Brexit bad enough, but council ‘making it worse’

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A Tarbert shellfish exporter who employs 50 people says he is on the verge of shutting up shop after a sharp rise in council fees.

Jamie McMillan operates Lochfyne Langoustines Limited and Lochfyne Seafarms Limited, based in the Loch Fyne-side village. He employs 38 people in shellfish processing and transport, with another dozen on four fishing boats.

The company exports weekly to far east markets including Hong Kong, Singapore and the Chinese mainland – but the cost of special certificates to export to these countries is, Mr McMillan says, ‘killing him’.

Until last year Argyll and Bute Council charged £17.50 per consignment for an export certificate to non-EU countries. From April 2018 this rose by 420 per cent to £91 per consignment.

At the February 2019 budget meeting the council imposed a further three per cent increase, meaning an export certificate now costs around £93.

When challenged last year on the increased fee, the council brought in a small quantity charge of £18 for consignments under five kilos. To date none of these have been issued as there is no demand.

And the question remains over certification arrangements post-Brexit.

‘What will they charge if we need a certificate to export into the EU?,’ asked Mr McMillan.

‘We can supply 10 customers per day and four to five tonnes a week into the EU. If the council charges £90-odd we’ll go bankrupt overnight.

‘We don’t make that much in profit.’

‘And with the prospect of export tariffs after Brexit, the viability of our business is in the balance. The council is making things worse with the increase in fees.

The Argyll and Bute Council position

‘The council has been in discussions with Scotland Food and Drink and businesses to discuss this situation and recently convened a meeting of local authorities in Scotland with the aim of developing a national charging model for export certificates across Scotland. This work is continuing.

‘Our enforcement policy is to support business and in doing so, to protect public health and safety.

‘We would like to have maintained fees at their previous low levels but this is, unfortunately, not an option. Our export certificate fee was the lowest in Scotland and did not recover the cost of delivering this service.

‘Year on year cuts to our service mean that, like all councils, we must make changes to how we work so we meet our statutory duties.

‘This is a flat rate certificate and has no add-ons for weekends, late requests, Chinese certificates etc. We have listened to businesses and introduced a small quantities charge – an £18 certificate for quantities less than 5kgs.’

‘The choice we face is either to go out of business or stop exporting. The sad thing is, this business has huge potential for growth.’

He concluded: ‘I understand why the council is increasing its fees, but if we go out of business where will they get their money?’

An Argyll and Bute spokesperson said: ‘Work is on-going to develop a national charge for export certificates, though this has been extended to develop a system to cope with consignments to the EU if they require to be certified as a result of EU withdrawal.’

‘We can’t wait months for an agreement,’ Mr McMillan responded.

‘We need something to happen now, or we won’t be here in six months.’

Managing director of another major seafood exporter Loch Fyne Oysters Cameron Brown said: ‘It is astonishing the council has not only failed to hear our concerns over these unfair charges, but chosen to increase them.

‘The export health certificates show we meet strict standards on food and safety quality, but the council has chosen only to impose these large tariffs on companies who export their products. If we sold only in the UK we would not be affected.

‘We don’t understand why the council is discriminating against locally-based companies which have an expanding global business, providing jobs and tax revenue which benefit the whole area.

‘These unfair charges are particularly short-sighted because they have been introduced just as we are seeking to expand our international trade at a time of already great uncertainty.

‘We are still waiting to hear from Argyll and Bute council what additional services we receive in return for the export health certificate which are not provided at a much lower cost to businesses who don’t export outside the EU.’

Tarbert-based councillor Anne Horn said: ‘I have been in discussion with seafood exporters and understand their concerns with regard to the increase in costs for licences.

‘The increases have brought Argyll and Bute into line with the costs of other local authorities and reflects the administration fees required to implement the necessary documentation.’

She added: ‘The SNP council group will continue to work with council officers, our MSP and MP to assist and support our seafood exporters to continue to export their valuable product.’

Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell said: ‘The main bone of contention – the massive increased cost – has not been dealt with and there are still very substantial complaints from individual companies and exporters regarding the steep rise in the price which is adversely affecting every business which needs these certificates.