Bonar back-tracks over closure after latest fire safety visit

Saif Bonar, the “founder” of Matthew’s Yard coffee shop off Surrey Street, has backed down from his public threat to close up the property’s workspace and end his work on that part of the building.

Saif Bonar: the riots were a business opportunity

Saif Bonar: the riots were a business opportunity. Picture submitted by subject

Bonar had made his threat of closure of his latest project in emails sent to all 70 of Croydon’s elected councillors on Wednesday night. “You will be pleased to note that our workspace in Exchange Square has been closed with immediate effect and we will be ceasing development of the space until further notice,” he wrote.

Bonar’s emailed outburst came in response to a visit from fire safety officers on Wednesday, just a few hours after the coffee shop proprietor had spoken against the council’s new street licensing scheme at a Town Hall meeting. Bonar insinuated that the visit was some form of deliberate harassment against his business, or what he called “coincidence”.

But in the cold light of day on Thursday, Bonar was back-tracking over his threat to close the workspace. “Thorough follow up from LFB [London Fire Brigade] today now satisfied with progress,” he said on Twitter.

The London Fire Brigade today declined to comment on the coffee shop’s status.

It is not known whether Bonar will follow-through on his various other threats contained in his long, and fraught, emails this week, including “my resolve to rout [sic] out corrupt practices in your organisation”, referring to the council. He also said that he intends to leave Croydon before this summer.

Bonar finished off with this threatening flourish: “I will consider bringing legal action against the local authority for the emotional distress and disruption, loss of earnings and other financial implications of your actions which I believe to be bordering in criminal.”

Council figures told Inside Croydon that they rejected Bonar’s claims as “somewhat wild allegations”.

Jon Rouse: the former council CEO was a keen supporter of Matthew's Yard

Jon Rouse: the former council CEO was a keen supporter of Matthew’s Yard

Bonar has not always held the council in such disregard. In April 2012, just before Matthew’s Yard’s opening, he wrote for this website that he had received supportive personal visits from the then council chief executive, Jon Rouse, “to find out more about what we’re doing”. Not all Croydon start-ups got such personal attention from the £248,000 pa CEO.

Four years ago, Bonar wrote for Inside Croydon that dealing with “various building regulations, food and hygiene regulations and so on” was challenging for him, but that the council was often on-hand to assist: “… whenever I have got stuck, the Building Control team at Croydon Council has been incredibly helpful and knowledgeable”.

Bonar added: “Having never run a food business before, I have also had to find out about licensing, hygiene and other regulations. As we are considering serving alcohol, there has also been a bunch of other laws to learn about. Once again the licensing, food safety and environmental health teams at Croydon Council have all been helpful.”

So what has changed? Rouse moved on from Croydon Council somewhat suddenly and the local Tories, many of whom are keen supporters of Matthew’s Yard, lost the Town Hall elections in 2014.

But the business has continued to be a struggle for Bonar, who admitted in interviews last year that he was close to bankruptcy, having accumulated debts of £100,000. Matthew’s Yard, he said, was on the brink of closure.

Licensing matters, for live performance and music as well as safety issues, have seen Matthew’s Yard receive frequent visits from council officials. And fire safety, which comes under the London Fire Brigade, has been an increased concern at Matthew’s Yard lately.

Matthew's YardLast month, a fire in the flats above Matthew’s Yard, in The Exchange, saw the workspace flooded with hundreds of gallons of water from a burst pipe. Bonar is offering desk rental in what he calls MY Backyard for a mere £175 per month, but this does include “steelcase fusion benchdesk, Boss upholstered swivel chair and lockable pedestal”.

Following the fire damage, Bonar told the local paper that he would fix it himself, rather than claim on insurance. “It won’t cost more than £1,000 but we will get on and do these things rather than trying to get money out of things,” he said.

The neighbour’s fire will have been a stark reminder of the importance of the regulatory demands which face Bonar and his premises.

Bonar tweet 2

Some of Saif Bonar and Matthew’s Yard’s tweets this week, showing a conflation between Croydon Labour and council officials, and his serious allegation of mispractice over the Fire Brigade visit

Matthew’s Yard’s most recent fire risk assessment was carried out at the beginning of December. The assessment was conducted by Saif Bonar himself.

In his report, Bonar noted that, “Matthews [sic] Yard has numerous internal doors which can help slow the spread of fire and allow ample time for evacuation. A carpenter has been booked to replace all non fire doors with fire doors and ensure all doors are routed and fitted with intumescent seals”.

Later in the report, Bonar wrote: “Matthews [sic] Yard takes its obligations under licensing law seriously and we constantly strive to review our operating plans, health and safety measures and mitigate risks for our customers and the general public…”.

Bonar then listed  “key next steps in order of priority”, with the dates when some of the safety measures should be completed. These included a comprehensive electrical check “due to loss of original test certificate”.

Bonar’s report, submitted on December 15, gave himself just a fortnight, over the Christmas period, to upgrade all the venue’s doors to approved standards for fire safety. It also revealed the need for considerable work to enhance the safety measures for an emergency exit from the Croydon Radio studio, to install smoke detectors in the studio theatre and to refurbish the pop-up shop – all of which Bonar said would be completed by the end of January.

You can read the December 2015 Matthew’s Yard fire risk assessment report here.

Given such an onerous workload of safety improvements for Matthew’s Yard during January, it begins to look as if a visit from fire safety officers in mid-February is far from a council-inspired “coincidence”, as Bonar suggested this week, and much more like the act of a responsible regulator.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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11 Responses to Bonar back-tracks over closure after latest fire safety visit

  1. farmersboy says:

    Inside Croydon are just picking on poor Mr Bonar now with your listing of facts.
    There you go I’ve saved some of you having to comment

  2. Saif Bonar says:

    The representative who visited me on Wednesday did so while he was off duty and he claimed this was at the request of the council licensing team.

    He claimed to have told the council licensing team we have until 20 June to complete the remaining work and they should back off.

    He went on to state he was in the area, but off-duty and so thought he would pop by to check up informally. He subsequently offered to provide informal advice on best next steps in the adjacent premises.

    This is an unlicensed premises and while it falls under the jurisdiction of the LFB the LFB do not routinely inspect premises other than licensed premises because they do not have the resources to do so.

    The “threat” to close the workspace and cease development on the remainder of the premises was in response to the informal visit. Following a formal visit the next day, the LFB were satsified that suitable measures were in place and being taken to protect the safety of workspace users and at this stage they were happy to continue with development.

    I won’t bother responding to all the other nonsense in both your articles. People know your site for what it is and can make their own judgement.

    • For clarity: is Matthew’s Yard now equipped with the fire safety doors which you undertook to have fitted before the end of 2015? Or not?

      What about the smoke alarms?

      Or the emergency access lighting?

      And the re-wiring work?

      Your lack of response to “all the other nonsense” is noted. We’d suggest that your lack of response is because all we have done is laid out your own comments and the facts.

      • Saif Bonar says:

        The LFB officer who passed by off duty initially check on Matthews Yard itself and was “very happy” with the progress we have made since his notice of improvements was formally issued on 1 Feb 2016.

        There is no requirement under Fire Safety Legislation for the premises to offer compartmentalisation from itself. There must be thorough (60 minutes protection) compartmentalisation from adjoining premises or the premises above. During the December LFB inspection a breach was found in a former lift shaft in an electrical intake cupboard and this has been rectified.

        While there is a legal obligation for there to be procedures and processes in place for the effective management and mitigation of fire there is no legal requirement to have an automated alarm system, smoke detectors or similar. A hand bell, or megaphone, is suitable according to the law. Despite this, we have had an effective and fully functioning, professionally certified and commissioned + serviced Fire Alarm System in place since we opened to the public.

        One of the biggest concerns we have had is that we are most often provided with information or advice via the local authority informally or off the record and there is a reluctance to document these requests in any formal way. Often the advice or requests from the LA conflict with the advice and requests of the LFB. When questioned the LFB reps suggested we ask ALL future requests from the LA to be made in writing and tied to a relevant piece of legislation and that any fire safety related advice or requests can be checked with them as they can and will over-rule as they did most recently in December.

        The primary means of escape for Croydon Radio now offers 60 minutes fire protection and is equipped with new fire doors and automatic closers (there were fire doors in place before). All fire extinguishers and signage have been replaced and professionally commissioned by Interserve.

        Emergency lighting has also been in place since Matthews Yard opened. Due to some internal modifications the LFB requested that we review current provisions and perhaps add additional lights where we feel necessary. We have started this process and plan to add more in the following few days.

        We had been hoping to make this a non-public debacle, precisely because of the misgivings we have over the treatment we have received through a series of multi-agency informal and undocumented visits, sometimes by “off duty” officials.

        Regarding the “other nonsense” this related to your previous post where a number of false assertions, assumptions or allegations are made. Lets start with your allegations that I had a meeting with Jo Negrini. This never happened, nor was I aware of any intention for it to happen. I have been in the presence of Jo Negrini on 3 occasions in total.

        The first was in December at a “culture summit” or something attended by various people from within the council and outside of it. There was no small talk and it was actually a fairly heated meeting with less than comfortable exchanges between myself and Jo Negrini and Tony Newman in relation to issues like the misappropriation of the CIL (or the community portion of it). Others voiced concerns over licensing and restrictive controls which seemed intent on curbing specific types of music in the borough and at this point Mr Newman seemed intent on blaming everything on the police. I suggested the LA was the legally mandated responsible authority for licensing and they had allowed the Police to take on too much control over licensing, which while clearly making the town centre safer, also made it less viable and that a better balance needed to be struck.

        The second time I was in the presence of Jo Negrini was at the Scrutiny meeting on Tuesday which was webcast and I believe is still available on the Croydon Council website for review.

        The 3rd instance was early yesterday morning when she happened to be in Crushed Bean having a meeting and I went in to buy a take-away coffee. There was no conversation between us apart from to say hello. We have never had a direct conversation about MY or anything else for that matter.

        Other false information in your article includes allegations that Paul Collins brokered a favourable deal for us. This is untrue. Paul Collins, in his capacity as Manager of the Croydon Conference Centre showed us the basement of the building which the conference centre is located in. He then introduced us to representatives of Folly’s End Trust who own the space and we subsequently dealt with FET to negotiate the terms of the lease and move forward. Paul simply made an introduction. [The editor writes: Sounds like brokering a deal in any normal understanding of the phrase]

        I will be publishing additional documents online including the somewhat tardy objections from the LA licensing and H&S officers in December and the subsequent and very much more professional Notification of Deficiencies supplied by the LFB which was issued on 1 Feb 2016 and gives us until 20 June to remedy.

        • derekthrower says:

          Sounds like you cannot tell the difference between formal duty and informal advice. If you are not up to the job and break into an outbreak of hysteria when you feel under stress. I suggest you get another job for your health.

        • farmersboy says:

          Whilst you are correct that the LA have ultimate control over licensing they will usually defer any decisions to the police. The police have a licensing officer for this very reason. I’ve been in licensing court often enough to know the council are represented by the licensing officer. As you are no doubt aware the chief constable has to sign off on a person’s suitability to hold a licence not a councillor or council employee so claiming the police are too involved in licensing is a bit like claiming chef’s are too involved in cooking

  3. derekthrower says:

    Looks like a case of the morning after too many Matthews Yard coffees the night before.

  4. farmersboy says:

    Off duty? So basically some bloke popped in for coffee and claimed to know a bit. I’ve owned and managed pubs and we used to have to listen to chancers every day. Never really listened though

    • Saif Bonar says:

      indeed. Except some bloke is actually the LFB official who is responsible for overseeing our premises and others in Croydon when he is on duty.

      Once satisfied with progress in the “coffee shop” which he was “very happy” with he took it upon himself to pop into an adjacent premises which is not open to the general public. Its a members only workspace. The LFB do not routinely inspect all premises, their focus is purely on licensed premises as these are considered to pose the greatest risk to the public in the event of fire. While in the adjacent premises he rumaged through drawers and personal effects looking for “evidence that someone was resident on the premises” to me, the leading questions which were being asked suggested the officer had been provided with false information that suggested a number of people were in residence on the premises. “Where are all the beds?” etc.

      The off duty officer proceeded to interview several people individually, with no witnesses present. In that time he made threats to close any part of Matthews Yard or the entirety of it, should anyone be found to be sleeping in the adjacent premises!

  5. Rod Davies says:

    As a former property manager with extensive dealings with LFB, I have some sympathy with Mr Bonar. Back in the 1990’s a succession of LFB officers in the official capacity “inspected” a premises I was responsible for and produced a succession of contradictory reports and requirements. Only when I lodged a formal complaints did a very senior and very experience fire officer turn up and basically dismiss the entirety of the demands and then set out a set of reasonable, affordable and achievable requirements. The snr officer informally explained why the situation had arisen and informally apologised.
    If Mr Bonar’s claim that an off-duty fire officer entered a private premises and took to rooting through personal possessions it is a matter of considerable concern not only to Mr Bonar but more importantly LFB management. Had someone alleged that something had “disappeared”, the officer concerned could have faced investigation into possible theft.
    I am also hearing about the police descending in inordinately large numbers to this premises in a disproportionately heavy handed approach. Does anyone know if this is true?

  6. Rod Davies says:

    The tone of people’s comments here, and possibly the article itself, are appalling.
    From the outset I declare I have only met Mr Bonar once very briefly during the post-riot RECC events on Cherry Orchard Rd.
    Running a small business is not an easy thing, especially trying to set up something in a less than bouyant economy. Matters are not helped when various public employees start providing “informal” advice. Nearly always it’s bad advice and always the public official cannot be held responsible for it. The culture of informal advice giving tends to reflect an individuals perspective and not the more complex perspectives of the public body. (My own experience of working with building control, LFB and various others even as a public employee was frustrating to say the least. Each regulatory body trying to throw their weight around!)
    Regardless of what we might feel about Mr Bonar, he has evidently tried to make something happen in Croydon to make Croydon a more interesting and more pleasant place. he clearly has done it with inadequate funds, inadequate technical and operational knowledge. Like many people in his position he has been unlucky.
    If we want people to come to Croydon and invest their time & money to create venues like Matthews Yard, we ought to adopt a far more generous tone towards them and try to support them.

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