A solicitor battling a bid to oust her from council-owned offices today accused town hall bosses of not doing enough to support small businesses.
As reported in Saturday’s Gazette, Joanna Trafford has successfully challenged a move by Blackpool Council to evict her from the Enterprise Centre, on Lytham Road, South Shore.
The council says Ms Trafford’s ‘no win no fee’ law firm North Solicitors, which has lodged a number of claims against the authority, is “contrary” to their aims.
But Ms Trafford today said she was exactly the kind of new business the Enterprise Centre, which currently lies half empty, was set up to help.
She said: “I set up on my own and came here in 2008.
“I re-mortgaged my house to start my business and have built it up so now there are seven of us working here.
“The rest of the centre is half empty, and several of the units which are occupied are used by charities when really it should just be small start-ups, or developing businesses.
“I think it is empty due to a lack of entrepreneurship. No-one is knocking on the door asking for this unit.
“The council is not doing a good enough job in promoting economic growth and that’s why the building is empty.
“It makes it ridiculous they are trying to get rid of us.”
Ms Trafford, a single mum, received an email from the council in April 2013 telling her about the decision to terminate her lease which had come up for renewal, and for which she was paying £7,000 a year.
She challenged the ruling and following a judicial review last week, Judge Stephen Davies sitting at Manchester High Court quashed the council’s decision to end the lease.
He said: “It seems to me the (council’s) decision can be categorised as either vindictive or irrational.”
In its evidence, the council said the high volume of claims “are a considerable drain...and divert resources from the council’s core functions of providing services and infrastructure for the benefit of the residents of the borough.”
Following the hearing, the council has not yet made a decision about the future of the lease. And Ms Trafford says she and her team have been left in limbo.
She said: “We don’t know where we stand and it is very unsettling for everyone in the office. If Blackpool Council continues to punish North Solicitors by continuing to refuse a lease, they will be taken straight back to the high court and there will be another £50,000 of tax-payers’ money that will be wasted.
“I know our business is personal injury, and that’s not recognised as a fashionable thing to be involved in, but we offer a service to people with genuine grievances who would not be able to afford a lawyer any other way.
“Only last week we settled a case for £500,000 for a man who suffered a brain injury after falling from a ladder.
“He was going to lose his house but now his money worries have been taken away. There was no way he could have afforded a lawyer except through ‘no win no fee’.”
Ms Trafford says only around five per cent of the cases she deals with are claims against the council.
She added: “Our objective is certainly not to sue Blackpool Council unless our clients have suffered an injury because the council hasn’t done its duty and repaired the roads and pavements.”
She said leaving the Enterprise Centre would not put the business at risk. But she added: “It has been built using European funding for businesses like mine so why should I move out and be forced to operate above a shop somewhere?”
The £3m Enterprise Centre opened in 2007 funded by the European Regional Development Fund to “stimulate the creation of a new generation of businesses.” An inventory of the 30 units shows at of the end of last year, 13 were empty.
Nine units are occupied by organisations Progress Employment, Groundworks and Love My Beach.
Progress is due to close at the end of March.
Blackpool Council said it could not comment on the case, but when asked about occupancy levels at the Enterprise Centre, it said it had been around 80 per cent full until the closure of regeneration company ReBlackpool last year.
Council leader Coun Simon Blackburn said: “Since then we have been refurbishing the offices ready for them to be marketed for lease once again.
“It is very rare that office accommodation is fully occupied, there are lots of examples of vacant units within Blackpool.
“We find the occupancy levels vary depending on the location.
“ Since FY Creatives opened on Church Street in 2009 it has always been full or almost full. Similarly the recently opened 81 Central offices next to the Winter Gardens are approximately 70 per cent full.”