The Parish Council have been approached by a number of people who have questions regarding the temporary village shop at the village hall and it’s recent closure. In order to respond properly to those questions, and to ensure that accurate and correct information is available to everyone, we would like to provide the following update.
The original hope (and plan) for the village back in 2014, was in fact to source funding to build a permanent structure to house a shop at the location opposite the Village Hall where the temporary shop was located. This was a very ambitious plan for a small village, and whilst always optimistic and hopeful, it was always recognised that the funding of the project would be a mammoth task.
The portacabin to house the temporary shop was sourced by the PC as an interim measure to allow a shop to service the village pending the planning and resourcing of the hoped-for permanent structure. We were approached by an interested party who wished to run a shop from the temporary structure, and whom would do so on the basis that they would be given the option to relocate into a permanent building if the funding could ever be found to make the plans for it a reality.
A formal lease agreement was drawn up to ensure that both the PC and the new leaseholders were fully aware and informed of the needs, expectations, and requirements of both parties to the arrangement, and this agreement was signed and accepted by both parties. Possibly the most significant and fundamental elements of that agreement were:
- The fact that there would be no guarantee or promise that the PC would ever be in a position to fund a new permanent building for the shop.
- The fact that the monthly rental payments to the PC which had been agreed would be subsidised initially and would then revert to the agreed monthly rate which had been identified as affordable and fair and would not rise with inflation in the lifetime of the agreement.
The long awaited Village Shop therefore began operating, and the work to try to secure a permanent structure continued.
It unfortunately became apparent in time that cost of the kind of structure that had been hoped and planned for, and for which detailed plans had been drawn up, was as feared, not going to be reachable by the PC by the means of any funding available to them.
Over the period that the temporary shop was open, a number of issues with its operation and with the terms of the lease agreement had become apparent and were raised either with or by the PC. Despite many attempts by the PC, it regrettably proved impossible to reach an agreement with the shop operators to comply with the terms of the agreement. This problem applied in particular to the payment of the rent to the PC as agreed in the lease agreement.
Because of these difficulties and the issues with compliance with the lease agreement conditions, it became obvious that the PC could not continue to afford, nor be responsible for continuing with the temporary shop service in the village beyond the lifetime of the lease. The PC therefore notified the shop operators that they regretfully wished to terminate their tenancy at the end the notice period and issued a section 25 Notice as required in the conditions of the agreement.
In an effort to comply with the requirements of the current Neighbourhood Plan to provide a permanent shop, other options were investigated, and the possibility of the conversion of an existing barn at the White Hart site to a purpose built village store was identified. This option was investigated, and it was agreed that it presented the best available opportunity for the Parish Council to comply with the obligations of the Neighbourhood Plan and to provide a functioning long term shop for the village.
It was decided to engage in an open process to seek a service provider willing and able to provide a shop service in the village on a long term basis at the White Hart site. The invitation to engage in this process was completely open and was specifically offered to the temporary shop operators – they did not however respond to this invitation.
The owners of the White Hart did come forward in response to the open invitation, and produced a credible and workable proposition which won the support of the Parish Council, and also gained significant public support by way of response to questionnaires within the village. It was decided to proceed with the proposal to convert the existing barn on the pub site, and also with the White Hart owners’ proposition to operate it.
Throughout the process of seeking alternatives following the submission of notice to the temporary shop operators that the PC would not renew their lease, the temporary shop continued trading, and the PC continued to try to engage them in dialogue to deal with their failures to comply with the requirements of the lease agreement, and in particular the extensive backlog of unpaid rent. The shop operators would not engage or cooperate with the PC.
At the very end of the 6 month notice period by which the operators should have ceased trading and surrendered the premises, they instigated a legal action against the Parish Council. This action demanded that they be granted a new 25 year lease at a fixed rate of £290 per month.
The Parish Council was left no alternative but to take legal advice to defend this action, which was based on entirely spurious claims regarding promises and commitments in the original lease agreement. In spite of numerous attempts to deal with this situation without resorting to extended unnecessary legal costs, the shop operators refused to engage, and continued to press for their claim to go to court. Throughout the whole of this period, the temporary shop continued to trade, and the failures of the operators to comply with the lease agreement also continued.
It was therefore necessary for the Parish Council to pay for Solicitors, a Barrister, and Court Fees, all as detailed in the professional legal advice they were forced to take. This process led to a full hearing at Luton County Court in October 2023, at which the PC were represented by their Barrister. The Judge found entirely in favour of the Parish Council and declared that the shop operators’ case was dismissed. The judge awarded the Parish Council’s costs against the shop operators.
At the point of the court case being found in favour of the Parish Council, the original section 25 Notice to surrender the premises became viable, and the shop operators were required to leave immediately. The Parish Council however offered to give the operators a full month to deal with their affairs, to clear the premises, and to vacate. The premises were eventually vacated some six weeks later but were not cleared as required under the agreement.
At the time of writing, the temporary shop has now been vacated by the lease holders and is being cleared by contractors for the Parish Council to make it ready for removal from site. The legal costs incurred and awarded to the Parish Council by the have not been paid as instructed by the court, and the PC are therefore now seeking to recover both these costs, the unpaid rent, and the clearance costs through legal channels.
The total loss to the Parish Council as a result of the temporary shop’s operation and the legal case to terminate it currently stands at something in excess of £30,000. This is obviously money paid directly by the people of the village through their precept, and the Parish Council consider it to be duty bound to use every means and effort to recover it. The legal process to enforce the payment of all debts due to the PC by the temporary shop operators will therefore continue until a satisfactory conclusion can be reached.
Whilst the situation with the temporary shop is regrettable and costly, it was not due to a failing by the Parish Council, but by persistent failures by the shop operators to fulfil their obligations under the agreement they signed in order to operate the shop.