A COUPLE who achieved their dream of opening their own restaurant have been left with a bitter taste in their mouth following a two-year battle over business rates.

Joanne and Cengiz Akarsu, who own a Turkish restaurant in Durham city centre, have been left with bills of £900 a month, around two years after signing a lease which they thought would exempt them.

Errors over the rateable value of the property – which was registered as a hairdresser’s, despite having been run as a cafe – mean they are being charged much higher rates than expected when they took on the lease in June 2016.

Mrs Akarsu said: “It’s been an absolute nightmare. When we first requested the particulars of the building we were worried about being naïve because this is our first business. So we scrutinised every aspect. We got everyone in, the council, police, health and safety, to check everything.

“When we signed the lease we were told we wouldn’t have to pay anything because we would be eligible for small business rates relief.

“Then we found out it had not been rated correctly for a number of years. Now the rates are about £900 a month – we didn’t sign up to that.”

Last month the couple, from Willington, part-won an appeal against a decision by the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), which sets the rateable value of business premises, reducing it by £3,500.

They are now planning a fresh appeal to reduce the rate further, to what they were first told it would be.

Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods is working with Durham County Council, which collects the rate, to try and resolve the situation.

She said: “It’s really important that Durham remains a vibrant and attractive place for people to visit, and so we should be supporting small businesses such as this as much as possible.

“I will be following this matter up to try and identify how these mistakes were made, and how this situation can be resolved.”

Paul Darby, the council’s head of finance said: “As soon as we were made aware that Akarsu had taken over the lease for this premises, we notified the VOA of the change of use as we are duty bound to do. Because of the change of use, the VOA subsequently reviewed the rateable value of the premises, resulting in it being increased and notified us of the revised valuation.

“We then applied the rateable value that had been assigned, as we are obliged to.”