Watford Borough Council says it became aware that John Lewis would be closing its store in Watford a week before it was announced publicly.

The council says the closure became apparent on July 2 following discussions between the John Lewis Partnership and shopping centre operator intu.

On July 9, Watford was announced as one of two major John Lewis department stores which will not reopen, with the retailer claiming it was a store "struggling financially" prior to the pandemic.

This week, the council were quizzed by the leader of the Watford Labour group, Cllr Nigel Bell, on how much the council and the town's mayor, Peter Taylor, knew about John Lewis' finances and that of intu, which went into administration last week.

He submitted eight questions which have been answered by the council and published on its website.

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When the council was asked about its knowledge of John Lewis' finances, the council said: "Although it was known that John Lewis was looking at adapting its operation at a national level from press speculation, it only became apparent that its Watford store would not be reopening on July 2 following discussions between intu and the John Lewis Partnership.

"This was reported to the Mayor by senior intu representatives.

"The John Lewis Partnership has a 999 year sublease, giving John Lewis a ‘Virtual Freehold’ on its site. This arrangement means John Lewis Partnership pays no rent on its site.

"This was agreed when the Harlequin Centre opened in 1990 and approved by the previous council’s administration."

The council also said the mayor has an upcoming meeting with the chairman of John Lewis Partnership, Sharon White, with the intention of "encouraging the retailer to stay in the town".

Cllr Bell said in the meeting that the mayor should have been in touch with John Lewis earlier this year and asking for a meeting after national press reports in The Guardian and Financial Times in Februrary and March respectively reported of possible job losses.

Cllr Bell also quizzed the council on its knowledge of intu's finances after it went into administration with debts of more than £4 billion on June 26.

Watford Observer:

Councillor Nigel Bell, leader of the Watford Labour group

The council has reiterated what the Observer reported in June that it has a say on the future of the site.

The council said: "intu’s financial difficulties were driven by significant corporate debt at a national level. This was not due to problems related to their trading at Watford, which has been successful.

"intu have long leasehold interests over the intu centre. The length of the leases means that they are marketable to another company in the event that intu might wish to leave the centre.

"The lease does contain the usual covenants that allow the council to step in, in the event of insolvency, protecting the centre and the council’s interest in it.

"The council owns a freehold on the intu site. This means that unlike many councils, we both generate a regular income to reinvest in local services from the rental income we receive from the centre and can control future development on the site."

Watford Observer:

intu Watford

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Since Peter Taylor was elected as mayor in May 2018, the council says he has met with senior intu management in Watford 37 times.

The council added: "The financial performance of intu Watford continues to be a strong one and the shopping centre is profitable. intu Watford is in the top 20 retail destinations in the country in terms of footfall and the centre has made all of its quarterly rent payments to the local authority."

To see a full list of Cllr Bell's questions and the council's responses, which also includes some information on Charter Place, click here.