By NEIL RIDDELL
CHRIS Hodge’s days as a retailer in Lerwick are set to come to an end within weeks after a writ was served asking him to vacate the Gremista warehouse from which he has operated for the past three years.
The building is owned by Judane Ltd., which is now seeking to evict Mr Hodge from the premises as he has not paid any rent since 1st March. The two parties are now communicating through their lawyers and Judane director Frank Miller said he understood a legal notice has now been served asking Mr Hodge to leave the building, which he has to respond to before the end of this month.
The news comes as the beleaguered businessman again hit out at the council after the latest in a seemingly endless series of clashes with the SIC since he arrived in Shetland four years ago. His relationship with the trading standards department since they began attempting to force him to surrender his stock of Dora novelty lighters became so fraught that trading standards manager David Marsh shouted and swore at him during one particularly heated exchange.
Mr Hodge told The Shetland Times this week that he was hoping to be able to keep the business going for six weeks, or as long as possible, and that although he was aware of suggestions that he was perpetrating a “con” on the people of Shetland by constantly saying he was on the verge of shutting down, he was simply trying to hang on for as long as possible so that he could clear the bulk of his stock, pay his staff and minimise his debts.
He only has temporary storage capacity for around a quarter of the stock, while he still has 10 employees, down from a high of around 30 staff. “I am closing down,” he stressed. “But I’ve still got staff, I’ve still got responsibilities.”
Mr Hodge said he was now unable to pay the rent because the business is “not drawing that much money”. He believes he has spent around £500,000 on improvements to the building, as well as £5,000 a month in rent and substantial legal costs over a long-term period.
There have been fairly persistent rumours in the community that supermarket groups Aldi and Lidl are interested in purchasing the former knitwear factory at Gremista. Mr Miller would only say this week that there are several potential interested parties, but it is understood that the budget grocery chains are not among them.
The quarrel between Mr Hodge and the council’s trading standards department became so personalised that the budget salesman was shouted and sworn at by Mr Marsh earlier this year. The department took Mr Hodge to court last week to force him to forfeit hundreds of novelty lighters, the sale of which is prohibited inside the European Union.
Mr Hodge revealed that on 22nd May, when asked for evidence to back up their order that 39 different types of novelty lighter should not be sold, Mr Marsh initially refused. When he pressed him for an answer, Mr Marsh shouted “f**k you then” before slamming the door and leaving Mr Hodge’s premises.
Mr Marsh and fellow officer Mari Grains, he said, had subsequently offered their apologies for Mr Marsh’s behaviour but he had chosen not to accept. He feels the trading standards service is just the latest arm of the council pursuing a “personal vendetta” against him, following previous well-documented run-ins with the planning department and environmental health.
The lighters, which the businessman estimates to have a total value of around £10,000-£15,000, were removed from sale in May and Mr Hodge was forced to give them up last week following his appearance at Lerwick Sheriff Court.
He ridiculed documentation he had received from trading standards suggesting that one novelty lighter, a drinking mug, looked “similar” to an EU image of a teapot and said he had been further infuriated by a letter last weekend asking him to provide proof that he had dispensed with hundreds of lighters before his remaining stock was seized last week.
Mr Hodge said he had reason to believe the same type of lighters had been on sale from other retailers in the isles and that he was being singled out for special treatment. He pointed out that thousands of the lighters were available online, including at auction site eBay, and claimed that all trading standards were doing was driving islanders onto the internet and away from local shops. “If they want to force people into online shopping then they’re going the right way about it,” he said.
But Mr Marsh said the action taken by the council in dealing with the lighters was “appropriate and proportionate to the particular circumstances, and would have been the same if they had been found on the premises of any other retailer in Shetland”.
He did not deny having sworn at the retailer on his shop floor and said: “If Mr Hodge wishes to make a formal complaint about any aspect of our actions, the council’s complaints procedure is available to him.”
Mr Marsh said the department had no option but to seize the novelty lighters because they contravened legislation requiring all lighters to have child-resistant mechanisms and be accompanied by appropriate safety warnings. He added that the directive in question had been introduced by the EU following estimates of between 1,500-1,900 injuries and 34-40 fatalities a year caused by fire-related accidents caused by children playing with lighters.
He said: “We always try to resolve matters without the need for formal enforcement action, but in this case discussions with the procurator fiscal concluded that an application for a court order was in the public interest.”
Mr Hodge admitted this week that his attempts to sue the council for the bulk of the estimated £1m losses he has incurred on the venture were foundering. The SIC’s planning department initially advised him that he would not require a change of use application for the warehouse, before performing a U-turn on the day he was due to purchase it from Judane, which Mr Hodge blames for a substantial chunk of the losses he has incurred by having to continue renting the property.
The council then refused to grant planning consent when an application was lodged before being forced into a humiliating retreat following a Scottish Executive-led public inquiry in Lerwick.
Mr Hodge said he initially had a gentlemen’s agreement with Mr Miller to buy the building for £600,000 but last year they asked for more money because, he claims, they had received a higher offer from another party. He then offered to pay the owners a reduced monthly rent, which was also declined and they have now received no rent for over four months.
But according to legal advice he has received, it is unlikely that the future profitability or otherwise of the business could be blamed on the council’s negligence. Advocate Roddy Dunlop wrote to Mr Hodge earlier this month stating: “Nothing … persuades me that there is a valid claim here, since none of the losses asserted were either within the scope of the duty owed by the council or relevantly ‘caused’ by breach of that duty.”
Mr Hodge’s troubles date back to 2004 when his business was hounded out of St Clement’s Hall by council departments acting on various complaints from other businesses and members of the public.
With growing fears that the UK economy is heading for a recession, Mr Hodge admitted the current retail climate was “awful” but said that was nothing compared to the problems he had faced from the council, who he blames for effectively destroying his business by deliberately putting hurdles in his path.
“It’s really astounding,” he said. “It’s beyond a joke really. I cannot understand where their views have come from.”
Mr Hodge said he had no idea what his next move would be but that the whole saga was causing him no end of sleepless nights. “I don’t know what I can do. I’ve got a completely blank canvas and no money – where do you go from here? I don’t have a future at the moment.”