Louisa Biswas manages Richmond’s Fox and Duck on behalf of her partner, Colin Verrall, and mother Priti Biswas, who hold the Ei tied tenancy.
The lease was due to expire in September and the family say that after they expressed a desire to purchase the freehold, Ei presented them with £248,000 dilapidations bill which was, according to Louisa, to ‘scare’ and ‘intimidate’ them.
However, The Morning Advertiser has seen documentation that shows the bill has recently been revised down to £110,217, including fees and £86,000 for the works inclusive of VAT.
Ei Group, however, has denied the accusations, rejecting any claims the company has behaved improperly.
Louisa, 38, said: “We could probably build a new pub for what they wanted in dilapidations.
“We’d like to go down the MRO (market-rent-only option) route or buy the place, but I’m convinced Ei want us to leave so they can put their own manager in or develop the site for residential property.”
Mrs Biswas, 60, and Mr Verrall, 42, took on the Fox and Duck in 2006.
Louisa assumed a management role following her mother’s poor health and her partner’s return to employment.
She says the family was told by their business development manager in 2016 that Ei planned to take the pub back.
Ei then wrote to Mrs Biswas and Mr Verrall in September 2017 – two years before the end of their tenancy – to arrange a dilapidations inspection, claiming the family had asked to re-assign their lease.
Louisa says no such request was ever made, and referred her dispute to the pubs code adjudicator in November 2017.
A dilapidations inspection went ahead and, in March last year, the family were stunned to receive a bill totalling £248,000, plus a notice under section 146 of the Law of Property Act ordering them to carry out repairs or forfeit their tenancy.
Louisa said: “The building works came to £164,000 plus VAT and the rest was made up of court and solicitors fees. Every little thing was itemised, which we’ve been advised is unheard of.
“They’d estimated a cost of £750 just for clearing some stored goods out of the way in a basement cupboard so it could be properly inspected, and added £10,000 to the bill for decorating the accommodation upstairs – without even seeing it.
“They’d costed thousands and thousands of pounds for various health and safety certificates, which they’d claimed were unavailable when in fact they were.
“It’s blatant scaremongering. Most publicans would walk away from a bill like that, which, of course, is exactly what they want.”
Louisa says the family commissioned their own surveyor, who put the cost of works at £23k and advised them, that in his opinion, Ei’s notice was “clearly designed to put [them] under some sort of commercial pressure.”
After completing some of the work, a subsequent joint inspection valued the remainder at around £85,000 – about half the original estimate – but Louisa says her own surveyor stands by his original sum.
“This has come out of nowhere,” she says.
“In 12 years, we have had one full inspection by Ei. We were told everything was fine and to continue with our exterior decorations, as we were halfway through.
Never told to complete any work
“We also had two property inspections by chartered surveyors during two rent reviews and were never told to complete any work.
“Otherwise, the regional manager might do the odd walk around but they never bothered coming upstairs and we were always advised that, apart from the need for the odd lick of paint, everything was fine.
“It doesn’t seem right that they can drop this huge bill on us after telling us for years that there were no issues.”
Deputy pubs code adjudicator Fiona Dickie asked Ei to back up its dilapidations claim with further documents demonstrating a history of property inspections.
The company submitted 10 condition and standards reports dated between 2012 and 2016, but all bar one are unsigned by a representative of the venue.
Louisa said: “Only one report, dated 13 July 2015, is supposedly signed by mother, but we were told on that date by the property manager that not much work needed doing.”
She disputes her mother actually signed the report and said the PCA has thus far refused to adjudicate on the issue as the documents submitted by Ei date from before the pubs code was introduced in July 2016.
In March this year, Ei wrote to the family confirming it had withdrawn its section 146 notice – and issuing a section 25 notice in its place, accusing the tenants of buying out of tie, an accusation they refute.
Louisa added: “We are not going to just walk away. We’re keen to make the pub work, either under an MRO tenancy or by buying it outright. [But] for Ei, neither seems to be an option.”
A spokesperson for Ei Group said: “These allegations are completely unfounded and we reject any accusation of improper behaviour.”