Concerns surfacing over role of Nama in North

The sale of the Invest NI building could be a ‘golden opportunity’ or a loss for Nama

Today Belfast is littered with forlorn sites that echo the failed dreams and lost fortunes of local property developers. Photograph: Pacemaker

Today Belfast is littered with forlorn sites that echo the failed dreams and lost fortunes of local property developers. Photograph: Pacemaker

 

The polished, glossy corporate headquarters of Invest NI, the North’s business development agency, have over the last eight years become something of a landmark in the heart of Belfast.

The high-rise, glass-fronted, award-winning building stands as a reminder of happier times when you could not move in the city for multi-million pound development schemes.

Today Belfast is littered with forlorn sites that echo the failed dreams and lost fortunes of local property developers.

The only sure bet in the city when it comes to commercial property these days is that somewhere along the way, the National Assets Management Agency (Nama) will be involved.

Even the glossy headquarters of Invest NI in Bedford Square falls under the Nama umbrella in the North, which is why the agency is likely to be keeping a particularly close eye on it at the moment.

Eight months ago, the com- pany that developed Bedford Square announced it was putting the building up for sale. Bedford Street Developments is a joint venture controlled by Tyrone-based property developers Eamonn Laverty and Séamus McAleer and Dunloe House (NI).

Laverty and McAleer are also the managing director and chairman of the Tyrone-based McAleer & Rushe Group, a privately owned multi-million pound construction firm which has a property portfolio valued at one stage in the region of £750 million.

Bedford Street Developments constructed Bedford Square as part of a public-private partnership (PPP) initiative – the first major office development under the scheme in the North. A subsidiary of Bedford Street Developments, Mrde, currently holds the PPP on Bedford Square.

Latest annual accounts for Bedford Street Developments, published earlier this month, show that the company made an operating profit in the 12 months to October 2012 of £621,707 – chiefly from car parking and rental income.

They also detail that the Irish developer Liam Carroll resigned from the board in October 2012.

In a note outlining director’s interests, the accounts state that a group company, Rambridge, had “issued unguaranteed loan notes in the amount of €26,974,704, to companies controlled by Liam Carroll and to a pension fund which is for the benefit of Liam Carroll”.

The accounts also highlight that one of Bedford Street Developments’ principal funders is Nama and that it has a formal agreement with the agency that runs until March 2016 “on the basis of a gradual realisation of assets and repayment of debt over time”.

This is exactly why Nama will be watching the Bedford Square sale in Belfast very closely. Stephen Surphilis from Bedford Street Developments had previously said it anticipated getting a price “in excess of £40 million” for the buildings.

Imagine then what the reaction from Nama’s top management must have been when the North’s Minister of Finance Sammy Wilson said a couple of weeks ago that he believed there could be a “golden opportunity” to purchase Invest NI’s headquarters for the knockdown price of £17 million.

“Invest NI leases the building through a PFI contract,” Wilson revealed. “However, the incumbent company went into administration and Invest NI can now buy back its headquarter building at a very competitive price.”

He hopes to be able to confirm the purchase by October and he is unlikely to be too worried about how Nama or the Irish Government may feel about losing out on possibly millions of pounds from the sale.

According to the agency’s latest update, it had approved £87 million in asset sales in the North up to the end of March of this year and is committed to providing funding to its Northern Ireland debtors totalling £123 million.

Publicly, Wilson has always praised the positive role that the agency has played in the North to date, but there are also hints that privately, tensions are beginning to emerge over Nama’s future direction in Northern Ireland.

Many businesses in the North have been lobbying the Minister of Finance over what they believe is a new harder line emerging from Nama to its debtors in Northern Ireland.

Some believe that Nama wants local businesses to sell assets now to write down their debts – irrespective of the impact this might have on the core business or their cash flow.

Those close to the Northern Ireland Executive have repeatedly warned that Nama is viewed very differently in the North than perhaps any other financial institution is and that there are political sensitivities surrounding the way it operates North of the Border.

“Nama is seen in Northern Ireland as a government body from the Republic of Ireland and if it jeopardises businesses in Northern Ireland and puts people out of work, then this will become a political issue – one that has the potential to reach the highest political levels,” one political leader has already warned.

Throw the sale of the corporate HQ of Invest NI into that already potent mix over the next couple of months and it could be a lot more than just a simple property transaction.