Outcry as rent rises force fresh Hampstead shop closure

Hampstead actor Tom Conti: This is disgusting - local councils are out of control

After more than half a century in Hampstead, a family-run grocer’s is set to close in the face of what celebrity regulars have branded a “criminal” rise in rents.

With Emma Thompson, Tom Conti and Dame Judi Dench among its customers, Pure Fruit has been at the heart of village life since it opened in Heath Street in 1958. Now the owners say a �5,000 rise in rent and a backdated �4,000 bill is putting them out of business.

Mr Conti, who has shopped there for years, said: “It is disgusting. Local councils are out of control, the government ought to be clamping down on them like mad.

“This is another example of a lunatic council decision in a time of such financial stress. The idea that the council would come close to putting anyone out of business is positively criminal – they should be horsewhipped.”

Brian Lay-Jones, 72, took over the running of the fruit and veg shop from his uncle Richard Jones when Hampstead was a busy tangle of independent shops.

Mr Lay-Jones, who has served everyone from the late Peter Cook to pensioners from Henderson Court, said: “Hampstead used to be all little shops with wonderful food and furniture outlets but now it’s just coffee shops. Camden should be supporting small local businesses, but they’re just killing us.

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“When I first took over it was great here. We used to open up and the smells coming from butchers and wet fish shops would hit you, but now they’ve gone and Hampstead has gone.”

Mr Lay-Jones’ daughter Deana Camera has been running the shop for seven years. She said the latest tenancy offer of �31,000 from the council could be ‘‘the last nail in the coffin.’’

Mrs Camera, 45, claims the council has reneged on a 30-year agreement to grant the business a concession on the grounds that it serves the community by giving a discount to pensioners from Perrins Court and Henderson Court.

The trader said: “Camden Council just don’t want to listen. They just want another phone shop, it’s farcical now with the number of chains in the village. We’re one of the last surviving independent shops.”

Finance boss Cllr Theo Blackwell said the council was obliged to get market rates for its commercial properties and it did “not set these rents arbitrarily”. He added that concessionary rents have been entirely phased out by the cash-strapped council.

He said: “If you don’t raise rents what you would be doing is lowering the amount of money spent on public services.’’

Pure Fruit has faced closure before. The council tried to sell off the building in the late 1980s but former Labour leader Michael Foot took up the fight with the town hall and the shop survived.