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NFDC leader defends funding of business hub 49

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The 49 centre in Everton was launched in 2019 by entrepreneur Paul Sherry
The 49 centre in Everton was launched in 2019 by entrepreneur Paul Sherry

THE leader of New Forest District Council has defended handing £75,000 of taxpayers’ cash to a business start-up centre which has so far failed to meet its objectives.

Cllr Barry Rickman insisted he was confident the “proper procedures” were followed when the cabinet greenlit seed funding for 49 – a business innovation centre on the outskirts of Everton.

His declaration followed NFDC’s corporate overview and scrutiny panel questioning the performance of 49 and the man behind it, entrepreneur Paul Sherry.

When it was created more than two years ago, 49 was given almost a combined £450,000 of public money. But Mr Sherry has recently admitted it has not created one apprenticeship, 20 firms that took up spots there have already moved on, and he will be seeking more money to keep it going.

It has also emerged Mr Sherry spent two thirds of £225,000 seed money given by NFDC and Hampshire County Council on paying himself £34,000, a project manager £36,000, a further £20,000 on an office manager, £50,000 on a marketing firm and £10,000 on soft furnishings.

Challenged at the latest full NFDC meeting by Cllr Mahmoud Kangarani over 49’s performance, Cllr Rickman said: “I am confident that the proper procedures have been gone through.”

He believed the South Efford House site was a “great investment for the future” that would benefit the local economy and council in the long term.

However, Cllr Kangarani said the situation showed the Conservative majority on the council should give up their “fox role in the henhouse” and allow opposition members to chair independent scrutiny committees.

Cllr Rickman replied that the committees – which mostly reflect the political make-up of the council by featuring more Tories than Liberal Democrats – elect their own chairs democratically.

As reported in the A&T, Mr Sherry defended 49 when he appeared before the NFDC panel, arguing the progress of the community interest company had been curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Insisting he was “delighted” with its start and the site’s potential was “significant”, Mr Sherry highlighted how 49 had helped by hosting NHS midwifery services.

However, while telling the panel he was not there to ask for money, he later admitted it would likely need more funding in the next three to five years, possibly as much as £400,000.

In 2018, 49 moved into the South Efford premises – which had been vacant since 2011 – on a 10-year lease to transform it into a hub with flexible business workspaces, meeting rooms and company set-up services.

It opened in January 2019.

It was given a £220,000 interest-free loan by Enterprise M3, as well as seed money worth £75,000 from NFDC and £150,000 from HCC.

But it was given only half the £225,000 seed money upfront and told it would receive the rest for meeting targets in its first three years, including delivering 100 jobs and 50 apprenticeships, taking 60 businesses through an innovation growth programme and creating 30 start-ups.

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