Occasional contributor Councillor John Blundell on how hospitality businesses need a bit of understanding

Anybody who knows me knows I like food. Restaurants and watering holes are the lifeblood of politics because the real kerffufles happen after hours. You don’t plan coups and council takeovers at home or at the gym, you do it over food. This often results in those in my trade being plumper than the average person.

The hard work of this business community will be lost due to their landlord’s short sightedness

Rochdale town centre 10 years ago was on its knees. The financial crash had laid waste to our high street, the attractors of vibrancy like our cinema had moved and the retro 1980s municipal office block was named one of the ugliest buildings in the country. But the tide was starting to turn.  

Rochdale had started to punch above its weight when it came to dining out with Wow Yao ChowBombay Brew (reviewed here) and Vicolo del Vino opening their doors. You can’t just ‘incentivise’ these businesses, like you can with big chains, to come to your town. These independent entrepreneurs are precious, vital to a town’s image and need nurturing. 

2020 01 27 Bombay Brew Interior 3
Bombay Brew in Rochdale

For this reason, with the support of Paul Ambrose at the Rochdale BID, I established the Early Evening Economy Board (EEE) to support these businesses and give them a direct line to the council through me. It is led by the businesses, but with my support. 

At the latest EEE meeting, and through direct contact from other business owners, I was made aware of the crazy world inhabited by some landlords. Obviously, some traders have had to stop paying rent given they have had to shut the doors but the reaction from some landlords has been appalling despite the fact courts will not be entertaining evictions

In one case, after a single missed payment, the landlord demanded upfront monies for several months and refused to budge on the tenant paying full rent. These types of occurrences are not unique and have put some restaurant owners under undue pressure. Ridiculous demands will only see tenants in financial ruin and the hard work of this business community will be lost due to their landlord’s short sightedness.  

Here is my letter (which gets amended depending on the recipient) to the landlords who have been quietly trying to squeeze Rochdale’s businesses. I kept it positive in tone, but it will be interesting to see how they respond given many businesses received council grants when occupying these landlords’ buildings.  

Dear <Landlord>

I am writing on behalf of the Early Evening Economy Board for Rochdale Town Centre and seeking your support on how you can help your tenants at this time. The council and RDA are continuing to support businesses across the borough at this difficult time and in particular have been administering business rate relief, government grants and offering advice and guidance.

The Early Evening Economy Board have asked me to seek your help so that we can ensure a sustainable town centre proposition into the future for local business and landlords. As you will be aware, the council has driven an ambitious £250m investment in the town centre over the last 5 years and with the prospect of over £150m more to come over the next 5 years. We are asking landlords to work closely with their tenants and consider carefully any rent and service charge demands to ensure that when the lock down ends we are able to reopen the town to attract people back in to use local businesses. I would encourage you to play your part during the short term to support our longer term vision. We are currently devising plans on what the council will be able to do to support businesses and I would be grateful if you could detail what you plan on doing to support your tenants through this period and when they reopen.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor John Blundell

Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Business, Skills and Employment

C/o Number One Riverside, Floor 2, Smith Street, Rochdale, OL16 1XU

Email: john.blundell@rochdale.gov.uk

The recent uproar about Altrincham Market’s business rates has been (in my opinion) shamefully whipped up by the owner Nick Johnson and is nothing more than a media stunt. I do not believe for a second he does not know Trafford Council does not set the level of business rates. 

Nick suggests that people could help by commenting on Facebook, emailing or tweeting using the hashtag #GetBehindUsTrafford to public figures like @AndyBurnhamGM. But the Mayor of Greater Manchester has nothing to do with Nick’s problem although saying otherwise certainly whips up attention.   

Altrincham Market House
Trafford council do not set the business rates for Altrincham Market House

Nick was worried about the reaction from his traders for passing the new cost on or (even worse) he thought he might have to take a hit himself. He could have just announced he was working with the council to speak to the Valuation Office Agency (who actually sets the rates) to adjust the valuation, but that wouldn’t have caused such a furore on social media would it?

Trafford Council supported his company, Market Operations, in taking on the market and he has made a massive success out of it. No doubt he should be held in high esteem for this, but using the council to politicise a situation, when you know it has nothing to do with the council, is morally dubious. 

I wonder what Mr Johnson pays Trafford Council (the tax payer) for use of the building and what he charges the market’s tenants? It is likely he is making a mint. The people who lose out here will be Altrincham Market’s traders, just like the business owners in Rochdale with like-minded landlords.

2019 11 20 Rochdale
Rochdale had started to punch above its weight when it came to dining out

I appreciate that for some landlords the rent will be their only income but that is also true of the wages of the people being laid off. Business owners have been avoiding paying bills so that they can pay salaries while they wait for the government to pay the furloughing scheme’s money in to their bank account. 

Everybody is going to have to take a hit because of this pandemic. 

Some landlords have bent over backwards - and we applaud them for this - but some have been behaving badly. Society needs bars and restaurants but being in debt to demanding landlords might be too much to cope with for many. We must remember in normal times most tenants pay on time and look after their premises. 

For the reasons I have spelled out, watching landlords sit on businesses they know don’t have the cash is like watching somebody chew their nose off to spite their face. All I will say is, when it comes to your tenants, you might find you don’t know what you’ve got until it is gone.

About the author

Occasional contributor John Blundell is a Labour councillor for Smallbridge and Firgrove, and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Business, Skills & Employment on Rochdale Council.

Like this? Read: Manchester bars and restaurants unite to request a desperately needed rent pause