Tenants of the Reuben Brothers' Wellington Pub Company are pleading with the group to cease "aggressive" rent demands and engage in "meaningful discussions".
The Catererreported in April last year that an action group made up of Wellington Pub Company tenants claimed the group was not communicating except to say that it expected the next quarter's rent, despite many pubs being closed due to coronavirus restrictions.
Alison Ward-Baptiste and her partner Alexander Venables took over the lease of a derelict property in Bradford on Avon in 2015, refurbished it at their own expense and opened as the George (pictured), which, like many pubs has been closed by lockdowns and tier restrictions over the last year.
According to Ward-Baptiste, Wellington Pub Company, the largest free-of-tie pub estate in the UK, which is managed by Criterion Asset Management (CAM), has since offered tenants three months of no rent and six months of half rent, but only if they extend their leases by five years – and have refused to engage with tenants who try to negotiate.
Ward-Baptiste said: "It's huge for them to have another five years on each lease with RPIs every year going up and five-yearly rent increases."
This is despite a message posted on the group's website suggesting that tenants will not have to pay rent for last November while England was in lockdown. It said: "We remain open to discussions with all remaining tenants to find a mutually beneficial solution to support them during the current and previous periods of closure brought about by the coronavirus pandemic."
In October, the group said more than half of its tenants had agreed to rent concessions along with an extended lease agreement and that "until meaningful dialogue has taken place, Wellington will not be taking any action with regard to rent arrears that may have arisen since the start of the Covid-19 crisis".
But several tenants have reported "aggressive or unpleasant" conversations with CAM staff regarding non-payment of rent. And those who operate on assigned leases (ie bought a partial lease from a previous lessee rather than agreed a new lease with Wellington directly) discovered that Section 17 notices were being sent out to the previous lessees, informing them of the rent arrears of the current tenant, and advising that they would potentially be liable for the arrears.
As most of Wellington's pubs are not tied, they are not regulated by the government's Pubs Code Adjudicator. Ward-Baptiste said that for many tenants, the only other communication they have had with the company has been messages posted on the Wellington Pub Company website. She hopes the company will agree to write off pub rents for the periods of closure.
She said: "Everything is going to come to an end at the end of March when the moratorium ends. The furlough's coming to an end the following month, all the bounce-back loans have to start being repaid from June, and VAT's deferred until the end of March. It's all coming up to this enormous car crash at the end of March."
She added: "There does need to be meaningful discussions with their tenants, because we're all different businesses, we're all very different properties, different areas, different demographics. But they need to communicate. Sticking statements up on your website is not the way to communicate with a 750-site estate."
In December, both Star Pubs and Greene King offered pubs closed by the tier restrictions rent concessions of 90%.
Criterion Asset Management has been contacted for comment.
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