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MOD Versus Guy Hands – Seconds Out for the Big Fight!

After our last article featuring criticism of the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), there has been more positive news in recent days, even if it relates to past failure. The development relates to the organisation gearing up for a legal battle with a private equity firm headed by billionaire businessman Guy Hands.

Twenty-five 25 years ago, MOD sold off houses that were used for military families. The deal was controversial at the time and has continued that way, as it became more and more obvious that it was a lousy deal for the taxpayer and indeed for many occupants of these properties. As The Guardian described it,

“In 1996, the Conservative government sold 57,400 properties in the so-called “married quarters estate” to Annington Homes, which was then bought for £1.7bn by Nomura, a Japanese investment bank that employed (Guy) Hands. He later left Nomura to found the Terra Firma private equity firm, and bought Annington for £3.2bn in 2012”.

An odd aspect of the deal was that the MOD retained responsibility for maintenance and refurbishment of the properties, whilst paying what was supposedly a discounted rent on a 200-year lease. In other government PFI-type deals of the period (including a vary large one that I was personally involved with), the buyer of the property took on full responsibility for maintenance, so at least the taxpayer was transferring a significant element of risk.  In the MOD case, the aim was to use the money raised from the sale to renovate the properties – but of course that would benefit the new owners too.  But in any case, the MOD has not done a great job of maintaining the estate in the intervening years.

The commercial naivety shown by MOD has enabled the buyers of the property to make huge profits on the back of house price inflation, with an annual return averaging over 13%, according to the National Audit Office.  That gain included Annington issuing debt last year (against the property income stream) that enabled it to pay a dividend of £794m to its parent company. Here is what I said about the deal in the Bad Buying book.

“A National Audit Office (NAO) report in January 2018 laid out failings in terms of the buying and contract management process. The Department’s own calculations suggested retaining ownership would be cheaper – but for fairly nebulous “policy benefits”, the sale went ahead anyway. It then made very cautious estimates about future house price inflation and failed to build any mechanisms into the contract to claim a share of windfall gains. Of course, house prices rose faster than MOD’s cautious model, and the rate of return for Annington and its investors has been far higher than expected.

The NAO identified other problems – for some reason, MOD retained responsibility for maintaining the property, which it hasn’t done well, and there has been little collaboration between MOD and Annington to seek further benefits. Overall, it’s an example of failure that could comfortably sit in several different chapters here, but a lack of commercial understanding and negotiation skills in MOD were certainly amongst the issues; the NAO report estimated that the Ministry of Defence would have been between £2.2 and £4.2 BILLION better off if it had retained the estate”.

But the government is now taking an interesting stance. Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin is trying to take back ownership of the properties through exercising “statutory leasehold enfranchisement rights”, a somewhat obscure legal manoeuvre. The MoD has sought to take two houses initially to test whether Annington can be forced out, whilst as you might expect, Annington claims the government has no right to do so and is behaving badly.  This may end up in court; but the firm has now offered a one-off payment of £105 to contribute to refurbishment if the MOD backs off from the legal route.

So that suggests Annington knows there is some chance it might lose in court; and arguably that is already a potential £105 million “procurement benefit” for MOD. Not bad on Andrew Forzani’s end of year savings report… But maybe there is more if the Minister has the appetite for a fight.

And just to complete the story, the chair of Annington is Baroness Liddell, an ex-Labour Party MP and now a Labour peer. It’s quite amusing hearing her now justifying the unfettered capitalism that Hands has always propounded, whilst it is the Conservative Party that tries to claw money back from the billionaire’s firm …

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