Stevenage indoor market traders criticise council’s decision to charge full rent

Stevenage Indoor Market

Stevenage Indoor Market - Credit: Archant

A number of Stevenage’s market traders said they felt “disgusted” and “shocked” after finding out they will be expected to pay full rent to the borough council when their businesses are still shut due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The traders, who own cafes, hair and beauty salons or phone repair stalls, have responded to the council’s decision to halt the rent–freeze they had afforded the indoor market stalls for April.

Sharon Dichiara, whose business has operated in the indoor market for more than 10 years, said she was “disgusted” after receiving a letter from Stevenage Borough Council, informing her that she will be charged more than £137 each week for rent.

She said: “I was shocked, disgusted and gobsmacked when I opened that letter.

“We’re following government guidance and isolating, but we’re being charged by the council for something we aren’t using. Stevenage could lose that market because of this.”

Paula Carroll, of Herts Hair & Beauty, was “flabbergasted” when she received her letter.

She argues that everyone’s cost of living is set to rise after lockdown, and charging full rent will only “add to the problem of trying to stay afloat.”

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Barry Crouch, co–owner of Mandy’s Café in the indoor market, agreed and said he and his wife were very upset when SBC informed them they would be expected to pay full rent as of May 4.

Barry said: “Myself and some of the other traders want to know why the council has decided to charge full rents now. What has changed between now and March to make them decide to charge rent again?”

The couple, like many other small business owners across the country, were given a government–backed £10,000 business support grant in April. This has been used to cover their loss of personal income, as the café has been shut for more than two months now.

But the uncertainty over when cafés, pubs and other businesses in the hospitality sector can return to a sense of ‘normality’ is raising more questions than answers, says Barry.

“I’ve not received a penny in income from our business since March. We’ve had to dispose or give away all of our perishable items, that’s hundreds of pounds worth of stock just down the drain. We’re still paying to rent our coffee machines too.

“I don’t understand how SBC can charge us rent, including an electricity bill, for a property we haven’t been using. Worst of all, we don’t know when we will be able to return and what sort of measures we will have to put in place.

“I also want to send a message to our customers, that we can’t wait for the day when you’re back in Mandys. We miss you all so much.”

In response to the traders’ complaints, a spokeswoman from Stevenage Borough Council said: “We know that businesses across the country are experiencing exceptionally difficult times due to COVID-19 and the lockdown.

“This is why we stopped charging rent when the Government initially instructed most traders to close in March.

“We reviewed this at the end of April, taking into account the small business grant of £10,000 – for ongoing business costs, such as rent – which all of our traders were eligible to receive.

“To date, the Government’s support to the council has only covered around 25 per cent of the financial impact of COVID-19, and we need to consider how much local residents should be expected to subsidise the Indoor Market through council tax.

“We’re therefore asking traders to contribute some of the grant towards the ongoing costs of the market, which is in line with its intended purpose.

“We will review this at the end of the month, taking into account any further government support and the likely reopening date of the market. If any traders have difficulties making payments, we would encourage them to get in touch with us.”

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