The People's Supermarket is put at risk of ‘imminent closure' as council talks to bailiffs

Saturday, 25th February 2012

Published: 25 February, 2012

by RICHARD OSLEY

THE Town Hall has confirmed it has ordered bailiffs to reclaim unpaid business rate debts from The People's Supermarket, the co-op-style shop in Holborn filmed for a prime-time Channel 4 documentary, and the scene of one of Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" launch days.

The shop in Lamb's Conduit Street said it was at risk of "imminent closure" due to its inability to keep up with the council's demands for money.

It is calling on its supporters to lobby the Town Hall with a petition aimed at securing a rescue package by allowing business rate payments to be renegotiated. But the council, which provided a grant to help it get off the ground when it first opened, is understood to be wary of giving the shop any special breaks, especially with other businesses in Holborn and elsewhere in the borough interested in how the council responds.

In a statement, The People's Supermarket reminded the council of its unique set-up of using people living nearby as staff – workers who receive discounts on their weekly food shopping rather than salaries.

It said: "The People's Supermarket is a co-operative and community benefit society and operates for the benefit of its members and the community. It is by no means in pursuit of profit. Although our takings have been increasing we are still having problems paying our business rates. For that reason we ask that Camden Council continue to support us by allowing for the renegotiation of business rate payments. In the absence of such support, The People's Supermarket will become insolvent by March 1st. This will force us to close the shop."

The People's Supermarket also says it is owed several thousands of pounds for helping people under the government's back to work scheme.

Channel 4 closely followed the shop's creation and opening by filming founder Arthur Potts Dawson, one of London's most admired chefs who has worked with Jamie Oliver and created the Acorn House restaurant in King’s Cross. He promised The People's Supermarket would be better than big-name supermarkets in the area by dealing with the amount of unsold food that is wasted every week.

Although the founders say they do not want to become embroiled in party politics, the issue of Camden's business rates and the shop's survival came up last year when government ministers tried to intervene over unpaid bills.

Bob Neill, an MP in Eric Pickles's Department for Communities and Local Government, wrote to Camden's Labour council leader Councillor Nash Ali to ask why the shop could not be given special relief.

"The People's Supermarket is a great example of a sustainable food co-operative working within a local area, providing healthy, local food at reasonable prices. The fact it is high profile by virtue of the Channel 4 documentary also provides positive publicity and inspiration to other co-operative around the country," said Mr Neill at the time.

The store had been visited by Mr Cameron last year on the day he re-launched his Big Society drive – the idea of people giving up their spare time to muck in with community projects.

Speaking last March, Mr Potts Dawson, a nephew of Mick Jagger, said the shop had “always had a lot of support from Camden Council”, adding: “We were just a political football. We are not a politically affiliated business. This all came about after David Cameron visited the supermarket and asked us what he could do to help. He tried to help by writing a public letter, which I didn’t think was that helpful.”

A Town Hall spokesman said yesterday (Saturday): "The council has provided advice and support to the People’s Supermarket, and originally provided a £25,000 grant to assist with the costs of starting up this project.  The People’s Supermarket is not exempt from paying the same business rates charges as other rateable businesses within the borough and while we have instructed bailiffs to collect arrears owed for 2010/11 we are continuing to work with them to find a practical solution that will enable them to pay arrears owed for 2011/12.”

Scores of the shop's supporters have already signed the online petition. Natalie Shute wrote: “Why is it when someone tries to do something good, they get shot down at every opportunity? I'm sure this country doesn't really want change and just wants to control us all, don't let this great idea stop.”

Karl Wilding added: “The People's Supermarket is an organisation that is building the social economy we want to see: it's a real alternative to irresponsible capitalism. Camden, please help them through their difficulties in the short term so that they can preserve their capacity for the long term. Like all organisations they need help with cash flow – I think some help now will provide value for the taxpayer in the long term."

And Elaine Cobb said: "This is a ground-breaking project, restoring a sense of community, changing the way people think about produce as well as being fair to producers. It would be a terrible shame if Camden council did not support the People's Supermarket to stay open."

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