Promises made after probe into multimillion-pound “black hole”
The man behind the proposed Afan Valley Adventure Resort in Neath Port Talbot insists the resort will still be built despite an investigation raising serious concerns over its future.
Gavin Woodhouse, chairman of Northern Powerhouse Developments, has spent the last few years working on the £200m project which gained outline planning permission in March.
With Peter Moore – the man who first brought Center Parcs to the UK – playing a key role in the project the resort has been an exciting prospect for many.
The project’s planning documents promised 970 jobs with activities on site ranging from alpine sports and white water rafting to rock climbing and bike trails.
But an investigation carried out by The Guardian and ITV News now sheds doubt on whether it will be built.
They claim Mr Woodhouse’ businesses which involve care homes and hotels have a multimillion-pound “black hole”.
Mr Woodhouse has defended himself against the investigation’s claims.
He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The resort will still go ahead.
“They’ve [the Guardian/ITV News] have got two and two, and come up with 65.
“We disagree with the sentiments of the article and we will be contesting it through the correct channels.
“It’s full steam ahead, it’s not going to stop us achieving our goals.”
The major tourism development is planned for a 325-acre former forestry plantation at Pen-y-Bryn by Croeserw and Cymmer, lying alongside the border of Bridgend county.
Scott Jones, the local county councillor for the area, said he was “really disappointed” to receive the news on the allegations made against Mr Woodhouse but said there was still hope the project would continue.
He said: “The news has shocked a lot of people.
“However, as far as I am concerned from the information I have received it’s not dead in the water.
“There are a lot of other team players involved who are going to drive it forward.
“I have been given confidence from the project and their team players.”
He added: “My understanding is that going forward Gavin will no longer be a part of the project and a number of other team players who still believe this project can be delivered will take it on.
“If that is the case this project would still have my support – it’s desperately needed to reverse the decline in our valley communities.”
However Mr Woodhouse said this was not the case, saying: “I am firmly engaged in the resort project and will still continue to take it forward with our whole team.”
A Neath Port Talbot Council spokesman said since the application came before councillors in March this year, the council had received little contact from the developer and no notable progress had been made.
He said: “These are very serious allegations being made against Mr Woodhouse and it is important that he addresses the concerns as a matter of urgency.
“The council’s only role in the proposed development has been in its capacity as the local planning authority and we have not provided Mr Woodhouse or his associates with financial support of any kind.
“During the assessment of the proposal, the council repeatedly raised concerns with regard to the business plan and supporting information provided and appropriate assurances were sought at every opportunity.
“Planning permission has not yet been fully granted for the Afan Valley Adventure Resort and remains conditional on further financial and legal obligations being met by the developer within a six month deadline, set by elected members, which is due to expire in September 2019.
“Since the application came before councillors for discussion in March this year, the council has received little contact from the developer and no notable progress has been made to fulfil those conditions so far.
“We will await the outcome of any further investigations.”
In a statement, a spokesman for Northern Powerhouse Developments said: “We remain as committed as ever to delivering the exciting Afan Valley project in Wales.
“We remain in dialogue with Neath Port Talbot Council and we recognise that full planning permission is on condition of further financial and legal obligations being met.
“Those detailed and complex obligations are being finalised by our specialists and will be with the council by the end of July.
“We are on track to deliver what we have proposed.”
Last summer adverts began appearing for investors to buy one of the lodges or rooms in the Treetops Hotel at the resort with high rates of return.
Prices range from £82,000 to £240,000.
In an interview with the LDRS earlier this year Mr Woodhouse said all his hotels were based on the sale and lease back business model which sees an investor buy a room and sublet it to the hotel operator who operates that room and gives the owner an income.
He said a very similar model was being used in the early days of the adventure resort providing a certain level of capital funding which would then attract other types of funding.
However The Guardian/ITV News investigation says three of Mr Woodhouse’ four care homes he raised millions of pounds for through private investors have not been built and he is now struggling to pay scheduled dividends and some investors.
They said millions of pounds appear to have been moved from the care homes to another of Mr Woodhouse’s businesses, MBI Consulting (UK) Ltd.
According to ITV News and The Guardian, MBI collapsed into administration last summer with £988 in the bank and owing £17.8m to creditors – including the four care home projects.
They cite a report into the failure of MBI by the administrator, FRP, which also states that Mr Woodhouse borrowed £1.2m from the company, a loan which he hasn’t repaid.
They said Mr Woodhouse has disputed he owes MBI money.
Peter Moore who described the Afan Valley as breathtaking when he first saw it told ITV News Mr Woodhouse’s failure to deliver the care homes was “a series of facts that I was completely unaware of” and “a bolt from the blue”.
He told them that, although he is a member of the NPD board, he had no involvement with the group’s hotels and that his focus was the Afan Valley project.
A further issue raised in the investigation involves confusion about the status of the Afan Valley Adventure Resort’s announced partnerships with Jaguar Land Rover, YouTube and Go Ape, being promoted as offering future attractions on the site.
They report the companies as saying they had no deal with the Afan Valley project but said there was interest from Go Ape, and discussions had taken place with Jaguar Land Rover around the resort.
Meanwhile the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, which had planned to set up its European training quarters at the resort, said it was conducting a “full internal review” of the relationship.
A spokesman said: “The Bear Grylls Survival Academy has been made aware of the recent allegations brought against Mr. Woodhouse and are naturally concerned about the seriousness of the charges.
“As such, we are conducting a full internal review of the relationship while we wait for all facts to materialize and plan to take all necessary steps to ensure the integrity of our business.
“The Academy continues to have a vision to bring adventure to people of all ages around the world and it stands by that commitment to the community of South Wales.”
Huw Irranca-Davies, Assembly Member for Ogmore, said the allegations against Mr Woodhouse were “deeply concerning” for the many local people, organisations and businesses who were excited by the prospect of such a major tourism project with “real potential for jobs and economic benefits in some of the most disadvantaged communities” in the Afan and Llynfi valleys.
He said: “The developers will now need to respond frankly and honestly and urgently to the concerns raised in this investigation and the implications for the Afan Adventure development.”
In a further statement issued by Northern Powerhouse Developments to reassure its investors, a spokesman said: “Northern Powerhouse Developments is extremely disappointed with the investigation by The Guardian and ITV, which we believe is misleading and inaccurate.
“We remain committed to delivering the projects we have promised our investors, and we have repeatedly made this clear to both The Guardian and ITV.
“We have up to 600 investors, the vast majority of which have not voiced concerns.
“The company operates a complex and unusual business model which we feel has not been accurately reflected by The Guardian and ITV.
“While we accept there have been delays, we are delivering 90 per cent of the projects as per original agreements and we are working hard to resolve issues regarding the remaining 10 per cent.
“The allegations that have been put to us are that we have tried to misdirect people. That is simply not true. We have always tried to maintain contact and communications with investors.
“We currently employ more than 600 members of staff and our transformational Afan Valley project will create a further 1,000 jobs.
“We encourage investors with concerns to contact us directly as we continue to work together going forward.”