Fanciers’ fury

Geoff O'Connell and Eric Sim outside the shed where the club keeps its pigeon coops.
Geoff O'Connell and Eric Sim outside the shed where the club keeps its pigeon coops.

A dispute over a north Northumberland pigeon club’s shed, which caused a national media furore five years ago, has reared its head again.

Belford Pigeon Racing Club hit the headlines up and down the country2007 when they were told that as pigeon racing was not a sport, they would have to start paying rates on the small shed where they stored their race baskets.

The row blew up because of Government proposals to introduce rates on village halls and sports clubs.

At the time, the only exception in respect of sports clubs was if they formally applied for dispensation from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for 80 per cent relief and then to their local authority for a 20 per cent reduction.

The issue was taken up by then Berwick Borough councillor Geoff O’Connell, who wrote to the Queen in her role as patron of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.

A response received revealed that one of the monarch’s private secretaries had passed the matter on to the Chancellor.

Sir Alan Beith MP tabled an early-day motion in the House of Commons on November 28 that year to have pigeon racing recognised as a sport, which was supported by 41 MPs.

The battle was won and the club received 100 per cent relief from its rates bill and since then, the club has been filling in the forms and paying nothing.

But now, it appears that while an exemption of 75 per cent from HMRC still applies, the county council is trying to collect its 25 per cent, despite the hut not having electricity, water or bins.

Eric Sim, former chairman and current secretary of the club, said: “It’s a bit disappointing that it keeps rearing its head.

“I feel as though we shouldn’t be paying on a hut. It’s on our own land. They don’t take away litter or anything like that.

“We have never, ever paid rates on the hut for all the time we have had it.”

The club currently has six members, although two race as a couple, with five lofts.

The 25 per cent bill comes to a grand total of £37.54, but Mr Sim said it’s not about the money, but the principle.

“I cannot see that we don’t meet the definition of sport,” he said. “We have got to train them, we have got to look after their diet, it’s just like an athlete.

“I know it’s not a lot of money but I feel it’s the principle of the thing, I don’t think we should be getting rated.”

Coun Geoff O’Connell, now a Belford parish councillor, said: “When this first surfaced a few years ago, all hell broke loose.

“Unfortunately the shed once again becomes a victim, although it lacks electricity, water, a road and a bin.

“The local authority charges for services provided – there are none. The case rests.”

A spokeswoman for the county council said: “The council reviewed its discretionary rate relief policy in 2011 and made some small changes to the assessment criteria, in consultation with voluntary sector representatives.

“Although the changes to the policy were implemented from April 1, 2012, the existing discretionary relief awards were reviewed from April 1 2013. The levels of relief from April 1, 2013, have been determined in accordance with the new policy.

“Any organisation which has any queries regarding the level of relief granted should contact the Northumberland County Council business rates section.”