Judge a man by the company he keeps
So how did the Sheikh with a string of failed and failing companies get his pier bid approved? “The aim throughout the process was that the heritage asset be sold to the party which demonstrated the highest probability of sustaining it financially into the future, and maintained the benefits for Hastings and the wider community”. So stated the administrators of Hastings Pier Charity in their press release of 20th June, five days after the sale announcement, explaining the basis on which they had rejected the purchase bid made by the crowd-funded community group Friends of Hastings Pier in favour of one from the self-styled Sheikh Abid Gulzar.
“As administrators” they continued. “we cannot prefer one bid over another on emotional or other, non-commercial, grounds”.
Well, perhaps Adam Stephens or Finbarr O’Connell, the two directors of insolvency firm Smith Williamson who have been performing this role at the rate charged to the Heritage Lottery Fund of £600 (inclusive of VAT) per hour, should explain why they regarded the following facts about Mr Gulzar’s company dealings, open to universal public scrutiny in the register of Companies House, as merely emotional or otherwise non-commercial grounds of objection
1. Mr Gulzar was sole director of two companies, Lion Hotels Limited and Chatsworth Hotel Limited, which in January 2017 went into liquidation owing creditors irrecoverable sums amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Chatsworth Hotel Limited had filed an account in March 2015 showing its principal asset, the Chatsworth Hotel on Grand Parade, Eastbourne as worth in excess of £3 million. Less than two years later following sale of the hotel there were allegedly no significant assets in the company. So what happened to the proceeds? In March this year the liquidator,
Alex Dunton of Greenfield Recovery Limited, an insolvency firm in Birmingham, filed a Progress Report in the liquidation stating that he was making further enquiries of the relevant parties “to determine the nature” of transactions made by the company following the sale. The liquidator also indicates that he is investigating and reporting to the Department of Business Innovation and Skills in respect of the conduct of Mr Gulzar as director, however his report and disclosures “are confidential”.
2. None of the six companies of which he remains (in each case sole) director, including those that own Eastbourne Pier and three other hotels in and around that town, show a balance sheet, as filed at Companies House, which is in profit;
3. The company through which he appears to have bought Eastbourne Pier in 2015, Lions Pier Limited, transferred it some time before 31 March 2017 to another of his companies Golden Lions (Eastbourne) Limited leaving an unpaid tax bill in excess of £200,000 and creditors altogether in excess of £1.274 million.
4. Both companies and all their assets, including both freehold and leasehold interest in the pier have been charged to Barclays Bank; all the hotel assets and respective businesses are charged to the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The following further facts might also, you would think, have been regarded as having a bearing on Mr Gulzar’s suitability as maintainer of heritage assets:
5. In September 2013 he pleaded guilty at Hastings Magistrates Court to causing damage to a protected conservation site on Pevensey Levels. He was fined £45,000 with £90,000 costs. He is reported to have continued to dispute the restoration programme required of him by the site authority Natural England for another 17 months before caving in and paying up in full.
6. After buying Eastbourne Pier, which is a Grade-II listed structure, he started by having the cupola on its principal building plus up to 40 lion statuettes adorned in a garish gold. Only retrospectively did he apply for planning permission.
It is noteworthy that, according to Peter Chowney, leader of Hastings Borough Council, Mr Gulzar unlike other potential bidders made no approach to the planning department prior to the sale announcement. The reasonable inference to be drawn was that Mr Gulzar either didn’t have any plans worth discussing, or else did but doubted, prior to securing the asset, that they would meet with approval. Either way it is surely another reason why the administrators might have questioned his fitness to take control.
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