Why I'm ﬁghting for Fire Station
Two of Manchester's most powerful Jewish figures are locked in battle over the multi-million pound development of one of the city's iconic landmarks. And one has accused Manchester City Council of disgrace and mismanagement in its spending cuts.
Alex Langsam, the 72-year-old owner of the Britannia Hotel group, said Manchester Council's chief executive, Sir Howard Bernstein had spent millions of pounds of public money putting "every boulder in our way" from developing the landmark London Road Fire Station in Manchester's city centre. He said this was despite the council culling 2,000 jobs in spending cuts.
The businessman, based in Hale, Cheshire, and reported to be worth £64 million, will fight a compulsory purchase order made by the council over Britannia's ownership of the listed building. It will go to a government-adjudicated public enquiry in April. Britannia wants to develop it into a four-star hotel, restaurant and bar complex, but although it has owned it for 25 years, it has left it empty after withdrawing a string of planning applications.
Mr Langsam accused Sir Howard of trying to keep out of the limelight, and said he was "blowing the whistle" on the chief executive's attitude to his company. He said that Britannia had spent £750,000 in making the latest planning application for the Fire Station. Although the council granted planning permission in September last year, at the same time it made a compulsory purchase order for the building.
Mr Langsam said: "It took six and half years to get planning permission this time round. Howard Bernstein was insisting we put a great big music venue in the middle of it... this was a red herring in order to delay us in our efforts to get on with it."
"Two thousand people are being made redundant and you won't even be able to go to the toilet in Manchester because the council is closing the toilets, you won't be able to borrow a library book because it is closing the libraries, and many elderly and disabled people will now be disregarded because they are not being helped.
"It's mismanagement and a disgrace at a time when they are spending millions of pounds pursuing us."
Sir Howard would not comment on the Britannia dispute but council leader Sir Richard Leese said: "While the current owners have obtained planning permission to convert the former Fire Station into a hotel, the council is not satisfied that there is any guarantee this will be implemented."
But Mr Langsam said he had a track record of reviving dilapidated listed buildings. This week, he bought the beleaguered holiday camp chain Pontins from administrators. In this way, he claimed, he had saved more than 800 jobs. He pledged to spend £25 million on refurbishing the five remaining holiday camps - there were 24 in the company's heyday.
He said: "We've got armies of work people just to refresh Pontins. We are going to improve the entertainment. We've already got people for the summer season like Lenny Henry and the Cheeky Girls, and that Jewish girl in X-Factor with the squeaky voice, Stacey Solomons, stayed at a Pontins camp quite recently."
He said his desire to reinstate British icons and landmarks was out of a sense of gratitude instilled by his parents who felt Britain had saved their lives in the Holocaust.
"They came on the last train out of Vienna, and in reality if not for Britain they would probably have gone to the gas chambers," he said.
Mr Langsam said he had already received interest from Orthodox Jewish groups who wanted to take over entire Pontin camps for Shabbaton weekends, attracted by the self-catering facilities which would allow for kosher food. But he joked: "If you are asking, are we going to build any synagogues on any sites, I very much doubt it."