SURREY Heath Borough Council insists that its income from the properties it owns in Camberley will not be significantly hit by the House of Fraser department store pulling out of the town centre.

The council also says it knows nothing about rumours that the company – which is part of the Sports Direct conglomerate – is leaving because it is concerned about the risk to health caused by asbestos in the building.

It was announced last week that the Camberley branch of House of Fraser will be closing in early May, along with other stores around the country owned by the company.

Surrey Heath purchased the freehold of the building that houses the department store and a NatWest Bank branch for £17.6million in December 2016. 

The council had previously bought a range of town centre properties, including much of The Mall shopping precinct, for £86m.

Its rental income from the shops and offices has been much reduced in recent years due to retail closures, and the value of the properties has fallen substantially.

The council says it is disappointed that House of Fraser is closing the store, along with the associated job losses, but says it has been working on alternative plans for the building, including complete modernisation and refurbishment.

“We have worked closely with the House of Fraser Group and have given them substantial support keeping the Camberley store open after the original company went into administration in 2018 and over half their stores closed,” said a spokesman for the council. 

“The council has done everything it reasonably can as the landlord to actively support the House of Fraser store to continue to operate from the current site, right from when the parent company went into administration, including agreeing a rent-free period. 

“We had hoped that with this significant level of support the store would be able to continue to trade successfully, offering products, service and a pleasant retail environment that would attract customers.”

He added that the House of Fraser Group had not asked the council to remove asbestos from the building.  

“Presumably, this was because they knew this was unnecessary and they would be aware that such an undertaking would be highly disruptive to the operation of their business.”

In common with many buildings of the same age, asbestos is contained in the fabric of the building which is safe if not disturbed. The removal of asbestos from buildings of this size is a significant undertaking, requiring many weeks to complete. 

“It is therefore usually only done once a site is vacated and as part of a major refurbishment, redevelopment, or demolition, and undertaken by specialist contractors following strict health and safety regulations,” the spokesman said.

Removal of asbestos cladding and insulation materials could not be undertaken while the store was operational.

“The decision to close the store in Camberley does not significantly impact the council’s overall rental income, but does create the opportunity to develop an alternative and more successful future use for the building for our residents.”

Sports Direct, owned by retail billionaire Mike Ashley, bought the House of Fraser department store chain for £90m in August 2018, after the 169-year-old chain went into administration.

The company was asked for a comment on the Camberley closure and the rumours that asbestos content had affected the decision to quit the building but it had not replied at the time of going to press.

Surrey Heath avoided cutting its services for the coming 2023-24 financial year by using £3.5m from its reserves to subsidise its spending. This enabled the authority to increase its share of council tax by just 2.99%, below the rate of inflation.

It will spend around £17.5m on services during the year, an increase of £5.2m on the current financial year.