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Kingswood Christmas farmer says his business could go bankrupt after he was told to pay £79,000 rates on his Christmas shop open just five weeks a year

A Christmas tree seller has warned he could go bankrupt if he has to pay more than £60,000 in business rate arrears for a shop he opens just five weeks a year.

Rob Schroeder, 77, who owns the Christmas tree farm off Gravelley Bottom Road, Kingswood, was slapped with an arrears claim of £65,917 after his shop was given a rating by the Valuation Office Agency.

Rob Schroeder outside the hearing in Marsham Street
Rob Schroeder outside the hearing in Marsham Street

The government quango wanted him to pay £13,499 per year in business rates. It claims the farm should have been listed as retail because of the Christmas shop, which sells lights and decorations, for five weeks of the year.

Mr Schroeder says if he is forced to pay the bill he could be put out of business and his five staff would lose their jobs and homes which are tied to the business.

He was adamant that the assessment was “wrong, wrong, wrong” and on Tuesday took his case to a ratings tribunal.

Since 1929, agricultural land and property have been excluded from business rates, and Mr Schroeder argued that his Christmas Farm shop was entirely to support his sale of Christmas trees and was a subsidiary to the sale of the trees.

Raj Das, a charted surveyor representing the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) at the hearing, said that Mr Schroeder’s building had not been listed as retail, but for warehouse use and said that when his colleague had visited the farm shop in February, 2022, he had found it being used for storage.

The hearing, which was held in the Marsham Street Community Centre in Maidstone, was before an independent tribunal of two experts: Professor Pippa Catterall and Amran Hussain.

Professor Catterall warned Mr Schroeder and his supporters - he was accompanied to the hearing by several of his employees - that “no matter how sympathetic the panel feels towards you, we must decide this according to the law”.

However, she then asked detailed questions about what was stored in various parts of the building when it was not in use as a Christmas shop and Mr Schroeder told her tractors, netting machines, fertiliser and other farming supplies.

She then turned to Mr Das and asked him to point out in the photographs that the Valuation Agency itself had supplied, and which did indeed clearly show tractors and netting machines stored in the buildings, which items he felt were not for agricultural use.

Mr Das was unable to identify any, but suggested that unsold Christmas decorations were housed there from one season to the next.

Rob Schroeder has been putting up roadside signs for his Kingswood Christmas Trees business for 40 years. Picture: Simon Finlay
Rob Schroeder has been putting up roadside signs for his Kingswood Christmas Trees business for 40 years. Picture: Simon Finlay

Professor Catterall asked at what point did the storage of some non-agricultural items switch a building’s use from being primarily agricultural to non-agricultural. Mr Das was not able to give a specific answer. He said: “Every case is unique.”

Professor Catterall was critical of the VOA for not properly labelling up a site plan submitted in evidence with reference to the photos supplied, and was critical too of some of the terminology the agency had used, like “main sales foyer”.

She observed: “Let’s face it. Fortnum and Mason’s it ain’t.”

Mr Schroeder, whose family had worked the farm since 1927 said: “I am the only Christmas tree farmer in the whole of the UK to be charged business rates on my Christmas shop.“

“This is an unwarranted attack - I could face bankruptcy if this is not lifted.”

Mr Schroeder said he had waited over two years already for the tribunal to be called.

He said: “I have been under a great deal of stress all that time - as have my staff, who have not known whether they would be keeping their jobs and their homes.”

The hearing concluded after an hour and a half.

The panel will now consider its verdict and issue a decision within 28 days.

Mr Schroeder’s business supplies around 5,000 families with their Christmas trees every year.

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