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University Church moves to evict Oxford cafe as petition passed 8000 signatures

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin has begun legal proceedings to evict Vaults and Garden Café, a popular coffee shop located within the historic building. A petition by its owner against the closure has reached over 8,000 signatures. 

Located across from the Radcliffe Camera, Vaults and Garden has been a popular spot for students and locals for just over 20 years. It has also been lauded in recent years for its commitment to sustainability and ethical business practices and won the 2017 Oxford Restaurant Award for most sustainable Oxfordshire restaurant. Will Pouget, the owner of Vaults and Garden, has started a petition to protest the proposed eviction and “intend to vigorously defend any possession proceedings” over the fate of the cafe. 

The University Church’s Parochial Church Council (PCC), which oversees the use of the space the café occupies, announced plans to renovate and conduct conservation work in the space in a press release and confirmed that Vaults and Garden cafe had been given notice to quit in May of 2023. 

The plans come as part of the Church’s Vision and Strategy, which was set out earlier this year. They aim to “significantly reduce energy usage, improve accessibility, enhance security, and ensure that the Grade 1 listed building is fit to welcome all visitors well into the future”. It also involves the current café closing in the next few months, and it is hoped a new café, operated as a social enterprise, will open its doors in Spring 2025. 

When asked if Vaults and Garden would be able to sign a new lease after the renovation the PCC told Cherwell: “It is not clear to us that Fresh Connection Ltd [the company that owns Vaults and Garden] is a social enterprise. Following redevelopment and at the point the PCC comes to appoint suppliers or issue catering licence(s), these will be an open commercial process.”

Mr Pouget, who has strongly protested the church’s move, is calling the notice to quit “unfair”. He told Cherwell: “We hope to remain in occupation and would be delighted to work with the Church to achieve their stated social and ethical aspirations. We have twenty years experience of operating as an ethical business with a foundation of environmental and socially positive actions.”

Cherwell has received conflicting statements from both parties concerning the nature of the current relationship formed between Vaults and Garden and the PCC, and the nature of the Church’s role in the property. According to both parties, the café and the Church had a 15-year licence agreement from 2003 which elapsed in 2018. Since then there has been significant disagreement between Vaults and Garden and the PCC over the terms of their agreement after this.

Vaults and Garden argued that the notice to vacate was unfair and “do not reflect the twenty years [they] have spent building up a substantial and thriving business.”

However, representatives for the church council claimed they acted within the scope of the agreement, adding: “While it was not a requirement for the PCC to give notice, 3 months’ notice was provided and this was after prolonged attempts to achieve an amicable resolution.” PCC also claims that the renovation plans have been in development for the past two years.

Furthermore, Vaults and Garden maintains that the Church intends to shut the café down “before it has applied for planning permission and listed building consent before it has performed the required public consultations.”

PCC, meanwhile, have told Cherwell: “The plans have been reviewed by the Diocesan Advisory Committee (which reviews planning applications for church buildings) and the Church Buildings Council. The PCC has also sought advice from the local planning authority and consulted with heritage organisations and user groups. The PCC will move to public consultation as soon as [Vaults and Gardens] is out of the café.”

Vaults and Garden has remained open for business since the three-month period elapsed. They are hosting celebrations to mark their 20th anniversary. 

The dispute has now become a legal proceeding, a spokesperson for PCC has confirmed, with the initial hearing listed for early November. 

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