Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday’s ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the truth that lies behind closed doors and winning victories for those who have been left out-of-pocket. Find out how to contact him below.
J.B. writes: I bought two car parking spaces at Gatwick Airport in 2016, as an investment offered by Park First Limited, and I am wishing I had not done so. In 2017, the Financial Conduct Authority decided Park First was operating a Collective Investment Scheme which should have been regulated. The regulator instructed Park First to offer investors a different arrangement or their money back. I decided I wanted my money back, but getting it is a nightmare and the watchdog is of little help.
Return: Investors in spaces at airports make money through the charges
Park First sold car park spaces as an investment, with more than 6,500 investors promised a return on their money based on charges paid by people parking their car.
The only snag was that the scheme was illegal. In effect, this was like a unit trust. That meant the company and its bosses should have been vetted and authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority, but instead they were breaking the law and it took the watchdog three or four years to spot this.
The regulator’s eventual response was not to shut down Park First, but to open negotiations with the offenders instead. At the end of 2017, the watchdog announced: ‘Park First has agreed to stop operating and promoting the original schemes.
‘They are now offering investors in the Gatwick and Glasgow car parks the choice of getting their initial investment back, or moving into a new lifetime leaseback scheme.’
The watchdog did not regard the leaseback scheme as a regulated investment, which meant it could wash its hands of the whole affair.
Mystery calls were to your voicemail
Ms G.G. writes: Noticing that my mobile phone bill was higher than normal, I checked and saw that 07782 090091 appeared frequently and at odd times, so I rang it and a message said the number was unrecognised. However, Three Mobile insists that I made the calls and must pay.
My first thought was that this was just another mobile phone scam. However, the answer is more technical. Your calls were actually to voicemail, which would normally show up as number 123, but a glitch meant the number on your bill was an internal one that is only used by Three to route voicemails and which cannot be called back.
Officials at Three say the glitch lasted several months, which is why the number kept reappearing, but it has now been corrected and you have agreed the calls were yours.
You decided to reclaim the £50,000 you had invested in two parking spaces at Gatwick. But Park First was not keen to hand it over.
It seems the regulator had allowed the company to delay refunds, while the alternative leaseback scheme meant investors could lose parking space rental income yet have to pay ground rent. Why did the watchdog not simply shut the company down and prosecute its bosses? The regulator told me: ‘Had we brought proceedings, there would have been a greater risk of loss to investors as substantial resources would have been expended on litigation.’
In other words, the watchdog did not try to close down Park First, because Park First would then have spent investors’ money defending itself.
Park First offered you various options and I have the impression that you were under growing pressure to accept. After I contacted both the regulator and Park First, you were offered £10,000 now and a further £5,000 after 12 months.
You would keep the parking spaces and the company would guarantee you an annual yield of 10 per cent for three years. You have accepted this and received the initial £10,000. I can only say that I hope things work out well in the long term.
Park First itself has always argued that the watchdog is wrong and that it was never running an illegal investment scheme. I have been dealing with two of its bosses, Toby Whittaker and Ruth Almond, who were involved in negotiating the deal with the regulator. It would be nice to know exactly what that deal says, but Ms Almond told me: ‘I will be very clear – the watchdog has required us to keep our agreement with them confidential. We are under a legal obligation to do so.’
But I do wonder how closely the regulator has investigated Park First, which is part of a much larger group. If the watchdog’s representatives visit the group’s headquarters at Padiham in Lancashire, they may come across Carl Baker.
Baker’s role is vague. Ruth Almond told me: ‘He has just provided ad hoc services to the group from time to time.’
She explained that he does not have a fixed job title, adding: ‘Mr Baker will have used different titles, depending on the work he was doing for us at the time.’
But one title he is unlikely to have used is his real name, which is Carl Anthony Ballard. Under this name he was a major player in the land banking scandals of almost a decade ago.
The Mail on Sunday warned against his companies in 2011 and in 2014 he was banned from acting as a company director for the next 14 years after investigators found he was selling house-size plots of agricultural land as an investment, with false claims about development prospects.
The Financial Conduct Authority took years to decide that land banking came under its umbrella and that it should be regulated. By then it was too late and thousands of investors lost millions. Let’s hope history is not repeating itself.
Sister firm Store First is wound up…but lives on
Court proceedings brought by the Government to wind up Store First Limited – a sister company to Park First – have ended prematurely in a messy deal which effectively allows the business to continue. Store First operates self-storage warehouses and sells units in them as an investment.
Warning: Motoring writer Quentin Willson fronted a video for the firm
I warned in 2013 that sales agents were making false claims, including in a promotional video fronted by motoring writer Quentin Willson.
Many of Store First’s salesmen had previously been involved in mis-selling land, wine and carbon credits as investments. They raked in more than £200million for Store First, much of it from investors’ pension savings. But complaints flooded in, with claims that promises of rental income and a guaranteed buy-back scheme were hollow.
In 2017, Business Secretary Greg Clark petitioned the High Court to wind up Store First. But last Tuesday, the court hearing in Manchester ended unexpectedly, with an out-of-court agreement. It means the company will be wound up, but its existing storage business will continue, with operations managed by a separate company, Pay Store Limited.
Meanwhile, the Serious Fraud Office is investigating pension companies that poured cash into Store First, allegedly with false claims and with a huge slice of investors’ cash disappearing as sales commission. Store First itself is not under investigation.
If you believe you are the victim of financial wrongdoing, write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TS or email email@example.com. Because of the high volume of enquiries, personal replies cannot be given. Please send only copies of original documents, which we regret cannot be returned.
‘Legal’ firm goes bust – with debts of £165,000
A firm that charged customers thousands of pounds to prepare wills, trust deeds and other legal documents, has gone bust with debts estimated at £165,000.
Guardian Legal Limited was described on Facebook as an ‘estate planning solicitor in Huntingdon’.
But I warned in February that it was neither a firm of solicitors, nor was it in Huntingdon. It used a number of addresses but its real location was at a short let business centre in Scunthorpe.
I reported that the company’s boss Mike Carter had broken promises to pay more than £4,000 to a Mail on Sunday reader who had won a court order against Guardian Legal. He had failed to file accounts that were legally due, making it impossible to judge how bad the company’s finances might be.
Carter had previously worked for Indeed Law Limited, another firm that drafted legal documents. It went bust two years ago. Yet there are no signs that the Government is planning to regulate the industry, vet and license companies, or set up a compensation scheme for customers who are ripped off.