Farmer ‘on brink of bankruptcy’ over five-figure tax bill

Farmer Gareth Gaunt says he is facing bankruptcy as he cannot afford a £28,000 bill for empty property tax from Harrogate Borough Council.

Mr Gaunt, of Carlshead Farm, Wetherby, accrued the bill during a two-year gap between tenants at the 5,000 sq ft of business space on his farm. Two units were vacated last year and while new tenants have been secured on discounted rents, he says he cannot afford to pay the huge sum.

The Country Land and Business Association is leading calls for an intervention. The Westminster office for Mr Gaunt’s local MP Nigel Adams said it had referred the case to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but Harrogate Council has ruled out awarding relief to reduce the bill.

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Mr Gaunt said: “I borrowed heavily to convert my redundant farm buildings into offices, and although I was fully supported and applauded by council officials and MPs at the time for diversifying, they have all deserted me now.

“I have no way of raising £28,000 so I’m left with no option but to try and fight to save the business that my family and I have worked so hard to build up.

“Considering I’ve taken all the risk, brought employment to the area and raised several hundreds of thousands in rates for the Government over the last 10 years I’m astounded that I’m now being fed to the wolves.”

Empty property rates, set by the Government, are due for most properties after they have been empty for three months and while councils have discretionary powers to grant additional relief, they have to fund a proportion of the cost, decisions which are weighed against the interests of local taxpayers.

Jane Wood, revenues services manager at Harrogate Council, said: “Mr Gaunt has been letting units in a business centre since 2001. During this period most of the properties have been let or subject to relief from rates, leaving two periods where entitlement to relief has ended.

“Whilst the authority sympathises with Mr Gaunt there are currently over 400 empty properties in the area. As at the end of September, these properties attracted a rate liability in excess of £2.3m.

“The council considered whether Mr Gaunt’s situation was such that it warranted additional relief which could not be afforded to other ratepayers, and felt the circumstances were not such that additional expenditure could be justified. We have, however, offered instalments to Mr Gaunt so he can spread the payments over a period of time.”

Mr Gaunt also runs a care farm on the site for rehabilitating criminal offenders and for adults with special educational needs.