Developer begins bid to sue the Whittington
Demonstrators outside the High Court as company seeks damages over axed hospital property deal
13 December, 2019 — By Tom Foot
Campaigners protesting outside the High Court on Tuesday
A PRIVATE company opened a £14million damages case against the Whittington in the High Court claiming “political pressure” had influenced hospital managers to abandon a 10-year contract.
Ryhurst, a subsidiary of the Rydon Group, told the High Court that strongly-worded letters sent by campaigners and high profile MPs – including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – had unlawfully changed the minds of the NHS trust board.
The company had been informed by the board on June 2, 2017, that it was the preferred bidder for a potential 10-year partnership deal where it would advise on a major overhaul of the Whittington’s estate in Highgate.
But its connection to the Grenfell disaster – Rydon was the lead contractor for refurbishment of the tower block where 73 people died two weeks later on June 17 – triggered protests against the contract being signed.
A year later in June 2018, the Whittington announced its finances had improved and it no longer needed to continue with its land overhaul and the contract negotiations had been scrapped.
On Tuesday, Ryhurst barrister Sarah Hannaford QC, argued that the decision was in direct response to a series of “political pressure documents” – from MPs and also the Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition – calling on the board to “cancel the deal” because of the company’s connection to Grenfell. This had breached regulations designed to ensure all “economic operators” are treated equally during competitive tenders.
Protesters included Shirley Franklin, chair of the Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition
But the Whittington’s barrister, QC James Coppel, told the court the case was “wholly unprecedented”, “hugely ambitious” and “hopeless”, adding: “My learned friend’s case is that this was ‘Grenfell Grenfell Grenfell’. But it was not. It was about a general objection to privatisation, moving funds away from the public sector, and also the recent high profile collapse of Carillion.”
He added: “It was also unrealistic that the trust was obliged to ignore stakeholders’ concerns [about Grenfell] … Grenfell posed an existential threat to the claimant’s business.”
The Whittington was considering entering into a 10-year contract, he reminded the court, and that legally the trust “did not have to wait and see” what the result of the “Grenfell investigation” was going to be.
Mr Coppel told the court Ryhurst’s legal team was claiming Whittington board members and lawyers had “developed a narrative” that aimed to “conceal the real reasons for the decision” against it and that this was “a very serious allegation”.
He told the court that “10,000 pieces of evidence” and “all the mobile phones” of board members had been handed over to the claimant’s lawyers, as part of disclosure in the case but there was no evidence proving a “grand conspiracy”.
Chief executive Siobhan Harrington was in court on Tuesday to hear the evidence of how the Whittington was looking for a “strategic estates partner” to help a “modernisation and rationalisation” of the land on the state and community facilities in Highgate.
The plan was to fund improvements to the hospital’s buildings through housing developments on the land.
However, the Whittington decided it no longer needed to go ahead with the project after a decision to sell Whittington land to Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, which it wanted to build a new mental health hospital, was agreed.
The sale for £21.9million brought in much needed millions to the Whittington coffers that reduced the urgency to sell off its surrounding estate to developers.
A key plank of Ryhurst’s case is about “transparency” and an argument it had lost out financially because it was not expecting that the partnership would be scrapped. The decision to scrap the Ryhurst plans was revealed, exclusively, in the Tribune in June 2018.