Land agreements (including leases of retail premises) have been exposed to the full force of the Competition Act since 6 April 2011, but there has been uncertainty as to how the courts might apply it in practice. Martin Retail Group v Crawley Borough Council is the first reported case on the application of competition law to retail leases and suggests that the courts will perhaps be more sympathetic than expected to arguments based upon competition law.
A surprising context?
Restrictive covenants imposed on the disposal of surplus property and exclusivity agreements granted by landlords to anchor tenants are considered most vulnerable to competition law. Local authorities managing their estates have considered themselves as relatively low risk. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the first reported case concerns a user clause in a lease granted by a local authority, and in the context of lease renewal proceedings.
Crawley Borough Council owned a parade of eleven shops, being the only shops serving the post-war housing estate at Furnace Green, Crawley. A long-standing tenant mix policy ensured that the parade included a selection of complementary retailers, including a bakers, a pharmacy, a hairdresser, a takeaway, a small supermarket and Martins the newsagent. The case arose on the renewal of Martins’ lease, because Martins wished to extend their user clause to become a convenience store which would effectively compete with the supermarket. The council wished Martins to remain solely as newsagents and proposed a user clause for the renewal lease which would make it clear that Martins could not sell groceries or other convenience goods.
The judge held that the user clause proposed by the council infringed competition law and did not benefit from the exemption which can save anti-competitive agreements which ultimately afford a benefit to consumers. Whilst this was a preliminary hearing concerned solely with the competition law status of the proposed user clause, it seems unlikely that any subsequent hearing to settle the terms of the renewal lease would impose on the tenant a user clause which has already been declared to breach competition law.
The wrong question?
A strong case will always be needed to invoke the consumer benefit exemption, so it is not altogether surprising that the judge decided that the exemption did not apply. However, the council appears to have conceded that the proposed user clause did breach competition law, despite Government guidance that expects only a minority of land agreements to offend competition law and confirms that landlords have a legitimate interest in using user clauses in leases to manage their estates and ensure a good tenant mix. The council was presumably mindful that the housing estate was likely to constitute the ‘relevant market’ and that this parade comprised the only shops within that market.
Implications for local authorities?
At first glance this case is disastrous news for local authorities. A letting scheme which was designed to promote a ‘diverse and vibrant’ shopping parade for the benefit of the local community has been held to breach competition law. Tenants will undoubtedly attempt to use this case as a precedent to upset similar letting schemes elsewhere and to argue against restrictive user clauses in leases and possibly even to obtain a wider user clause on lease renewal.
All is not lost, however, since competition law focuses on the potential impact of a particular restriction on the relevant market rather than the wording of the restriction and few markets will possess a similarly complete absence of actual or potential competition. Virtually every shop lease in the country contains some limitations on the tenant’s use of the property and in the vast majority of cases this will not result in a breach of competition law. But this case does serve as a timely wake-up call for local authorities that they are not immune from challenges based upon competition law.
This article originally appeared in Local Government Lawyer Magazine May 2014.