Owner is locked in a bitter legal battle with Knutsford council

It’s all kicking off on the sleepy cobbled streets of Knutsford. A legal battle has begun over premises leased to upmarket restaurant and wedding venue, The Belle Epoque.

The French restaurant occupies a unique building at 60 King Street, which was created in 1907 by Manchester glove merchant Richard Harding Watt, who liked to retrieve architectural gems from demolition contractors and use them to create new buildings. The courtyard even includes two pillars that used to belong to the original St Peter’s Church in Manchester.

At all times we have behaved in an honourable manner

Due to a recent period of challenging trading difficulties, the Belle Epoque, which has been owned and run by two generations of the Mooney family, entered into a Company Voluntary Arrangement with creditors on February 19th.

Knutsford Town council argues that the tenant’s actions meant they had ‘forfeited’ their lease, resulting in them having to issue possession proceedings. This could mean the end for the 2 AA Rosette winning restaurant, luxury B&B and boutique wedding venue, which has stood in the centre of Knutsford for 45 years.

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Belle Epoque's owners are fighting back

A council report stated: “Despite an outstanding debt of legal fees owed to the council and the requirement that a landlord be included, the council was not included or notified of the CVA.

“In entering into the CVA, Belle Epoque has forfeited their lease. The Assets Committee, following legal advice, did not deem it wise to enter into a new lease with an insolvent company. The decision was made to issue possession proceedings for return of the premises.

“The relationship of landlord and tenant is at an end. Belle Epoque remain in the premises effectively as a trespasser until the court grant formal possession.”

...the situation is a culmination of almost five years of problems with La Belle Epoque that have destroyed the relationship

The council alleged that issues have been going on for some time, saying: “Since 2015 the council has encountered numerous problems with its former tenant.

“These have included non-payment of rent, frustration of essential maintenance, unauthorised alterations to the building and numerous court proceedings.

“The council had tried to work with La Belle Epoque to reach resolution on issues to no resolve. Had the company behaved differently in its dealings with the council, the outcome could have been different, but the situation is a culmination of almost five years of problems with La Belle Epoque that have destroyed the relationship.”

The council is looking to take over the future management of the iconic building and hopes to minimise disruption to wedding bookings.

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The Belle Epoque's managing director Matthew Mooney

Belle Epoque’s managing director, Matthew Mooney, is seeking a court order so it can continue to trade. He submitted a petition signed by 166 local residents, in support of the company, at a recent council meeting.

Matthew said: “The support by local residents has been incredible and really humbling. But for the council to be responsible for our closure would be unacceptable

“Under the terms of the CVA La Belle Epoque will continue to have an obligation to pay all rent due under the lease as and when it falls due. The council is therefore not prejudiced by the CVA. 

“The ‘debt’ relates to their costs for ongoing proceedings between the council and La Belle Epoque. The liability for the costs of both parties will not be determined until the conclusion of those proceedings.

“If La Belle Epoque were successful with those proceedings the council would be liable to pay our costs. As such there was no obligation to notify or include the council as part of the CVA.

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The council said its main focus would be on the future management of the iconic building

During the council meeting last week, which was packed with residents, Mooney addressed the council, arguing that proceeding with the forfeiture of the lease was likely to cost the taxpayer around £300,000, while withdrawing it will cost nothing.

“We have offered to take on a new lease with the repairing covenant that would save the taxpayer this expense and much more. At all times we have behaved in an honourable manner,” he said.

Cllr Simon Hutchence said: “I am concerned that 60 King Street has taken up a lot of time for this council, particularly the Assets Committee.”

The council backed his proposal to take no action on the petition and the Assets Committee continues to deal with issues involving 60 King Street.

The meeting ended with an incensed Mooney addressing the council, “the whole thing was a farce from start to finish. You clearly had already made up your minds.”

“You’ve not even read the petition and the wonderful comments of support we’ve had. I came here hoping you’d do the right thing ethically and morally and withdraw the forfeiture.

“It’s clear you are going to do no such thing. If this is democracy I’m a banana.”