A 33-YEAR-OLD family business has been “brought to its knees” over a dispute with Fremantle Ports which harks back to the Barnett government’s failed privatisation bid.
Container Refrigeration had a 21-year lease on a 28,016sqm block of port-owned land at Rous Head which expired in December 2016, but owner director Christine Robbins said they were offered a new lease that was simply unaffordable, and now they stand to lose around $2.5 million because Fremantle Ports is refusing to compensate them for the buildings and hardstand they had to leave behind.
Back in 2015/16 the Barnett government was in full privatisation mode, with former treasurer Mike Nahan telling the Herald they would work the port “harder” to increase its sale price, which led to big operators like DP World and Patrick also having their leases increased.
But Ms Robbins said she was shocked when just six weeks before her lease ran out, the port offered a new one with a 35 per cent rent increase and an eye-watering list of new fees and charges that doubled the size of the lease document.
“There were so many clauses with so many extras and there was no information that could help us to estimate how much it was going to cost us,” Ms Robbins said.
“You were literally signing a blank cheque.”
She and husband Philip met with Ports CEO Chris Leatt-Hayter, but he stood firm on the lease and the couple decided they would have to move on.
“We had been perfect tenants; we considered them friends and we used to go to the Christmas party with them each year,” Ms Robbins said.
Container Refrigeration was one of only four companies leasing at Rous Head with a compensation clause, under which the Port would purchase any infrastructure they couldn’t take with them for “fair value”. Their site contained a couple of warehouses and sheds, a 12,000sqm hardstand and landscaping and drainage which she had valued at $2.6m.
But Ms Robbins said the Port dragged its heels and kept changing its position on compensation; meanwhile her family had to mortgage virtually everything they owned in order to purchase a property in O’Connor and re-establish themselves.
“Being in O’Connor we were too far from the port, so we had to lose our shipping, quarantine, inspections and storage business, which lost us a significant portion of our revenue,” she said.
When the port finally made an offer, it was based on a document.
provided by valuer David Molony from McGees Property, who determined that because the Robbins’ lease had run out, the port couldn’t make any money from the infrastructure for the “balance of the lease”, and therefore the fair value was “nil”.
They did offer $200,000, but Ms Robbins says that’s grossly unfair and leaves them financially exposed.
“It’s the stuff to make people consider suicide because we have had to give up our buildings at the age of 64 and had to find new land, which you can’t buy near the port any more.”
The Ports released a short statement to the Herald:
“Robbins Enterprises (Container Refrigeration) operated under a lease that commenced in 1995.
“As would be expected, the terms and conditions of these types of commercial lease arrangements have changed considerably over the past 25 years.
“The lease arrangements offered to Container Refrigeration in 2016 were consistent with other lease arrangements in the same location and the lease rental was based on commercial valuation.
“Container Refrigeration has declined to meet or engage in discussions with Fremantle Ports. We have expressed on numerous occasions our willingness to resolve the matter, either directly or through their representatives, however, these offers have not been taken up.”
by STEVE GRANT