Chris Brown: Planning powers, delinquent owners and the agony of Mitcham Cricket Club

Chris Brown: Planning powers, delinquent owners and the agony of Mitcham Cricket Club

As the country basks in the summer heroics of Ben Stokes, Jack Leach and the rest of the England cricket team – or not, depending on how the final two matches in the Ashes series against Australia turn out – it is depressing to watch, down in South London, the long, drawn out agony of the world’s oldest cricket ground. Cricket is thought to have been played on Mitcham Cricket Green since at least 1685, but the historic Mitcham Cricket Club (MCC) currently faces an existential threat from a property owner of uncertain provenance.

The club’s pavilion, which is on the other side of the road from the ground, has just begun its second five-year term designated as an Asset of Community Value. And it is not the only part of the area’s cricket heritage under threat. The pavilion stands next to the former Burn Bullock public house, which closed in 2009 but is a listed building and has been on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register since 2014. Burn Bullock was a cricketer who played for Gentlemen of the South and then Surrey in the early 1920s and was also the son of the former Mitcham Town Council’s surveyor. Bullock was the licencee of both the pub (which took his name following his death in 1954) and the pavilion, as well as being vice chair of the club. The former pub is now owned by the same entity that owns the pavilion. The future of both buildings is unclear.

The club’s travails probably go back to the 16th century. The pub dates from this period and the likelihood is that both it and the current pavilion, which was opened in 1904, have long histories of cricketers and their supporters propping up the bar. Back in the day, it might not have seemed necessary for the club to own the freehold of its pavilion. But scroll forward a century and it finds itself “holding over” on an expired lease with a landlord demanding it pays much higher amounts to secure its future.

The Burn Bullock was allowed to deteriorate by its current owner, which then failed to comply in time with a repairs notice served by the local authority, Merton Council. Despite subsequently completing the works it appears to continue to neglect its upkeep and Merton has had cause to request further repairs. The owners have also apparently allowed the building to be used illegally, as a house in multiple occupation, as a car wash, for car sales and for advertising.

It’s usually relatively simple to spot dodgy developers by their behaviour. For example, they might not be open about who they are: companies may reside at a forwarding address, be registered offshore (although not in this case) and change hands frequently. It is often not clear where their money has come from and even if there actually is any.

In the trade we often refer to them as delinquent owners. There is a Campaign Against Delinquent Ownership, which has identified ten case studies across the country (they don’t include the MCC pavilion and former Burn Bullock pub). To address this widespread issue, the Scottish Government is currently planning to introduce Compulsory Sale Orders to force such owners to sell properties by auction to someone else, who will be legally required to bring them back into productive use.

In the case of MCC, the property was bought from its previous chain pub landlords in 2009 by a then newly-formed company called Phoenix GRP Investments Ltd for £450,000 with a loan from HSBC (since paid off). Its latest published accounts show it has net assets of just over £200,000. The majority owner, according to Companies House, was a man called Ahmed Mustafa, who also had a company with the similar name of Phoenix GRP Ltd, which, after a company voluntary arrangement, was compulsorily liquidated.

Mustafa has apparently never appeared at meetings with the local community. These are usually fronted by his architects and, occasionally, by a Kamran Baig, whose registered address, as filed at Companies House is, curiously, the Burn Bullock building. Mustafa, whose company has had various different shareholders, has now passed a controlling interest to Anon Properties, a company with negative shareholders funds according to the most recent documents filed at Companies House, and which is controlled by a Sheikh Momin Mobin Ahmed.

What can the cricket club do? The owners of the two sites have had various plans for flats, a hotel and a care home there. All of these are potentially acceptable to Merton, so long as the pub building is repaired and both its future and that of the cricket pavilion are ensured. But, so far, none of these plans have progressed to the stage where a planning application has been submitted.

In England, local authorities have a number of powers available to them to resolve these kinds of situations. If an owner doesn’t complete urgent repairs to a listed building, the authority can compulsorily purchase it and do the work themselves, then enforce the building’s sale to someone else. Neglecting a building so that it creates a nuisance, or, in residential buildings, failing to remove certain hazards, can also lead to local authorities doing the work and then enforcing the sale of the buildings in order to recover the cost.

But in many cases local authorities lack the political will to address such cases, which can lead to repeat offending. Even when the will is there, the developer may lead the local authority a merry dance, doing illegal things before desisting, only to start doing something else that is illegal. They can also delay enforcement in various ways, such as responding to compulsory purchase orders by giving evidence that they intend to develop the site. This is usually enough to defeat a CPO. But after that, the developer might have an apparent change of mind and still do nothing with the site.

In the case of Mitcham Cricket Club, all the local political parties, including MP Siobhain McDonagh, signed up over a year ago to a plan to see the pavilion passed into community ownership. But, as yet, there has been no action and the club’s future remains in doubt.

Chris Brown is executive chair and founder of Igloo, which specialises in sustainable approaches to regeneration. Follow Chris on Twitter.

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Categories: Analysis

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