Many of you will recall the cheap sale of Liverpool City Council’s landmark offices, Millennium House. At the time, it was claimed that it was a steal at a price of around a third of the original independent valuation. The deal went along with a substantial subsequent upgrade in the building by the council, and included two cash cows – a gymnasium and parking spaces.
It was sold to a firm run by a former bankrupt. This firm has, since then, been involved in a controversial purchase in Cardiff of the iconic Coal Exchange building. Cardiff MP, Stephen Doughty, has questioned the background of this deal in a parliamentary debate. He said that, intriguingly, Cardiff council had been persuaded to lend this firm – Signature Living – a large sum of money to enable the purchase to proceed.
Back here in Liverpool, Signature Living has been promoted locally as a bidder for the Municipal Building, a much more significant proposed sale by the council than that of Millennium House (which was justified in the vanity project of the Cunard building purchase). Much fanfare has been created by the council about extensive interest in the building across Europe.
Now we again learn via the Liverpool Echo of another bidder for the building – the Ascot Group, based in Crosby. Thus, there have now been two named potential bidders. What is curious is that both bidders are linked, via Millennium House, now known as the Shankly Hotel. With much publicity, shortly after the deal for the Shankly Hotel was done, it was announced that Ascot had become a financial partner to Signature Living in the project.
It is, therefore, extremely important that there is total transparency by the council in the whole process of the sell-off of the Municipal Building. There can be no repeat of the opacity surrounding the sale of Millennium House, and which still persists in so many of the council’s dealings (FOI requests are often blocked in the name of “commercial confidentiality”). For example, how has the building been marketed, and by whom? What due diligence is being done on potential buyers? What independent valuations have been done, and by whom? How will bids for such a unique landmark be tested?
The city has been a hive of commercial activity in recent years in the eyes of some, a hotbed of exploitation in the view of others. It is only fair to the reputation of the city – and fair to its council tax payers – that the council is open at every stage so that it can be held accountable for the sale of such assets. The right thing must not only be done, but be seen to be done.