Local residents of Maidencombe, a rural community that is part of Torquay, are justified in raising their concerns about the re-emergence of plans to build a Las Vegas style complex of buildings on Sladnor Park, an oasis of nature. History looks set to repeat itself as Keith Cockell and his latest retirement village platform, “Inspired Villages”, try once again to deliver his dream on the site he bought for Richmond Villages in 2007.
Public consultation in October 2017 awakened the concerns of many locals as the developer re-emerged ten years after his previous attempts fell apart. Having bought out the former owner Duncan Spence for £11million funded by Irish Tycoons including John Magnier and J P McManus, they pulled the plug on the plans at Sladnor Park and elsewhere in the UK.
Richmond Villages’ plans fell apart and as the company ran out of funding, Cockell was dismissed from the company in 2008. The directors failed to implement the planning consent or relocate the lodge owners and the site has laid dormant for nearly ten years. Richmond Villages were reportedly sold to BUPA in 2013 for £70million. The legacy was a sale of the Torquay site to a venture involving the former MD, Cockell, for less than £2million in 2016. The Richmond company which held Torquay was liquidated in Jersey in October 2017 shortly after the recent public consultation took place. The liquidation involving the loss of £40 million is thought to include a £10million loss on the Torquay site. Behind the collapse was a retreat of the banks whose confidence evaporated as former Kerry Foods executives Denis Brosnan and Michael Griffin failed to check the grand expansion plans pioneered by Cockell. Brosnan retracted from the care sector after the Winterbourne View Castlebeck abuse scandal was highlighted by BBC Panorama, where he acted as Chairman to Castlebeck and Richmond Villages.
The Sladnor Park public consultation before Christmas presented a diluted and remodelled format of the previous scheme based on a deeply discounted land purchase price. Legal and General are the latest in the line of funding partners for Cockell’s “Inspired Village” vision for Sladnor. Cockell has failed to retain a steady backer since his departure from Richmond having courted Places for People and Anchor Trust who have said they lost confidence in the business model. The view is that the proposed apartments will attract outsiders rather than local people, and that many of the claims of employment and local income will not be met. Local resident concerns look well founded based on the last decade.
The planning issues look complex, there is massive, well-organised local resistance, L&G has many investment and insurance clients living in the area, and further consultation will be required. Beyond all the sensitivities that need to be considered, the commitment of Legal and General to deliver the latest vision is a big question mark given the frequency of change of financial bed fellows Mr Cockell has needed. Cockell assures locals that Legal and General has a bigger pot of cash for a nationwide portfolio of care villages – a claim made by Peter Hancock, a former Richmond director in 2007 before being dismissed.
Beyond Torquay, Legal and General have recently splashed out by buying a portfolio of villages to achieve instant scale, one of which is in Great Alne, a rural location near Henley in Arden.
Henry Lumby, an expert in the sector from estate agent Savills, who sold the site in 2016, confirmed “a high-rise solution for Sladnor Park looks attractive but I doubt Legal and General or locals will ignore the £40million lost by Keith Cockell’s previous vehicle. This is a stark reminder that making a success in this sector is not as easy as it looks. Sales rates can be much slower than for conventional housing without an age restriction. Cost overruns, late scheme delivery and slow sales rates can destroy thin margins very quickly”
These factors and planning battles are all part of the headwinds in this sector, Sladnor being no exception. According to healthcare investor magazine, Paddy Brice, the subsequent executive director at Richmond, moved to BUPA as part of a rescue attempt but has since left BUPA as the company has decided not to expand its foray into the Retirement Village sector.
As proven over recent years, the care village industry has a very dubious financial and ethical record. Reduced property valuations; massive increases in management and service charge fees, and recently one of the largest players, having sold out to private equity, looking as if their mammoth debts will render residents to the mercy of the state to pick up their continued care bill.
One wonders if Legal and General have done their homework before backing Inspired, as history looks set to repeat itself – once again, for Cockell, uninspiringly.