A shop owner has threatened to walk away if Bath and North East Somerset Council keeps charging rent while the property is shuttered.
Sally Marks from French Grey warned that there will be many more empty shops if the authority, a major landlord in Bath, does not look after its tenants.
Will Godfrey, the council’s chief executive, said it does not want anyone to go out of business but needs money coming in to fund core services.
Leader Dine Romero said a £10 million grant from Government “doesn’t touch the sides” when the council is facing a £54million deficit.
Ms Marks posed a question at a meeting on the city’s economy organised over Zoom by Bath BID last week: “Why is B&NES Council still charging rent on shops in Bath?
“There are a lot of empty shops and there will be a lot more. Surely now is the time to look after the tenants.
“My lease is due for renewal in a couple of years and I won’t renew it if the council continues to ask for rent at this unprecedented time.
“I have a shop in Cirencester owned by a private landlord and he readily agreed to three months rent free.”
Mr Godfrey replied: “This is a dilemma for the council. We spend £120million on all of our services. £35million is supported by income we generate, which is principally from three sources: commercial property, car park income and tourist activity.
“We have to manage that dilemma – between encouraging businesses and protecting the income base of the council to continue providing our core services.
“We’re happy to speak to individuals about their circumstances and to try to manage the current situation as effectively as possible.
“We don’t want to see people going out of business but we need to understand what those individual circumstances are, and come to a judgment about how we help them whilst then retaining the income base we need.
“We’re happy to consider the options on a case-by-case basis. We will consider all sorts of arrangements.”
Councillor Romero added: “At the beginning of the crisis we had a meeting with Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. He promised us that we would not be out of pocket from this crisis.
“So far we’ve had £10million come in. We have a predicted deficit of £54million. That amount of money doesn’t touch the sides.
“We really need to know that we’re going to be compensated for the rest of what we’ve spent and the lost revenues.
“We will continue to support any application that comes to us to find a way forward for those businesses.”
Bath MP Wera Hobhouse said: “The council doesn’t have the same flexibility [as a private landlord]. Services are under pressure. The council has vulnerable people to support. It needs the income.”
Support available for businesses can be found at https://beta.bathnes.gov.uk/coronavirus. Options include grants and discounts on business rates.
The council’s Invest in Bath service is co-ordinating support services to businesses during the lockdown and can be contacted at [email protected]
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter