Belfast pharmacist calls for resolution to rent dispute in a bid to avoid risk of closure
A Belfast pharmacist who believes he is facing potential closure, hopes a resolution can be found to a long-running dispute over rent with a cross-community group.
Paul Savage marked his 25th anniversary at Woodbourne Pharmacy in May this year with celebrations at the Stewartstown Road store for customers, family and friends.
There has been a community pharmacy on the site since 1969, having been established by Jim Doyle. Paul, who is from the area decided to take it over in 1998, committing to investing in the chemist and the area.
“I took over from Jim Doyle 25 years ago in a location that was deprived, dilapidated and forgotten about,” Paul told Neighbourhood Retailer.
“I have invested time, effort and resources to ensure that the people of Lenadoon, Suffolk and further afield can avail of the best pharmaceutical care in a modern, safe, welcoming environment.
“We have caring, attentive and dedicated staff, supported by state-of-the-art technology who strive every day to provide exemplary service in a very difficult climate for healthcare across the country,” added Paul.
Some of the investments in Woodbourne have included the installation of the Omnicell VBM 200F robot, which helps in the efficient dispensing of medicines in blister packs. This was introduced to help streamline the process and increase the amount of MDS patients Woodbourne could take on, thus giving staff more time to work on other services provided at the pharmacy and help members of the public and the community.
Amidst this, there has been an ongoing dispute in relation to the rent paid by the pharmacy to the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project (SRRP), which is made up of members of Lenadoon Community Forum and Suffolk Community Forum.
Paul told NR that following a rent review, he was left paying over £26,000 per year for two units he leases from SRRP. Having asked for the group to reduce his rent, Paul was told this was not feasible, despite his belief that a pharmacy should not be paying the highest rent.
“It costs £180m to £200m to run community pharmacy in Northern Ireland. Half of the medicines we are putting out at a loss,” said Paul.
“I showed them all the headlines and tried to explain how community pharmacy works and our budget.”
Paul’s last meeting with an SRRP representative was held in 2018, which was followed by a solicitor’s letter.
“I was four months rent in arrears, I had paid a couple and also missed a couple. Because they were sending me invoices, there was effectively a lease still in place but by the time it went to court, I had paid all of that,” said Paul.
“There was an agreement just prior to covid that we would pay our own legal fees and get three months negotiations and agreement of rent, but this did not happen.”
Since that, Woodbourne Pharmacy has been paying the same rent as the neighbouring Costcutter unit in the building on the Stewartstown Road, however Paul said SRRP “are still bringing me to court for outstanding money”.
In a previous statement issued, a spokesperson for SRRP said they were unable to make any comment as the matter is subject to legal proceedings.
As the matter continues, Paul said he has questioned why SRRP are “trying to charge a pharmacy more than anyone else”.
“I have asked to be on the same lease as the Costcutter beside me and to move forward,” said Paul.
“I do not know why they are bringing me to court and why they would want to evict a pharmacy. It’s a really busy pharmacy and we have had huge support.”
In a bid to raise awareness of the situation, a petition was set up both online and in Woodbourne Pharmacy, with Paul adding they have also had significant political cross-party support.
“The public support has been huge. We started the petition and the online one has about 800 signatures now and the in-store one has that and more. We have had great political support and letters of support from Jeffrey Donaldson MP, Paul Maskey MP and Claire Hanna MP and MLAs including Gerry Carroll and Orlaithi Flynn.
“They have written to the board and expressed their concerns and really it did not do too much. It did not really bring a resolution or focus their minds. We have gone to councillors and got letters of support from most of them.
“It does not make sense for me to relocate, and it’s certainly not in the best interests of the patients. We are all supposed to be on the same side and it does not feel that way.
“I would hope that the board of SRRP see the essential services that community pharmacy delivers to the local population and show the same support for their community pharmacy that has been shown to us by the customers who depend on the pharmacy, by all the political representatives, by the other tenants and by the wider population.”