Deli owner withholds £25,000 in rent over roof row with council

Smokehouse Deli owner Gelsomino Picciuto

Gels Picciuto is refusing to pay rent on his Smokehouse Deli, in Cell Barnes Lane, because he says his landlord, the council, won't admit building faults which cost him thousands of pounds - Credit: Danny Loo

The owner of one of St Albans' most popular cafés is withholding more than £25,000 in rent from his landlord in a dispute over a leaky roof.

Gels Picciuto claims leaks at the Smokehouse Deli cost him thousands of pounds in damage and lost earnings.

The building is owned by St Albans district council (SADC) and its insurers have blamed condensation and refused to pay out.

However, the businessman has now used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain two previously unseen reports which he said proved the council had "covered up" problems with his building.

“The council sells you an insurance policy that you can’t claim against and then tries to exhaust you, so you just give up,” he alleged.

“But I can’t give up, because if I do, I lose my investment and everything I have worked for.”

The deli is the best-reviewed St Albans café on TripAdvisor, he pointed out.

“I should be able to sell this business and its goodwill quite easily,” he said. “But I can’t, because I would have to declare the problems with the building – and the problems with the landlord.”

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SADC declined to comment for this story.

What happened?

Mr Picciuto opened the Smokehouse Deli in a row of shops underneath a block of flats in Cell Barnes Lane on December 12, 2014.

Just four days later, he said, he arrived to find the walls and ceilings soaking wet.

Another four days later it happened again – but this time, he said, the floor was flooded too.

He claimed the incidents cost him thousands of pounds in busted equipment and ruined stock.

He also had to completely redecorate for the second time in a month.

A report by a forensic accountant suggested that the loss to Mr Picciuto’s business – in damage and lost opportunities – was over £160,000.

But insurers wouldn’t pay him a penny.

Water in the Smokehouse Deli in December 2014

Photographs Mr Picciuto took in December 2014 of his waterlogged ceiling, floor and kitchen - but the council's insurers claimed it was condensation, not a leak - Credit: Gels Picciuto

Opposing Views

In 2015, Mr Picciuto hired the Mellersh and Harding Building Consultancy (MHBC), whose inspection found that “the only plausible explanation” for the incidents was that the roof had “leaked in several locations”.

But surveyors acting for St Albans council’s insurance company disagreed, saying there were “few indications of water ingress or severe condensation, but some indications of slight or moderate condensation”.

Under the policy, said Mr Picciuto, condensation was “an uninsurable loss”.

Dissatisfied, he continued to pursue complaints against the council.

Revelation

In October 2019, the council agreed to provide Mr Picciuto with a document certifying that the terrace roof above his unit met all building regulations. 

In a letter the following month, chief executive Amanda Foley wrote that “no further investigation is required... The council is not prepared to enter into further discussion regarding these works."

So Mr Picciuto was surprised, months later in 2020, when he asked a surveyor to inspect his premises and act as an expert witness, only to be told that the surveyor could not accept his case because they had just been hired by the council to investigate the same building.

“It was like divine intervention,” he said. “A sheer stroke of luck.”

Mr Picciuto started using Freedom of Information laws to search for copies of any expert reports the council had on his roof.

This year, the council disclosed two.

Smokehouse Deli in St Albans

The Smokehouse Deli is the best-reviewed café in St Albans, according to TripAdvisor - but Mr Picciuto claims building problems have rendered the business unsellable - Credit: Danny Loo

The Reports

The first, written in May 2021 by Langley Roofing Systems, said the building’s roofs were “in poor condition and in urgent need of repair”.

It found “large areas of standing water” and “various defects” in the main roof area, where insulation was “found to be floating beneath the waterproofing with high levels of water ingress”.

The lower roof also had “large areas of standing water” and had “deflected and bowed in areas, possible (SIC) due to water ingress”.

The second report, written in September 2021 by David Carr Consulting, found evidence of water penetration through the high-level roof in multiple places.

“If the roof is left and the leaks into the building continue there will be a problem with rusting reinforcement, and if this is allowed to deteriorate to any extent, expensive concrete repairs will be required,” it said.

The company also found evidence of water penetration on the lower roof, where water was “ponding” and timbers were “rotting”.

Gels Picciuto above the Smokehouse Deli

Smokehouse Deli owner Gels Picciuto above his shop on Cell Barnes Lane , where two expert reports have now identified problems with the roof - Credit: Archant

What now?

Mr Picciuto said he felt vindicated by the reports.

"This whole thing has really affected my mental health," he said.

He said he would continue withholding his rent, which he has been doing since 2019, until the council accepted fault.

The council would not comment.

For more, read:

St Albans café left in dire straits after £20k repair bill for water leak 

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