has now been paid off – but in a council-issued statement refused to say how much had been owed as it was ‘commercially sensitive’.

For nearly a month The News repeatedly asked the authority’s press office if the amount was outstanding after allegations were published online by an opposition political party claiming the bill owed had reached £25,000.

During that time Cllr Hook, who has shut his ELJ Furnishing shop at 138 High Street in Gosport, refused to be drawn on the matter.

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Gosport's Liberal Democrats leader Peter Chegwyn with Conservative leader Mark Hook in the background. Picture: Allan Hutchings (141422-198)

When asked by The News he said: ‘My business and politics are two completely separate things.’

After 29 days, in a statement about his business rates issued by the council’s press office, Cllr Hook said: ‘Any outstanding business rates have been paid in full including this financial year but the sum involved is commercially sensitive.’

The council subsequently confirmed it was ‘awaiting payment’ when first asked on May 14 about the 2017/8 bill.

‘We were progressing with an arrangement whereby the debtor had agreed to make payment on completion of the sale of the business,’ a council spokeswoman added.

Now opposition Liberal Democrats group leader Peter Chegwyn has said the borough council’s external auditors should investigate what went on.

Cllr Chegwyn, who said council officers have given Cllr Hook special treatment, said: ‘We need a full independent inquiry into Mark Hook’s financial relationships with the council he leads.’

He added: ‘We’re not talking about any ordinary business, we’re talking about one run by the leader of the council, whatever the sum, believed to be £22,000.

‘Why has he been allowed to get away with not paying his business rates when anyone else would have been taken to court?’

Cllr Hook ran ELJ Furnishings with his wife and fellow councillor Lynn Hook before it shut earlier this year.

Together they bought 137, 137a and 138 High Street for £385,000 in 2003, according to Land Registry documents.

Speaking to The News last month Cllr Hook said: ‘I can’t comment on my business. My business and politics are two completely separate things.

‘I’m not going to confirm or deny – I’m just not going to comment on it.

‘I think it’s a scurrilous attack by the Liberal Democrats.’

Gosport’s council in 2013 paid out £36,250 to end early a lease of office space above Cllr Hook’s shop.

The figure paid out by the council consisted of a £12,250 premium to surrender the lease and £2,000 legal costs to Cllr Hook, while the authority also spent £16,000 for physical works and £6,000 on other costs.

Michael Lawther, borough solicitor and deputy chief executive, said: ‘We’ve acted in the best interest of the council to obtain payment of the outstanding amount with minimum delay.’

Councils collect rates on behalf of the government but since 2013 retain a small proportion.