Hackney Council has come under fire for barring small businesses from competing to run cafés in an award-winning park.
Clissold Park in Stoke Newington is midway through a multi-million pound refurbishment programme that has already been beset by a string of controversies including the deaths of three of the park’s deer in the space of just three months.
Now local businesses have slammed the Town Hall over the tendering of the contract run catering services in the park’s Grade II listed Georgian mansion, Clissold House, and the refurbished Pump House kiosk.
The council claims it wants to help small businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive, but it has banned all caterers with a turnover of less than £1million from making a bid for the lucrative contract, placing it out of reach of many local operators.
Kate Nelson, who runs Hackney-based social enterprise MEND, said: “It makes me so angry. This would have been such a great opportunity for Hackney Council to support local businesses or someone who is running a charity that can run a café. I can’t see any of the cafés in Church Street being able to demonstrate that kind of turnover, especially in the year we’ve just had. It seems like a wasted opportunity.”
Alex Ross, co-owner of the Spence Bakery in Church Street, called the requirement of a £1m per annum turnover “ridiculous”.
He said: “It sounds more like an opportunity for a chain – a Nando’s-type operation or something along those lines. It seems a bit unfair to be excluding local businesses from having a go. We’re an accomplished business. We could manage to run that place if we’d thought about it, but we would have been barred from it.”
Katharine Tasker, owner of the Lemon Monkey café and deli in Stoke Newington High Street, said she expected the contract would be awarded to “one of the big boys”.
She said: “It seems a shame and not in keeping with the villagey atmosphere that’s going on here. This area has had a history of lobbying against chains and so far it’s worked fairly effectively, so you would have thought the council would have been sensitive to that.”
The Citizen contacted a local catering company with a turnover in excess of £1 million a year, whose manager agreed that the council’s requirement seemed excessive and would probably only be achievable for a central London company or large catering firm.
Last month (April) Hackney Council defended the requirement, saying it had a duty to award the contract to a “sustainable business” able to cope with events of up to 200 people.
The row is just the latest in a string which have dogged the landmark refurbishment, set to be completed later this year.
When the work began in 2009, some park users questioned the practicality of a new slope being constructed in front of Clissold House, warning that the steepness of the gradient would make it difficult for people to sit on the grass without falling over.
There were also objections to the new skate park and concerns over future funding for the maintenance of the green space as well as staffing levels.
Earlier this year protests were held outside the park zoo after two animals in the deer enclosure suffered fatal injuries during dog attacks and another died of shock as the diggers did their work.
Last month the Citizen revealed that 17 permanent posts in the borough’s parks are set to be axed.
An internal report by the council’s head of green spaces also outlined plans for increased reliance on commercial events and privatisation of the maintenance of trees.
Asked about the requirement of a £1million per year turnover, a council spokeswoman cited the huge cost of refurbishing Clissold House, adding that the appointed company may be asked to make a capital contribution towards the café fit out.
An advertisement posted on catering industry websites states: “The London Borough of Hackney seeks expressions of interest from caterers with a turnover in excess of £1 million per annum for the operation of a new café in the recently restored Grade II listed Clissold House. Set in the grounds of Clissold Park, Clissold House provides a stunning setting for this café which the council is keen to operate with the highest standards. The appointed operator will also manage the Pump House kiosk in Clissold Park and may have the opportunity to cater for functions within the House. The ability to cater for functions and events of 20-200 people will therefore need to be evidenced.”
Hackney Council’s Cabinet Member for Community Services said: “With the catering contract at Clissold House, our priority is to ensure that the company chosen is financially viable with the relevant experience to provide and sustain the level and quality of service we all want to see. We sought professional advice on the sort of criteria that would be appropriate for this opportunity. We advertised locally, received expressions of interest from local companies but unfortunately, on this occasion, they were unable to proceed any further.
“In the future, it is likely that there will be other opportunities in the council’s parks that companies of different sizes will be able to bid for.”