The community-run Deptford Cinema (Lewisham borough's only cinema and one run entirely by volunteers) is petitioning Lewisham Council to reconsider its demand that full business rates should be paid on the property in Deptford Broadway.
The petition sets out a long and pretty woeful tale of confusion, misinformation and downright obstruction by the council's business rates department.
The cinema is incorporated as a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, yet the council is applying standard business rates bill to it.
The petition explains:
Over the last 6-9 months, we have been in constant communication with Lewisham Council to alleviate this problem via the proper channels of relief, whether it be small business relief or hardship relief, both of which we believe to apply to us. Lewisham Council disagrees. Lewisham Council advised us to become a charity to automatically get the 80% rates relief applicable to charities.
This wasn't immediately undertaken due to various factors, such as the ongoing relief applications, third-party advice that CIC was the correct form for the organisation and support from Steve Bullock, the Mayor of Lewisham, whom, over this period, has twice stepped in to support the cinema - by putting a 6 month hold on Deptford Cinema's rates status.
When all our relief applications had failed, with no solid explanation why, and apparently, with no appeal process available, converting to a charity became our only option, one that would reduce future rates by 80% but would not solve the unfair and unpayable historical bill.
Then we received a letter, the best letter we could hope for, from the Business Rates Manager at Lewisham Council. If we converted to a charity, the council would retroactively apply the statutory 80% charity relief to our existing account.
With volunteers now spending their time working towards the organisation becoming a charity; Lewisham Council then told us over the phone that the letter was a mistake and they would not be honouring this promise.
Back to square one... But worse: the Council wants Deptford Cinema to pay the outstanding business rates (£5,400) over three months and the rates for 2016/2017 in one payment (£6,897). Both of which will bankrupt and destroy a community asset.
Three volunteers therefore arranged a meeting with the head of business rates of Lewisham Council. We took our extensive business plan, showing the continued growth and sustainability of a young local project which is still not finished, and two proposals for payment:
- In light of the letter promising 80% relief, would it be possible to have 50% relief? It will still stifle the growth of the project, but it could be manageable...
- ..if not, instead of a reduction and instead of three instalments, could we extend over a longer period such as 32 months.
First, just so you know, there weren't enough seats at the meeting, so one of our volunteers, a 61 year-old retiree had to kneel for the duration of the meeting with the council, with no offer to fetch him a chair from elsewhere. Second, no interest was taken in the materials we'd brought to the meeting and both of our suggested proposals were rejected. Third, that letter I mentioned with the promise of 80% relief, the council tried to keep hold of it at the meeting.
At no point have we tried to avoid paying our rates. Instead, we've tried to work with the Council to solve the problem and ask them to recognise Deptford Cinema for what it is, a charity in all but legal status. We are now faced with a deadline for payment, after which the Council will send round the bailiffs and destroy a project run by the community in Lewisham, for the community in Lewisham.
It's a pretty embarrassing story for the council and it sounds as if launching a petition is the last thing that Deptford Cinema wants to do, but the council has left them stuck between a rock and a hard place. So much for supporting creativity and the arts in Deptford.