Private firm suing Whittington for £14million was planning NHS land grab, High Court told
Ryhurst barrister argues internal emails show 'political pressure' led to collapse of contract talks
03 January, 2020 — By Tom Foot
NHS campaigners outside High Court
A PRIVATE firm suing the Whittington Hospital for £14million was aiming to seize control of swathes of NHS land for its parent company, the Grenfell contractor Rydon, the High Court has heard.
Ryhurst, a subsidiary of the Rydon Group, is seeking damages claiming a potential 10-year “strategic estates partnership” was abandoned because of a “perceived link” with the 2017 fire disaster in west London.
The firm’s lawyers said Whittington board members’ internal emails – disclosed through the court process – proved the project was scrapped solely because of “political pressure” from campaigners and MPs including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party.
The hospital in Highgate disputes the “outrageous” claim, arguing the project was called off after Ryhurst significantly widened the scope of how it, and its associated companies, intended to profit from the deal.
The High Court heard the NHS trust had originally agreed to bring Ryhurst in as a “master planner” – an advisory role only – to help steer the redevelopment of its site and community buildings.
But Ryhurst demanded its own subsidiary, Dev-Co, would undertake “all commercial development” with “long leasehold interests” and “guaranteed land payments” while acting as a “property developer” for all the Trust’s sites.
“Ryhurst would then have been free to place construction and other work with companies with the Rydon Group,” the Whittington’s legal argument said.
Whittington board members had during the year-long row over the contract repeatedly made public statements that Ryhurst would not be able to profit from development contracts on the Whittington’s land. The change in approach was one of the main reasons why NHS bosses decided to abandon the deal in June 2018, the court was told.
The Whittington’s legal case, argued by barrister Jason Coppell QC, added: “Even if Ryhurst could show that Grenfell was in truth the Trust’s sole motivation, it would not follow that reason for the abandonment was unlawful. Ryhurst and the Rydon Group faced very serious difficulties … The Rydon Group companies are mired in litigation … In those circumstances, a conclusion that Rydon was an undesirable and unattractive long-term partner would have been entirely rational and therefore lawful.”
The concept of a Strategic Estates Partnership (SEP) between Ryhurst – which shares offices and directors with Rydon Group Ltd – was agreed two weeks before 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. Rydon Maintenance Ltd was the lead contractor for the cladding refurbishment of the tower block.
The company has always strenuously denied any culpability and said that its building work has always met government regulations. It has not been found responsible for any wrongdoing. No contracts had been signed on the Whittington SEP but the company had been told it was the “preferred bidder” for the role.
At the High Court before Christmas, Ryhurst barrister Sarah Hannaford QC read out emails from the Whittington’s former chairman, sent by the late Steve Hitchins in April 2018, warning “the SEP was dead” and saying “the biggest reason is inevitably politics”, blaming top ranking NHS bosses for “lacking back- bone” and caving-in under pressure.
The email chain showed how NHS Improvement – the hospitals regulator – had become “anxious” because of letters sent from Mr Corbyn, and fellow north London MPs Emily Thornberry and Catherine West, about the “perceived connection between my client and Grenfell”, Ms Hannaford told the court.
Further discussions between board members warned that the Whittington would face legal action and the NHS would only stump-up £200,000 to support any court costs.
Ms Hannaford accused Whittington chief executive Siobhan Harrington of “setting out the party line”, insisting “her evidence shows clear signs of coaching” from lawyers.
The hospital’s current trust board chair, Anu Singh, knew “little or nothing about procure- ment” while chief finance officer Stephen Bloomer was an “evasive witness”, Ms Hannaford told the court. She added: “Ryhurst was not involved in Grenfell, it was Rydon which was. The fact is the bidder was treated differently.”
NHS campaigners have protested against the case outside the court.
A judgment is expected in the new year.