Camden studios 'could close' over council business rates row

John Connaughton and the Engine Rooms

John Connaughton (right) said his studio business may not survive, because Camden Council has rejected its application for business rates relief. - Credit: Illuminas

A studio business whose income has been ravaged by coronavirus restrictions says it cannot get help because the council insists its building is an office.

Without aid, said its boss, “Thirty-five odd people could be unemployed... This could really be the difference between us surviving or not.”

Illuminas, in Eversholt Street, Camden Town, houses a custom-built studio set-up for focus groups, known as the Engine Rooms.

“It’s a specialist facility with two-way mirrors and sophisticated audio-visual recording equipment,” said CEO John Connaughton.

Ordinarily, the studios receive around 100 visitors per day.

“But that side of the business has been shut since lockdown," he said.

"It requires getting people together in a small room, which has clearly not been appropriate for the last 12 months."

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Despite this, said Mr Connaughton, he has continued to be charged business rates on the space – so he applied for Covid-19 rates relief.

But his application was rejected by Camden Council.

“They say it's office premises,” he said. “About one-fifth is office – but the other four-fifths are studio space. It's not office space and it can't be used as office space.

The Engine Rooms at Illuminas in Camden

Mr Connaughton says the Engine Rooms are a custom-built, high-spec, audio-visual studio set-up - not an office block. Camden Council disagrees. - Credit: Illuminas

“I’m in this bizarre situation where if I continued operating as I was before, I would be closed down by the police – but when I apply for rates relief, I’m told I’m not eligible.

“It’s just infuriating and incredibly frustrating.”

Approached by the Ham&High, Camden Council repeated its contention that Illuminas was “primarily office space”.

It said: “Premises that are primarily office space are not eligible for the government’s expanded retail relief scheme... We have no discretion to award relief where businesses do not meet the national criteria.”

But Mr Connaughton described grant funding as a “postcode lottery”, saying: “This is a small industry. We know people running exactly the same types of facilities in Westminster, who have been granted rates relief.

“So if our premises were half a mile away, we would have been given it. The same rules are being applied differently, to our significant disadvantage.”

Camden said Additional Restrictions Grants (ARGs) had been developed to support businesses excluded from other schemes.

The Ham&High reported last week on businesses reporting difficulty accessing Camden’s ARG funding.