For over 30 years, the Belgravia Hotel in Bournemouth has provided low-cost accommodation for vulnerable people – including rehabilitating former prisoners and people with physical or mental disabilities.
Wendy Hunt and her husband Gerry have leased the Victorian property since 1988, sub-letting individual rooms and some converted studio apartments, in her words, “to those who need them the most.”
In September 2016, the Belgravia’s freehold was bought by Pierfront Developments, a private company specialising in waterfront housing owned by the former football manager Harry Redknapp, with the Hunts as sitting tenants.
After two failed applications to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council to have the property demolished, Pierfront last month received the green light to turn the main Belgravia building into 14 flats, and to replace the former coach house where Wendy and Gerry live with their disabled son, Andy, and grandson who has epilepsy, Stuart, with five new detached houses.
The move, when it goes through, will leave the Hunts as well as their nine current sub-tenants, “at least temporarily”, homeless.
In response to the understandably negative press the situation attracted during the planning process, Pierfront issued a staggeringly unsympathetic statement last year:
“None of the residents are aware of the details of the financial investment, risk and fair commercial expectation of return that is associated with this scheme. Pierfront acquired the property without planning permission, fully aware of the tenant being in place and with a short period of time until the tenancy was to end.”
Pierfront insisted that the flats being built were not “posh”, as they have been described by some tabloids, pointing to what it considered a very reasonable £160,000 to £300,000 price range.
Wendy Hunt, however, wonders whether it has occurred to Pierfront that the people currently living in the Belgravia “don’t have hundreds of thousands of pounds, or they wouldn’t be there.”
She adds: “They aren’t providing more flats and houses for people who need them. They are providing more flats and houses only for the people who can afford them… I wouldn’t be surprised if they all became holiday homes to be honest.”
Pierfront’s tactless statement continued:
“Mr and Mrs Hunt currently run the property as a profitable commercial venture, renting the individual rooms to tenants on a mainly short-term basis. They have had plenty of notice during which to relocate their business in a normal and orderly fashion, but it would appear that they have chosen not to do so.”
In reality, the Hunts are an elderly couple, in their eighties, who have run the Belgravia as a “community project”, with a view to “helping people get back on their feet”.
They never require hefty deposits, she says, “because the people we are sub-letting to simply don’t have them… We’ve run this place on trust and we lost some money here and there over the years, but it has given us a lot of satisfaction to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
It is only since this situation “blew up”, Hunt tells me, that Redknapp, who previously played for and managed AFC Bournemouth, has offered to cover any relocation costs for the people living in the Belgravia.
“Now Pierfront have finally got the planning permission and things are actually progressing, it seems like he has had a bit of a change of heart. Some of the longer-term tenants, I’m led to believe [from a conversation with Pierfront representatives], will be offered £500 to help them move on but I don’t know that for certain yet. To be honest, what does that get you? It doesn’t even cover a deposit.” When the New Statesman approached Pierfront regarding this claim, the company refused to comment.
For their own part, the Hunts will be able to move in with their daughter, Karen, who lives nearby, in the next few weeks. But Hunt can’t hide that she is “very worried” about what will happen to her tenants.
“They are like part of the family, so of course we care. There were 28 at one point, but some have already moved on [because of this situation] and there are only nine left now.”
A recent Pierfront statement, as reported by the BBC, said the company was “working closely” with the homeless charity Shelter to help the remaining Belgravia residents to leave “one by one” in the near future.
While that is “better than nothing”, Hunt concedes, it doesn’t change the fact that people are being “forced to leave somewhere they were happy and could call home”.
Despite being embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with his company, Hunt says she has “never met” Redknapp, which she thinks might explain his “lack of empathy”.
Hunt says that had Redknapp bought the Belgravia with the intention of improving it and running it as a similar project, she would have been “more than happy to see what he could have achieved by putting some money in… He could have run it as a charity; it could have been his charity. I did suggest that to his agent once but he said that he wouldn’t be allowed to. I don’t know why that would be the case.”
Hunt is “not really” a football fan, but is fully aware of the “huge amounts of money involved” in the sport, as well as Redknapp’s connection to Bournemouth. He played for the Cherries between 1972 and 1976 and managed them from 1983 to 1992.
“I think what has happened would have been bad enough had it happened anywhere,” Hunt says. “But for it to happen somewhere that he has been so involved with is particularly disappointing.”
According to Hunt, Redknapp “knew exactly what he was doing” when he bought the Belgravia. Her voice breaking slightly, she asks: “Why did he choose us? He has enough money to buy an empty plot of land, so why didn’t he?”
Redknapp, who also managed West Ham, Portsmouth and Tottenham, grew up working class in east London. But he now has an estimated net worth of £14m and was reportedly paid £500,000 for his appearance in the 2018 series of ITV’s reality show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, which he won.
Football raises plenty of questions about the politics of wealth. The sport has become one of the most moneyed industries in the world. Broadcasting deals, sponsorship, ticket gates, merchandise and more contribute to huge wages for players, managers and agents – particularly those at Premier League level.
Of course, whether footballers, many of whom are not born rich to begin with, feel any compulsion to re-invest some of their money into the communities they came from or the areas in which their clubs are based, will depend on their own individual attitudes and ideals.
While Redknapp may well point towards some of the charitable work he does on the south coast – he is a patron of Julia’s House hospice and The Dorset Cancer Care Foundation, for example – it doesn’t detract from the Belgravia debacle. A family is still being uprooted and a local asset is still being removed thanks to the will of private enterprise.
After a three-year ordeal, Hunt is “tired” of speaking to lawyers and feels “let down” by the council that approved Pierfront’s planning application. Ultimately, she has found, what Harry Redknapp has done is perfectly legal, but listening to her story, it is extremely difficult to argue that makes it right.
Pierfront Developments declined the New Statesman’s request for comment.