The unprofitable business interests of Northamptonshire Council’s leader
Cllr Jason Smithers has been personally bailing out his food and car businesses for years
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By Sarah Ward
Jason Smithers is a busy man.
Besides taking on the political leadership of one of the largest unitary councils in the country and making decisions on its £292m annual budget, he runs a cafe and chip shop in Rushden. But alongside that, Cllr Smithers, 48, also operates First Car Rental - a website brokerage firm that takes car hire bookings.
Many won't know of that link, because it was only last month that he publicly declared his car business in his register of interests.
Despite running the firm since 2014, he went against statutory guidance within the Localism Act and decided not to declare this business interest when elected to Northamptonshire County Council in 2018 and then again when he became part of the shadow council in 2019, which acted as the predecessor to the new unitary. He was deputy leader of the shadow authority.
It was only in June, after being elected leader of the new unitary by his Conservative colleagues, that he declared an interest in this firm by noting it on his register of interests for North Northamptonshire Council.
NN Journal called the 0844 number listed on the First Car Rental website on June 16 and Leader Smithers answered the call to take a booking. Asked why he had not declared his ownership of the car firm when he was a county councillor he said he was ‘pretty sure it would have been’ (it wasn’t) and then said ‘they used to hide a lot of our employment stuff as the monitoring officer had a different view’ to the monitoring officer employed by the new unitary authority.
NN Journal asked other former Northamptonshire County Council councillors if this was the case and they said it wasn’t and like in all local councils the onus was on the councillor to declare any business interests in accordance with the Localism Act.
Leader Smithers said anyone who knew him well would know he ran the business and said it had commercial deals with over 600 suppliers in a number of countries and cars had always been ‘his main line of interest’.
But some customers have voiced their disquiet with the service provided by Leader Smithers car rental firm. 2016 was a particularly bad year. Customers complained of not receiving credits after cancellations.
One user took to Tripadvisor and told others to avoid the company ‘like the plague’ and another ended with ‘wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole’.
One user from Bali said:
But his eateries get better reviews on Tripadvisor. The Red Cafe on Westfield Terrace, which Cllr Smithers has owned since 2010, has a four star rating, and is ranked 12 out of the 42 places to eat in Rushden. 40 of the 77 posted reviews were excellent, with one user praising the portion size and cheap prices.
However standards may have dropped in recent weeks as the last reviews (posted in May) was poor.
The neighbouring Red Cafe Fish and Chips in Higham Road, also gets mainly four star reviews and ranks 11 out of 19 quick bite places in Rushden.
Looking at the accounts posted on Companies House - both of Cllr Smithers firms do not look to be sitting that pretty.
The two companies between them have lost £120,000 in the past ten years, with both propped up by support from Cllr Smithers, who is the sole director.
The accounts for Red Cafes Ltd report the limited company has made a loss of more than £70,000 since it began trading in 2010 up until January last year and a note says that the director provided a loan to the company of £87,133. The accounts say the business is a going concern due to funding provided to meet day-to-day capital from the director.
According to the latest listed accounts for First Car Rental, (listed on companies house as CRC EMEA), it has made a loss of £51,000 since its incorporation in 2014 and like Red Cafe Ltd this venture is a going concern due to support from its director.
NN Journal contacted Surrey-born Cllr Smithers via his council email to ask why he continued to run his businesses if they were losing money; where he got the money from to prop up the businesses and why local taxpayers should trust him with making big financial decisions if he could not run a profitable business.
He has not yet responded.
NN Journal asked North Northamptonshire Council whether any action would be taken against Cllr Smithers for his failure to declare his business interest to the shadow council of which he was deputy leader.
A spokesman said:
“In relation to the NCC register of interest, this is a predecessor authority matter and the current Monitoring Officer is not aware of what advice was provided to NCC members.
“In relation to the Shadow Authority, all members were advised by the Monitoring Officer of the Shadow Authority of their obligation to complete a declaration of interest form in accordance with the Localism Act.
“In relation to North Northamptonshire Council, guidance has been provided to all members of the new North Northamptonshire Council and up to date declarations are displayed on the website.
Cllr Smithers declaration is available on the website and has been completed in accordance with guidance provided by the Monitoring Officer.”