Campaigner Sam writes:
About two years ago, I saw a post on the Brockley Central blog advertising a new community project. Lewisham was one of only two London boroughs with no cinema at all and Deptford Cinema was a not-for-profit community project looking to rectify this and it needed volunteers to make it happen.
Deptford Cinema aims to provide affordable access to cinema and the arts for the people of Lewisham. Anybody is free to get involved in whatever capacity they want. The project took a building on Deptford Broadway that had been empty for 20 years and has turned it into a thriving arts venue in Lewisham.
The cinema is incorporated as a Community Interest Company (CIC), a type of company designed for social enterprises that want to use their profits and assets for public good. Despite this, Lewisham Council treat our community project - run by local volunteers - exactly the same as a company designed purely for profit. As a result, the Council are applying an unpayable business rates bill to the cinema. Some boroughs give relief to CICs; Lewisham Council does not.
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, who, 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.
But then the Council told us 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.
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. A community you would hope the council sees themselves as part of and representative of.
We want Lewisham Council to honour their promise of retroactively applying the 80% statutory charity relief to Deptford Cinema when the transition to a charity is complete in the next month or so.
Please support us by clicking here to sign our petition.