A SOLE trader has warned that steep hikes in pitch fees, introduced by the district council, will force him, and potentially others, out of business. Since the summer of 2020, Stephen Shimmons has been operating a mobile coffee business from the Bloody Bridge, on the outskirts of Newcastle. His converted horsebox has proved a huge hit with locals and visitors alike, providing drinks and snacks from the popular beauty spot’s car park along the coast road. That first year of trading, and whilst the world was in the grip of the pandemic, Stephen paid the council £940, the full year’s amount despite coming into the lease midway. The following March he again secured the pitch, having paid a further £940. However, Mr Shimmons was more recently advised that, to secure the exclusive Bloody Bridge site, which serves the 40-space car park and passing trade, he would need to put in a minimum bid of £4,000 by the end of this month. The issue arises due to the fact the council has a number of what are, effectively, licensed trading pitches for food, coffee and ice-cream vendors which can be applied for on an annual basis. These licence fees need paid by 1 April. Mr Shimmons explained that in the 2021/2022 financial year, council decided to change the pitch structure – with some of them, including the Bloody Bridge, the Twelve Arches at Murlough, Cranfield, the Silent Valley and Tyrella Beach – falling under the council’s tourism department’s remit. Others, including those in Ballynahinch and Dundrum, all remain at the original annual fee of just less than £1,000 with the others initially seeing an increase to £2,000 per annum, with subsequent increases in fees from there on. To compound matters, and as Stephen put it, “add further insult to injury”, the pitches with the increased fees are now part of a tender process, which require minimum bids of £4,000. The Cabra man has warned Newry, Mourne and Down District Council it is “playing with people’s livelihoods”, and fears he, and others, will “be forced out of business”. He has accused the council of putting his livelihood “in jeopardy” and said that, with the current economic crisis, businesses find themselves with rising overheads and bills. The district council, he added, “really needs to take a reality check”. Levelling criticism at how local small businesses, primarily sole traders, appear to be the hardest hit by these “inflated and grossly unfair charges”, he added that in the past pitch fees could be paid off on a monthly basis, but now council wants an upfront lump payment, which would add a further level of financial burden and stress. “To be told that the whole amount would need paid upfront is just another blow,” he said, before appealing to council to adopt “a sensible, fair and realistic approach”. “Times are tough enough. Businesses like mine are coming out of a really tough few years, and these exorbitant fees are just too much to take, especially with the economy as it is and what small-scale traders such as myself are currently faced with. There need to be an urgent rethink on this,” he continued. Mr Shimmons said similar mobile businesses across the district, including those which had operated at Tyrella Beach, Cranfield and Spelga Dam, have already given up their pitches. He fears he will be forced to follow suit. The local man, who launched his new business at the height of the pandemic, has levelled criticism at the council for “massively misjudging and misreading the situation.” “This is absolutely scandalous,” he said. “Barriers seem to be put in the way of people like me, independent traders who have no aspirations of expansion, who are doing their utmost to run a business by themselves. To me, the council has a corporate mindset. Businesses are struggling, we need assistance, not extortionate charges.” He continued: “Sole traders, such as me, are out there grafting away, trying to carry on and make whatever we can. For the council to come up with fees well over four times what I originally paid just a few summers back is wrong. It’s as simple as that. “There’s hardly a day that goes by when there’s not a reference on the TV, radio or papers to the plight of small businesses and, at the minute, we’ve reached a point of no return. I am sick of the stress and worry of losing my livelihood; the council is putting it on the line,” he claimed. Mr Shimmons added: “I feel like I am being backed into a corner and it’s a case of ‘pay the £4,000 or I’m out of a job’ and that’s just wrong.” Confirming that he has contacted Chris Hazzard MP, Diane Forsythe MLA and Councillor Andrew McMurray, Mr Shimmons concluded by saying the council’s “extortionately inflated” fees and the approach taken “is nothing short of an absolute insult”. In response to the criticisms levelled by Mr Shimmons, a spokesperson for the district council said: “Newry, Mourne and Down District Council has tendered for mobile vendor provision at a number of sites throughout the district. “The tendering process is open to the market, with the licence conditions for trading on designated sites clearly detailed as part of the bidding process.”
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