Sports store shuts up shop

Jane Walker with her dog Ben who is having to close her shop, Northumbrian Mountain Sports in Morpeth after 27 years due to the council doubling her rent.
Jane Walker with her dog Ben who is having to close her shop, Northumbrian Mountain Sports in Morpeth after 27 years due to the council doubling her rent.

A LONG-STANDING Morpeth business is shutting up shop after being hit with a huge increase in council charges.

Northumbria Mountain Sports has served the town for more than 25 years, as well as sending its goods around the world and kitting out customers to take on Everest and the Arctic.

But its present owners Jane and Alan Walker say they expect to close by Christmas after landlord Northumberland County Council doubled their bills.

Mrs Walker said: “I’m having to close.

“For about a year now we have been writing letters and having meetings with the council, but it won’t back down.

“We knew we had a good low rent, but in the current climate you can’t expect it to double, which is what it is going to be. I think it is ridiculous wanting to increase the rent so much.”

The couple took on the shop as a going concern 12 years ago and had an agreement with the former Castle Morpeth Council to sub-let part of The Chantry.

However, they did not have to pay business rates under the terms of the lease due to sharing the building with the craft centre, having no facilities of their own and having to ensure access to their premises for the Chantry’s utilities.

But now the county council, which took over as landlord in the 2009 local government restructure, is demanding that business rates are paid.

Initially the Walkers say they were presented with a backdated bill of £67,000 and now the council is seeking payments dating back to April, which they dispute.

In any case, they will see their bills rise from £18,000 rent a year to £36,000, including business rates.

Mr Walker said: “We have never paid rates, this is how it has always been, but the council just says we need to pay rates. It says we were in a unique position, but it allowed that in the past and we never had to pay rates. It was a unique position, but that is the position we were in.

“We bought the business as a going concern about 12 years ago and there were no problems at all with Castle Morpeth Council. We had a slight increase in the rent every year of two or three per cent, but we never had a problem with the rates.

“People would think if the county council was your landlord you would have a caring landlord, but it is absolutely dreadful.”

Mr Walker says the relationship soured after the 2008 flood when the shop was deluged.

It re-opened within months, but he says repairs have been outstanding ever since and the couple withheld rent until work was done.

He said: “There was a lot of work that hadn’t been done by the council and this went on for years and years.

“We are talking about hundreds of phone calls and dozens of letters and nothing was getting done. We got to the point where we just said we are not paying any more rent until we get this resolved.

“I personally think the council has just thought ‘get rid of them’.

“The funny thing is that my wife was on television and in the papers after the flood because we were one of the first shops to re-open.

“She was really positive about it. I wonder if they would like to see what has happened four years down the line.”

The Walkers say they asked the council to investigate their complaint, but were later told they didn’t have a case. Now they have written to the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate.

However, any decision will be too late to save their shop.

“We will see what the Ombudsman says, but we will close down. What else can we do? You can’t double somebody’s rent and think they are going to find the money. We need to close now before we start losing money,” said Mr Walker.

“We have had customers nearly in tears about this. We ship things all over the world — I’ve sent things to Venezuela before. We’ve supplied the fire brigade, the prison service and the police. People have climbed Everest and been to the Arctic and Antarctic supplied by this shop.

“You just get to a point where you’ve had enough.”

Northumberland County Council Corporate Director of Finance Steven Mason said: “We never want to take this sort of action, but we have a duty to protect the revenue, which helps support the services we provide to local people.

“If we don’t collect the expected amount of money from taxes and charges it means that we have to make savings in other areas. At a time when we’re already facing major reductions to our budgets we can’t ignore these type of debts.

“We have been working with this business for some time to try to come up with a solution where the debt could be repaid, but unfortunately we’ve not been able to reach an agreement and we’re now acting to recover that debt.

“This business now owes the council a significant sum of money and is still in arrears for the rent for a good retail location in the town centre.”