Heathfield community centre faces 700 per cent rent rise

Heathfield Community Centre
Heathfield Community Centre

Members of a parish council were left reeling when landlords of their leased community centre raised the annual rent seven hundred per cent.

In 1990 Heathfield and Waldron Parish Council signed a 999 year lease on the Sheepsetting Lane building with owners, NHS Property Services. They had been paying an annual rent of £11,700. This month a bill arrived at the council’s High Street HQ with a demand for £20,247,92 for three months from April to June. The reason given was that Property Services must now charge market value rents.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the council’s environment and leisure committee, Parish Clerk Diana Francis told members negotiations with both Property Services and other NHS tenants which use the building are ongoing. She said: “We have continued to pay £975 per month as a gesture of goodwill. In the meantime we have also paid for ten hours of legal advice (charged at £240 per hour.) A meeting has been arranged with both tenants and Property Services for August 10.”

Committee chairman Cllr Mike Robinson explained: “We have made significant progress over who pays for what but still greater clarity is needed. We agreed the peppercorn rent when the lease was first signed. It was not like a commercial lease. Watch this space.”

Asked why the council is obliged to pay part of the rent, Diana Francis replied: “There is no break clause and that would involve legal negotiations and a great deal of cost.”

Responding to Cllr Tim Waterhouse who asked why the property was first taken on, Cllr Robinson replied: “We were pleased to have access to such a good facility. There was nothing else around at the time. We had no other viable option in Heathfield.” He explained the Property Trust say they are obliged to charge on a commercial basis as directed by the Government. He went on: “That bill came out of the blue but we took legal advice and now we are getting back to what is a sensible position. We are in the process of looking at the lease and getting in contact with the people in power - the people who listen. We are going in the right direction.”

After debate, members accepted the recommendation that there should be no increase in fees and proposed that fees should continue at the current level. An NHS Property Services spokesman said: “We have met with the council and have arranged to meet again to clarify the figures.” The organisation confirmed changes are being made to charges for the financial year 2016/17 which includes a move to market-based rental charging on all freehold properties agreed with the Department of Health and NHS England. They say: “The move to market rents is consistent with initiatives introduced more widely across central government to improve utilisation and value for money in property occupancy.