Manchester City Council's failed attempt to CPO the London Road Fire station may end up costing the local authority more than £1m.
In an exclusive interview with Place's sister site Manchester Confidential, Britannia Hotels boss Alex Langsam said he will be going after the council for the 'considerable' costs of defending the compulsory purchase order, and accused the authority of acting like a 'bully' over the historic and currently deteriorating building.
The council has already had to stump up £700,000 to pay for its own costs of pursuing the case.
"We had to go out and carry out all sorts of reports to compile evidence to fight the CPO, as well as the cost of a good QC," said Langsam.
"We have every intention to go for costs and this enquiry will definitely end up costing the council more than £1m.
"The decision clearly found that the enquiry saw through what the council were after. They wanted to give the building to (rival developers) Argent. We felt they weren't in a position to carry out the works.
"I think the council put forward their best argument but it was weak. If they'd been right and fair in issuing the CPO, we might have lost – but the fact of the matter is that they tried to bully us into handing over the building and it didn't work."
Langsam said the council's aggressive pursuit of the building was wrong and alleged that the council shows favouritism toward certain developers in the city.
He also argued that many council-owned buildings – including the Town Hall – are in a worse state.
"During the case, part of our argument was that there is a whole host of listed buildings in and around Manchester, many of them owned by Manchester City Council, that are in a poor state, where nothing is being done to help them.
"Look at Heaton Hall. The council could have done something exceptional with that for the cost of the CPO enquiry."
Langsam also admitted that he considered there to be a sour relationship between him and the council.
"It did become a personal feud I think," he said. "But it goes back further than just a CPO. This battle goes back seven years or so, when a partnership with Argent was first suggested. I was insulted by that. I don't like partnerships. I like redeveloping buildings.
"I didn't want to be pushed out. I was an upstart challenging the total disrespect with which they treated us. To say we weren't capable of running a four-star hotel is totally disrespectful. The council had to admit at the enquiry that Britannia Hotels is actually held in high regard and has a successful track record as a hotel operator.
"We stuck with Manchester in the depths of the last recession and we've seen the council break promises on parts of the city they were and weren't going to develop. What really offends me is that the city council has done a PR job on us suggesting we don't develop hotels. We've developed plenty."
Langsam refused to give a start date on development at the Fire Station however, which is certain to frustrate many onlookers who argue the last seven years is only a small part of the 25 the building has sat undeveloped.
"I can't speculate. We can't just walk in and start straight away," he said. "We've been thrown off schedule by almost 18 months and we've had to go and re-hire half a dozen consultancies to draw up new reports for redeveloping a listed building.
"We'd like to be able to say when we can start and finish but that normally assumes a smooth path through planning from the local authority. We can't guarantee we'll get that. What we do know is that the building would have sat there for another two years had it been given to Argent, while they looked for an operator.
"The council would have had to pay for the upkeep of the building too. But we are going to do exactly what we said, and exactly what we wanted to when we were given planning permission. Unfortunately, the council decided to launch the CPO two months later, so we weren't able to, and that has what we've had to spend the last year fighting, instead of getting on with it.
"Now we just hope the council don't act in a vindictive manner as we try and develop the building. All I want is fair treatment."
This story first appeared on our sister site Manchester Confidential, here.
We asked the council for a response to some of the specific allegations levelled at them by Langsam. With reference to the point about Heaton Park and its poor state the council said this to us.
"Manchester takes it role as custodian of listed buildings very seriously, something which we would suggest that, in more than a quarter of a century of owning London Road Fire Station, Britannia have failed to do. We are, for instance, currently investing multi-millions in the refurbishment of the Grade II* listed Central Library and Town Hall Extension to improve services and restore these buildings to their former glory for the benefit of Manchester residents and future generations.
"To suggest that we could have done 'something exceptional' with Heaton Hall for the cost of the public inquiry is bunk. This is a completely different case to London Road Fire Station. We have spent more than £350,000 on maintenance and repairs of this building in the last year alone but we have had to close the hall to the public temporarily while we explore long-term solutions to bring in the millions which will be needed to provide a long-term solution."
In response to the point about partnerships the Council were equally forthright. "Britannia may not believe in partnership but we do, which is why we have been able to work with partners on a host of successful developments. Spinningfields and NOMA, which we are working with the Co-operative Group to deliver, are bringing jobs and investment to the city and are just two such examples."
The city also dismissed Langsam's claims of being thrown off schedule by 18 months over re-development plans for the building. "Britannia Hotels already have full planning permission and listed building consent to convert the fire station building into a hotel. Any delays are due to decisions they have made, not the council. We even offered to share the risk of expense to allow them to make progress on discharging planning conditions while the CPO was undecided.
"Our clear and consistent goal throughout this process has been to bring this Grade II*-listed building back into use as within a reasonable timeframe so that it makes a positive contribution to the regeneration of Piccadilly rather than blighting it. We note that, as a result of the public enquiry, Britannia have made a public pledge to return London Road Fire Station to use as a high quality hotel as soon as possible – with the first phase of work starting three months after the rejection of the CPO.
"The people of Manchester will hold them to that promise and no one will be more pleased than us if they honour their words. It should be noted that they were given an opportunity to make a binding commitment to carry out work within an acceptable timeframe before we took CPO action, and had they done so the inquiry could have been avoided."
The Confidential Opinion
Nobody comes out of this well. The inspector for the CPO, Paul Griffiths, de-constructed the council's position over seizing the building forensically. In his conclusions he acknowledges the importance of the building and the location in city centre development, but he found that 'the financial viability of the scheme the CPO is intended to bring forward has not been demonstrated and appears questionable at best.'
'Moreover', he continues, 'the urgency said to be necessary to secure the regeneration benefits of the redevelopment has not been made out and it appears that redevelopment of LRFS (London Road Fire Station), with the attendant regeneration benefits, would be more likely to come forward under Britannia's auspices than the council's. The fabric of the building could be safeguarded by measures that stopped short of expropriation.'
The judgement is humiliating for the city. But on the other side the prevarication and stalling of Langsam is not pleasant to observe either. There is a degree of churlishness in his attitude, bloody-mindedness too. And as the inspector frequently states there are no guarantees of imminent work on LRFS by Britannia.
'Britannia's witnesses made it very plain that the scheme is ready to proceed as soon as the threat of the CPO is removed and the funding is in place to allow that to happen. However, it is correct to observe that there is no evidence before the inquiry of any company resolution to that effect. Mr Langsam's letter put in at the Inquiry is equivocal on the matter.'
Since the inspector also refers to Britannia 'presenting a programme demonstrating that (LRFS) could be operating as a 4* hotel in 2014', this is worrying. Will Langsam stall again? As we've stated previously and as the council states above, Mancunians will be watching carefully to see if work to correct 25 years of neglect starts imminently. The ball is well and truly in Langsam's court and he's honour bound to play the game. (Jonathan Schofield)