St Albans café left in dire straits after £20K repair bill for water leak condemns council for lack of support

The Smoke House Deli owner Gels Picciuto outside his shop on Cell Barnes Lane

The Smoke House Deli owner Gels Picciuto outside his shop on Cell Barnes Lane - Credit: Archant

The owner of a small independent café that suffered a £20,000 blow in its first eight days of business has slammed the district council for their “shameful” reaction to the crisis.

The Smokehouse Deli in Cell Barnes Lanes, St Albans, opened in December last year, and after just eight days of trading, owner Gels Picciuto came into find water streaming from the ceiling and two inches of water on the floor.

The water damage to the newly-fitted kitchen, walk-in cold room and customer toilets and loss of stock left the family-owned business with a hefty repair bill of £20,000, which they are still struggling to pay off 10 months down the line.

Gels has criticised the council, who they have signed a 15-year lease with, for their reaction to the incident after they refused responsibility by claiming the damage was caused by condensation from cooking.

But the businessman said that the water damage was in fact caused by poor maintenance of the building which resulted in cracks in the roof.

The council has since patched up some of the cracks, but Gels added it is only a matter of time before the leaks occur again.

He said: “I cannot begin to express my despair at the whole matter. It has affected my health, marriage and my professional ability and outlook.”

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Gels believes the council could claim on their insurance: “We now have a 15-year hangover with a constant worry that the roof will spring a leak again, and more to the point, it seems that St Albans district council will try and wriggle out of any and every opportunity to assist in an insurance claim. We look upon the local authority as a landlord with some guarantee of fair play.”

After Gels submitted a Freedom of Information request, he discovered the council had been told in the past about the risk of leaking.

He said he discovered email correspondence from officers within the council that stated a leaking roof in March 2014 was the direct cause of roofing works that cracked the lintel running across the top of their kitchen.

Gels added: “We have had builders who have said it’s in an appalling state. We have to bring these people to account.”

The café owner said they have also struggled to gain an alcohol licence due to financial constraints on the business following the incident.

The former owner of Kashu and La Cosa Nostra in the city centre said: “This is the first time I haven’t had a licensed business. We’re seeing substantial losses each month because we can’t sell alcohol- what’s a cheese board without port or wine?

“We can’t apply for an alcohol licence without the correct fire regulations, which we can’t afford at the moment.”

The Smokehouse Deli plan on taking the district council to court over the matter, but as Gels explained: “The only people who are making money out of this are the solicitors. The council will then be paying for not only their costs but our costs too if they lose.

“It could be up to a six figure sum of taxpayers’ money rather than them coming out and repairing it.”

Richard Shwe, head of community services for St Albans district council said: “We are aware of the problem encountered by our tenant and are in correspondence with him about it.

“Our surveyor has visited the property on a number of occasions and we have advised the tenant on our views as to the cause of the problem. We have notified our insurers of the tenant’s concerns and they are in discussion with him.”