FOR nearly 30 years their stalls have been part of the lifeblood of a bustling Yorkshire market town.
But now a legal row has erupted that not only threatens to see six Skipton traders evicted but could leave some of them staring bankruptcy in the face.
Stallholders on the setts outside Rackhams face court tomorrow after the department store building’s owner demanded close to £135,000 from them.
Royal London Asset Management (RLAM), accuses them of trespassing on its land and is suing for damages totalling nearly £110,000 plus £25,000 in backdated unpaid rates.
The company claims to own the area from the shop frontage to the middle of the road under the legal principle ad medium filum viae – “to the middle of the way”.
But stallholders dispute this, claiming RLAM denied ownership of the setts following a compensation claim from a woman who fell on the cobbles around 2001.
Russell Marsden, of the Hey Farm Nurseries stall, said he and other traders outside the shop had paid rates before the alleged incident but were then told they no longer needed to do so.
“They have never claimed ownership until now,” he said.
“We used to pay rent 12 years ago, then they wrote to us and said they didn’t want us to pay it anymore.”
He said traders were unaware of any issue until they were sent letters in March ordering them to vacate the site and warning RLAM was seeking compensation.
Attempts to negotiate proved fruitless and a meeting it promised to hold to settle the row never materialised, he said.
Now stallholders have received a court summons ordering them to attend a hearing at Leeds High Court tomorrow.
Mr Marsden, 44, who has had the stall since 2000, is being sued for £27,000 in damages.
“It would bankrupt us. We aren’t the kind of people who have got that kind of money,” he said.
“We already pay the council a fee for standing here and if we’re responsible for rates going forward then fair enough – but I don’t think it’s fair to ask us for rates going backward because we’ve never known anything about it.”
Zummard Hussain, who has run the fruit and vegetable stall next door for 28 years, faces the highest damages claim, for £45,000.
“It’s our livelihood that they’re trying to take away,” said the crestfallen 54-year-old. “If they’d warned us it might have been different but they have never, ever for the last 10 years – then suddenly this big bill. How do they expect me to pay that? I would be bankrupt.”
Richard Lawrence’s pot stall is the market’s oldest – his grandfather set it up in 1957 and he took over from his father in 1985. The £17,500 damages claim he faces could finish the business, he said.
“What can I say about losing my livelihood of 28 years? I’m devastated,” added the 45-year-old.
Sock stall holder Mohammed Amin, food merchant David Reynoldson and David Newby, of Lawson’s Cheeses, face damages claims of £8,500, £7,000 and £4,600 respectively.
Mr Reynoldson, 43, said a victory for RLAM would “finish everybody off” in a blow to the rest of the town’s shops – including the company’s own tenants.
“One by one these traders will disappear and the market will be nothing and Skipton will be nothing,” he said.
An RLAM spokesman said the legal action followed a payment demand it received from Craven District Council for long-outstanding business rates, which the authority had not given any previous indication were due.
He said this prompted a need to “formalise a fair balance of rights and responsibilities” at the market, where stallholders who have always paid have “effectively subsidised” those who have not, leaving them struggling to compete.
He said the company had a duty to policyholders and stakeholders to recover any money it is owed but the “creation of a fair and level playing field for all local traders” was more important.
“RLAM endeavoured to reach an agreement with stallholders and remains focused on trying to reach a compromise,” he said.
“As a member of the Skipton business community, RLAM is as passionate as any trader in wanting to see the local market thriving and will actively seek to protect it.”
The council said it would not be appropriate to comment.