The cause of the huge port fire finally revealed

Owners of a fire-destroyed port business are still being charged rent – despite it being revealed that the fire was caused by contractors working for the city council.

Devastated Elizabeth Bennett, who runs the Crab & Winkle restaurant and fish market in Whitstable, has been charged almost £15,000 by local authorities since the incident.

The much-loved business, which she ran with her husband Peter, was destroyed on May 26 by a fire that broke out in the nearby hull shed in Whitstable harbour, despite the valiant efforts of firefighters.

A total of £60,000 of stock had to be thrown away when flames melted wiring, cutting off power to the building.

Ms Bennett said: ‘Our whole world has fallen apart. It’s heartbreaking and it’s almost like mourning.

It has now emerged that an incident report from Kent Fire and Rescue has revealed the fire was accidentally caused by sparks from a worker’s grinder. He was working outside near the old hull shed and the sparks would have entered the building through an opening in the wall.

It is understood that work has been carried out by contractors on behalf of the city council to build a new car park at the port.

Elizabeth Bennett at the Crab and Winkle restaurant in Whitstable

However, the council says a number of further investigations are underway to determine the cause.

Ms Bennett says the council continued to send rent bills and business rates after the fire.

“It’s like they’re stomping on my head,” she said.

“We put 26 years of work into this magnificent building and in three hours it was completely destroyed.

“Then we discovered there was nothing inside, which destroyed us even more.

Dozens of firefighters were at the scene of the blaze in the port of Whitstable.  Photo: Mary Whelan
Dozens of firefighters were at the scene of the blaze in the port of Whitstable. Photo: Mary Whelan

“And then the suppliers tried to charge us – even though we had been set on fire – and then the city council made us pay.”

Ms Bennett has received claims totaling £10,950 in rent for the period June to August and £3,650 for advance rent payments covering September to November.

“We have a stomach ache with Canterbury City Council sending us rent inquiries,” she added.

“We called the accounting department who said they had no record of the incident.

“We are distraught and awaiting phone calls or emails about what they intend to do.

The aftermath of the Crab and Winkle restaurant fire
The aftermath of the Crab and Winkle restaurant fire

“Every day we sit and wait to figure out what to do, but I’m at my wit’s end.”

The council also sent Ms Bennett a corporate rate bill of £717, which was due in early August.

She says she has lost around £900,000 in sales since June, including around £500,000 in additional sales due to constant sunny days.

And she claims to have been kept in limbo over the building’s future – citing poor communication from the city council.

Ms Bennett employed her own structural engineer to inspect the restaurant and fish market, who said the building would have to be demolished.

Damage to one of the rooms in the Crab and Winkle restaurant
Damage to one of the rooms in the Crab and Winkle restaurant

However, the city council has since said it can be fixed.

“If everyone pulled out all the stops, maybe we could open for next summer,” she said.

“You have a building that has no sides, no roof, and needs new steel.

“At best, it has to be 90% demolished and it took us 10 years to build it ourselves.

“We will need an army of masons and plumbers because we are starting from scratch.

The aftermath of the hull shed fire in Whitstable Harbor
The aftermath of the hull shed fire in Whitstable Harbor
Crab and Winkle restaurant owners Peter and Elizabeth Bennett watch as the Whitstable Harbor clamshell shed fire engulfs their business.  Photo: Charlotte Rose Nash
Crab and Winkle restaurant owners Peter and Elizabeth Bennett watch as the Whitstable Harbor clamshell shed fire engulfs their business. Photo: Charlotte Rose Nash

“It could be two years before we reopen, but we’re running out of time as we enter the winter months.”

Four inches of water flooded the first-floor restaurant, from where firefighters battled fierce flames, causing extensive damage to the floor and ceiling of the fish market.

The council will be responsible for repairs to the main structure of the Crab & Winkle restaurant and the fishing market building.

It will also consult with residents on the future use of the hull shed site, which has since been demolished.

A spokesman for the fire department said one of its investigators had assessed the scene and said the cause of the fire was accidental “following sparks from equipment in nearby premises”.

“The duty of care was left to Canterbury City Council, whose adjusters conducted their own investigation,” they added.

Canterbury City Council spokesman Leo Whitlock said the cause of the fire was the subject of a “number of ongoing inquiries and discussions”.

“From the start, we recognized how painful and difficult it was for the Bennetts after the Whitstable Harbor cockleshed fire damaged their restaurant,” he said.

“While the council’s insurance company and their own insurance company have been in direct contact with each other, as is usually the case with complex commercial claims, the Bennetts were openly asked to contact us for any questions.

“While we cannot comment on an investigation report into a fire we have not seen, our experts are fully confident that the building can be repaired and that the necessary work is on the way. subject to a call for tenders.

“The Bennetts were billed quarterly, as dictated by their lease, and we are working alongside the insurance companies to provide the equivalent of a rent-free period from the day of the fire.”

Additional reporting by Bartholomew Hall

The cause of the huge port fire finally revealed

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