It was all very confusing.  Her name was Victoria and she wanted to let me have a large office, in the middle of Bridgend, for free, for nothing, at no cost – completely free.

“What do you mean – how can it be for free?”

“I don’t know” replied my wife, talking as quickly as she could because I was on my mobile in the Canary Islands whilst she was at home.  “She just phoned up and asked to speak to you and told me that there was a large office that needed a tenant and that it was free”.

I didn’t believe it of course.  It was a way of getting the charity to part with money.  Landlords rent offices, they don’t give them away to charities for free.  I was annoyed.  I wanted more information and knew I would have to wait until I got home to investigate the scam.  I returned to the poolside and tried to figure out what this could all be about.

The office that the society rents costs £550 per month although we have been informed that as of this month the rent will increase to £585 per month.  Like most charities we struggle to raise funds and the financial burden of the rent was always a worry.  We need the office because, although I ran the office for two years from my converted garage, the activites that we now undertake are ten times what I used to do.  And we now have two full-time employees (well, sort of have two full-time employees – their salaries are paid for by the Welsh Assembly Government but they work for the society) and until last week when Nic left us to enter into full-time employment, four part-time volunteers.  When we are all in the little office it gets quite crowded and so we stagger the days on which volunteers come in to help.

Her name was Victoria.  I was to telephone a number she had left with my wife to find out more about the ‘service we provide’.  Victoria is a solid name.  It’s a name that you can trust.  I was prepared to waste ten minutes by listening to what Victoria had to say.  Now, if she had been a Vicky I might not have ‘phoned.  Think Vicky think  Miss Pollard, Chest Rubs and colds.  I probably wouldn’t have wasted ten minutes talking to Vicky – but Victoria, think Victory, Mrs Beckham and Empire.  I made the call.

It was too good to be true.  I had listened carefully.  The office was a large one situated in the middle of Bridgend (I knew the building) and the only cost to us was one peppercorn a month.  There was obviously a catch.  I promised to call Victoria back after I had thought of it.  She wasn’t pushy.  It didn’t make sense.  When was the “Of course you will have to” bit going to be dropped into the conversation.  Victoria was obviously good at her job.  Everything was positive, there was nothing negative – yet.  I could see through her sneaky way.  I would play along with her.  I would bite when she threw me a morsel but would be prepared to be disappointed when the morsel hid a barbed hook.  She was an angler and I was a trout.  A big lazy brown trout, (on account of me having a tan after wasting two weeks of my life trying to enjoy myself on my own in a over-developed resort in Lanzarote – or Tenerife – they all melt into one).

She was being sneaky and so I would be sneaky.  The next day Kim and I went into Bridgend town centre to bank some cheques.  On an impulse (because I am like that – you never know what I will do next which to some makes me an interesting character and to others makes me unpredictable and dangerous), I turned to Kim who was walking some way behind me.  I have noticed that about her.  She always walks a few paces either in front or behind me.  Except when there is nobody about.  Then she walks by the side of me.  I think she is embarrassedto be with me and keeps enough distance between us to lead people to believe that we are not together.  Yet at the same time she manages to keep the distance just wide enough to be able to talk to me without looking at me.  I would mention it to her but nothing would come of it and I’d get one of her looks.  She’s as clever as a bunch of monkeys is that one.  A convoluted character who eats Laughing Cow cheese spread on toast and peels oranges in her pockets – enough said.  Anyway, I turned to Kim (who was walking that little bit behind me) and said “let’s go and take a look at the office we are being given for free”.  I said this in a sarcastic voice.  “Alright then” she replied and off we went to explore the catacombs of Brackla House.

Brackla House

It didn’t go well.  We walked into the office of a large firm of solicitors before being advised of the correct entrance.  In we went.  We went to the third floor – I was sure that was the floor that sneaky Victoria had told me the offices were located.  Up we went to the third floor.  There was one door on the right that led to offices that were obviously occupied.  To the left was another office in which a few maintenance men were carrying out work.  We went in.  It was enormous.  The office we rent in Aberkenfig is 350 sq.ft.  This was 3,500 sq.ft. at least.  I confidently informed the workmen that we were thinking of renting the office and asked if it would be ok to lookaround.  They consented and Kim and I began to imagine what we could do with such a cavernous premises.  We were dreaming of conferences and seminars that would cost nothing to host.  We could have our support group here.  We could have another conference without having to worry about the cost of hiring a room.  We were giddy on potential and drunk on possibilities.  She even walked by the side of me.  We thanked the workmen and left.

‘Please call Victoria’ said the post-it note that gave Victoria’s telephone number.  I sighed, and dialled the number.  “Hi Martyn” she said (we were on first name terms by now).  “I’m going to send you a draft contract by email.  If you wish you can show it to a solicitor but it’s so simple you probably won’t need to.  Just take your time and have a read”.  My email bleeped and I opened the attachment from Victoria.

There was obviously a catch but I couldn’t find it.  It stated quite clearly that the landlord would allow us to occupy the office for a maximum of five months three weeks and six days (so that we didn’t have any other legal bindings) and that we were to pay the landlord the sum of one peppercorn per month.  If the landlord found a tenant prepared to rent the office then we were to be given one month’s notice to quit, and if that happened within the first three months of us occupying the office then the landlord would compensate the society by paying it £1,000.  I couldn’t  find the catch.  It was all very confusing.  “time to find the landlord” I told Kim.  We set off for the new offices (well, we thought we would join in this little fantasy by calling it the new offices).  We went back to the room with the workmen.  “Is the caretaker about?” I asked.

Empty Office

“He is around somewhere.  He’s wearing a red top” said the man in charge.  “We are refurbishing this for Remploy” he replied when I asked him if they had much work left to do.  There – it was out of the bag.  The offices were for Remploy and not us.  Our hopes were dashed and we started down the stairs.  Then, she spotted him.  A tall figure wearing a red top.  She was after him like a rat down a drainpipe.  She was like a ferret after a rabbit.  She squealed “excuse me, are you the caretaker?”  He was on the stairs a floor below us.  Kim was leaning over the handrail.  He stopped.  Slowly he looked up.  His eyes met hers.

“No, I’m not the caretaker” said the tall man with the red top.  “I’m the owner”.

There was an uneasy silence that lasted 1.67th of a second.  Kim spoke next.  “We would like to look at some offices you have for rent” she said, wearing the same look.

“Ah, yes, of course” said the man as he turned around and started to climb the stairs towards us.  “They are on the fourth floor”.  Of course they were, Victoria had stated that in the draft contract.  Why  was I looking on the third floor?

His name was Michael and I quickly explained about Victoria and the contract.  “Oh yes” he said.  “I remember it now;  are you a registered charity?” he asked.  I replied that we were and he led the way to the fourth floor and into an office that was twice the size, no, three times the size of the office we had mistakenly thought was going to be ours.  It was and is cavernous.  We chatted and then I found out how the scheme operated, bit by bit.

First in - the chair

It transpires that the UK government passed an act just over a year ago that overturned a ruling whereby landlords of empty premises didn’t have to pay Business Rates on the unoccupied offices.  This meant that landlords who couldn’t rent out office space were now not only denied monthly rent but had to pay the quite substantial business rates on the empty property.  However, if the office space was over a certain size – i.e. big – and the landlord allowed a charity to occupy the premises for free, they would not have to pay the many thousands of pounds in Business Rates to the local authority.  So, by allowing us to occupy the premises the landlord would save thousands and thousands of pounds and we get rent-free accommodation.  It’s a win/win situation.  Kim was now wearing her ‘I know exactly what is going on here’ look.

So there you have it.  How the society now occupies an enormous office that doubles as a conference room for free.  Michael has been incredibly helpful as has the concierge Gerald.  When we were giving the keys I opened the door to find a letter on the floor from Victoria wishing us well for the future and hoping everything turns out well for us.  It has.

Thanks to Kim for all her hard work in making the move happen and for disinfecting the kitchen (we have a large kitchen complete with all appliances as part of the deal) and for her patience and for saving the life of that woodlouse. My thanks also to Victoria and the team at Avire.  If you are looking for free office space, and you are a registered charity try giving them a call.  Tel: 01295 256338
Fax: 01295 256481          E-mail: enquiries@avire.co.uk