Hotels at the centre of a collapsed “Ponzi-type” investment scheme are being put on the market in the hope of finding buyers before Christmas.
Over a thousand people are thought to have invested about £80m in companies owned by Gavin Woodhouse.
Hotels in Llandudno and Pembrokeshire are among those put up for sale by administrators who took over Northern Powerhouse Developments (NPD) in July.
Mr Woodhouse’s solicitors said he would comment after legal proceedings ended.
Administrators Duff and Phelps have removed him as a director of NPD.
Investors have been told by the administrators that Land Registry documents relating to their purchases are effectively worthless and that the hotels owned by NPD are being marketed on a “vacant possession” basis.
Those taking part in the investment schemes handed over cash for hotel rooms, “off plan” care home rooms and yet-to-be-built lodges on the proposed Afan Valley Adventure Resort in south Wales.
They expected an annual return of 10% on their investment and the opportunity to sell it back at a 25% profit after a decade.
Administrator Phil Duffy told the BBC that investors’ interests in the hotels were being set aside by a judge in order to market the hotels.
They are inviting bids from potential buyers, to be received by 15 November.
Any money raised from the sales will be distributed among investors according to how much they had invested.
Investors said that they were told that their money was ring-fenced or protected against problems the company might have faced with its other investment schemes.
But the administrator said it appears that it was run as a collective investment scheme – where hotel investors’ cash was pooled with cash from other investment schemes under the NPD banner.
Collective Investment schemes are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), but the regulator said it did not authorise the NPD firms to run such a scheme.
Mr Duffy told the BBC: “The definition of a Ponzi-scheme is larger than expected returns… new investors’ monies obtained to pay out old investors, and those two flags are evident in this.
“Of the £80m of investor money, they probably brought about £25m worth of hotels, but then they’ve spent £40m-£50m on lawyers, agents, money outside the group which we’ve now started to pull back in.”
About £7m worth of payments were so far unaccounted for and administrators were investigating where this had gone, added Mr Duffy.
The FCA said offering investments in property is not regulated by them.
However, if property investments were then being structured as collective investment schemes, the operating firm did need FCA authorisation, and “certain minimum disclosure obligations”.
“It is a criminal offence to operate a collective investment scheme without FCA authorisation,” said an FCA official.
“We are unable to comment on Northern Powerhouse Developments other than to say that it was not authorised by the FCA.”
Duff and Phelps are also investigating the high rates of commission paid to property agents involved in marketing the schemes.
It comes as law firm Penningtons Manches Cooper has launched a class action case against a number of the solicitors’ firms which did conveyancing work for investors.
Many were recommended by Northern Powerhouse Developments and fees waived if investors used them.
‘Biggest property scheme collapse’
David Niven, a partner in Pennington’s leading the class action, said it was one of the biggest collapsed property schemes of its type that they had come across.
“To date we’ve been approached by over 300 investors who have lost money in the NPD schemes – with claims totalling around £30m and more coming in every day,” said Mr Niven.
“Some of the legal work I’ve seen is very, very poor, probably because of the volume of cases being churned through these companies.
“They gave lip service to warning their clients, but these weren’t designed to scare people off and huge numbers of people proceeded with the investments.”
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has issued several warnings to solicitors’ firms in the past about these type of investment schemes and the need to adequately warn clients of the risks involved.
Gary Thomas, from Flintshire in north east Wales, bought two rooms at the Queen’s Hotel in the Welsh seaside resort of Llandudno – investing in a second room after being assured that his initial investment was protected by ring-fencing.
He did receive a return on his investments for a couple of years, but these dried up in late 2018 and he said he was £73,500 out of pocket.
“I’m gutted, I feel stupid, hurt, angry,” said Mr Thomas, a retired financial advisor.
“It was all very plausible… very sophisticated… a lot of highly-educated people were taken in.
“It’s a life-changing sum of money to lose, you work a long time to build that up.
“It’s just gut-wrenching to think that somebody’s taken that money from us, and our family in the future are going to miss out on it.”
UK reputation ‘damaged’
Administrator Phil Duffy said it has estimated that about £6bn in funds had gone into similar investment schemes in the UK – some of which have already gone into insolvency.
“There are lots of overseas investors and these type of schemes are damaging the UK brand for investment,” he said.
“The perception outside the UK is that investing in the UK is very safe, especially in property, and that’s been damaged.”
- You can hear more on the plight of Northern Powerhouse Investors and Gavin Woodhouse on Money Box on BBC Radio 4 at 12:00 GMT on Saturday 9 November, and again at 21:00 on Sunday 10 November. The programme is also available on BBC Sounds.
- You can also contact the BBC Wales News Focus team if this story has affected you