A BASINGSTOKE businessman who opened a craft beer off license in the town has criticised the borough council for failing to support local businesses.

Responding to the Gazette’s Basingstoke Deserves Better campaign - which calls for urgent action to improve the town centre - Mat Bedford, owner of Twisted Crow Beer and Bottle Shop, in Mortimer Lane, has spoken of his struggle trying to launch his new business.

The dad, from Buckskin, said he found premises in the town centre too expensive.

He told the Gazette: “Reading town centre, the rates and rents are pretty much the same as in Basingstoke. But Reading is nearly three times bigger than Basingstoke.”

Mat eventually found a unit in Basingstoke town centre but was frustrated when the landlord changed their mind about the lease.

“It was galling because I viewed this property in December and it is still sat vacant now. Why advertise it as available?” he asked.

In January, Mat put planning and licensing applications in for the premises in Mortimer Lane, but said he faced months of delay to open his business because of the borough council.

Mat wrote an open letter to around 200 residents living near the premises with his contact details and said two got in touch to discuss his proposal.

He received one objection, which was later withdrawn after he spoke directly to the resident to alleviate their concerns.

However, Mat was frustrated when, on the day a decision was due to be made, he received a call from the council to say a local councillor had raised objections and the application would therefore be delayed.

However, the objection was not made public on the council website and was therefore not available for Mat and others to see. Instead, Mat said the councillor made the objection directly to the planning department.

“When I questioned this practice as I was under the impression that there was a clear protocol for objections to planning and licensing matters to ensure transparency, I was told ‘this happens all the time,’” he said, adding: “I felt helpless that I could not rebut any objections as I did not know what they were or who had made them.”

Mat had to spend the next two months waiting, with no income from a business he had hoped would be open by March.

A month later, when the extension period ran out, the council again called Mat to say it needed yet more time because of the councillor’s concerns.

Mat said: “My two options were to agree to another extension or risk the council refusing my application. I was over a barrel so I had to give them the two-week extension. At this point they verbally told me what the concerns were but I had nothing in writing or the name of the councillor.”

Mat said the concerns were regarding anti-social behaviour outside the shop, and parking issues – both of which he had previously reassured residents about and had already agreed a licensing condition regarding the parking to prevent problems in the area.

Eventually, the borough council offered Mat a deal of a one-year temporary licence with the option to renew it next year, providing there are no concerns.

The alternative was for the application to be decided at a council committee meeting, which would have resulted in at least another month’s delay.

He agreed to the one-year temporary license, feeling confident that the concerns raised by the councillor would not be a problem.

However, he is frustrated that the councillor was allowed to raise anonymous objections and that he was not able to respond to these, explaining: “I did everything to let people know I was willing to engage. I only live down the road in Buckskin. My kids go to school here. I don’t want drunks smashing bottles outside the shop. I’m invested in this town as a person and a father, so it was hurtful.

“I know no one knows my character and that alcohol is an emotive subject where people have knee jerk reactions, but I deal with craft and specialist beer. It’s a premium product. No one is going to buy cases and cases.”

Mat said he understands that some of the delays were because of Covid but said he would have appreciated advance notice rather than being told on the day the application was due to be decided.

He said: “I secured the premises at the end of January. It didn’t need structural work. I could have kitted it out and been ready to trade in a fortnight. I wasn’t able to open until the middle of June, five months later.”

He added: “If this is how the council and its leaders demonstrate that Basingstoke is open for business and supportive of its inhabitants trying to make a living then I would hate to see what happens when they were not.”

Leader of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council Cllr Ken Rhatigan said: “Ward councillors are consulted on planning applications for properties situated in their ward, which means they will automatically be notified when an application is submitted. It is common practice for them to submit enquiries to the case officer during the application process.

“The ward councillor did submit some comments on the Twisted Crow and Bottle Shop planning application and they were included in the final officer report which was displayed on the council’s website. The ward councillor did not request that the application be considered by the Development Control Committee, meaning it was a delegated decision for the case officer and was approved on 21 May 2021.

“There was no objection to the licence application for the premises and it was therefore automatically granted.

“The council does not set rent or rate levels for premises that it does not own. It offers business support for new businesses through IncuHive and encourages all businesses to make use of this expertise and support when starting out on their businesses journey.”