Are you a commercial tenant who has accrued rental arrears during the COVID-19 pandemic? Alternatively, are you a landlord who is thinking about what action you can take against a non-paying tenant?
Since 21 March 2020 it has been reported that over £7 billion remains unpaid in respect of commercial property rents. Landlords have been prevented from taking enforcement action under the Corporate Insolvency & Governance Act, where the moratorium against landlord enforcement has been extended to 25 March 2022.
The Government has been concerned of the post-pandemic debt enforcement bubble bursting to the detriment of the economy. As a result, various measures have been implemented to ease businesses back into some form of normality with the threat of debt enforcement being phased back in a more controlled manner.
One of these measures is the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill (“The Bill”) which is aimed to promote a swift resolution of commercial property rent arrears accrued during the pandemic and is currently going through Parliament with a view of becoming law on or before 25 March 2022.
There has been a steady promotion towards alternative dispute resolution in the UK, as opposed to litigating disputes through the courts. The Bill is further demonstration of that drive to avoid court intervention and both tenants and landlords need to be aware of the mentality being adopted.
The Bill will only relate to rental arrears that fall between 21 March 2020 and the period when “The date when specific restrictions were last removed for the relevant sector” (“The Ringfenced debt”). The Government code of practice in support of the Bill schedules the latter date for each industry sector and country within the UK.
Once the Bill becomes law it will introduce an arbitration facility where the decision is binding in law. Both tenant and landlord are encouraged to reach a mutually acceptable resolution on how the ringfenced debt is to be repaid and whether that is paid in full or at a compromised figure. If a settlement cannot be reached, then either party can unilaterally apply for an arbitration hearing.
Some of the key points recommended by the Bill include:
- The two parties are expected to share the pain by considering rent reductions or payment plans. However, no agreement can be made where it results in (or creates a real threat of) insolvency for either tenant or landlord.
- The parties will each need to provide evidence of viability in support of any offer (or counter-offer) put forward.
- Both can either agree to a public hearing or allow the appointed arbitrator to decide on the terms of resolution based upon the documentary evidence before the arbitrator.
- An application cannot be made for arbitration if either party is already subject to insolvency proceedings.
- The rent repayment agreement cannot exceed two years in duration.
The Government continues to urge businesses that can afford to pay their rent to do so. Indeed, it would appear the conduct of the tenant (in terms of refuse to pay versus unable to pay) will be taken into consideration. This draws up the key question of viability and some specific areas that can be expected to be considered, including:
- If the inability to pay was due to the tenant adopting “Unjustifiable steps to alter the financial position” (e.g. the payment of excessive dividends) the arbitrator will have the option to disregard these transactions when assessing the award.
- Where a tenant can prove the business is viable, but it is unable to pay all the rent arrears, the tenant should be entitled to a concession that does consider the balancing exercise between landlord and tenant.
- Any concessions must be affordable to both tenant and landlord, in terms of financial impact on the landlord.
- To assist determination of viability and affordability the arbitrator is expecting to receive relevant financial information.
- It is not expected that tenant viability would include restructuring, borrowing, or the taking of further debts.
It is made clear in the Government guidance to the Bill that arbitration ought to be the last resort and that both tenant and landlord are encouraged to reach an agreement without arbitration. This does appear to suggest the arbitrator will look at the reasonableness (or otherwise) of any dissenting party, although that is only my assumption.
While it is likely the Bill will be subject to some minor revisions, the key message is clear whereby the Government are expecting both tenants and landlords to act in a manner that promotes the protection of businesses and their employees. A refusal to compromise or to approach this issue in a transparent and fair manner are not options on the agenda and are likely to expose the dissenting party to penalties, including cost consequences.
However, what is most likely to be the most difficult area for an arbitrator is the analysis of financial data and the reality check on viability of either tenant or landlord. If a party to the arbitration get this information wrong or, if the message is unclear, it is likely to result in an award being made based upon a misinterpretation of the information available. This could be damaging to the viability of the tenant or landlord, or both.
The message is clear for both tenant and landlord. Be transparent, fair, reasonable but, most of all, take a commercial view that promotes saviour of the business and its employees. The key area will be the viability check and PBC can provide such a report for either party of the negotiation surrounding the ringfenced debt (and non-ringfenced debt if applicable) as this will promote the chances of proposals being considered as both a fair and commercial compromise.
Should you have an insolvency-related issue then please contact Gary Pettit at PBC Business Recovery & Insolvency on (01604) 212150 (Northampton office) or (01234) 834886 (Bedford office). Alternatively, you may send an email to email@example.com or access our website at www.pbcbusinessrecovery.co.uk