The Georgian townhouse at the centre of Liverpool's political scandal

'They were properly acquired'

The estate agent cheerily runs through the usual details.

Four-bed townhouse. Five bathrooms. Asking price? £450,000. Listed Georgian building, completely redeveloped. Went on the market early this year, but the pandemic put things on hold. The neighbouring houses have all been sold. Viewings are available next week — we’re fully booked up today.

The Elliot Group did the refurbishment. I know the name and ask for more details. She knows what I’m asking about. “He has said to us that he paid market value for them,” she says. “They were properly acquired.”

Properly acquired?

This is number 50, Percy Street. You can go and view it next week, and buy it if you have half a million pounds to spare. The house sits just off Upper Parliament Street in L8, a short walk from the cathedral. It offers “a stunning array of accommodation finished to the highest of standards,” says the online listing.

It might also offer some vital clues to the corruption scandal that has engulfed this city.

An elegant street

This house, and the Georgian townhouses it is linked to in an L-shape that melds Percy Street and Upper Parliament Street, were built in the 1840s. The street was laid out for Liverpool’s affluent middle classes when this area was one of Liverpool’s most fashionable new suburbs.

The L-shape comprises six houses on Percy Street and two on Upper Parliament Street. They have high ceilings and large sash windows and four steps leading up to their elegant front doors.

One account says that this street was a replica of Edinburgh’s beautiful New Town. One blog says it was the birthplace of Hugh Walter McElroy, the chief purser on the Titanic, who was born at 3 Percy Street in 1874.

A century later, the middle classes had mostly fled the area and the townhouses were converted into council flats. Brutally converted — with their original door frames and cornices ripped out and holes punched through the walls to create new entrances.

An expert on old buildings wrote a few years ago that the townhouses still carried great significance, but added: “Owing to extensive and unsympathetic interior alteration during their conversion to flats, this significance now overwhelmingly resides in the external form.” The less said about the insides the better.

One resident of Mahon Court, the knot of social housing tucked behind Percy Street, says her friend used to live in one of the flats and moved out in the 1990s. And then the townhouses were derelict. “Really falling apart,” the woman says. Facing the houses on the other side of Percy Street is a courtyard of buildings that are still council-owned. I meet an asylum seeker from Iran who lives there and says he likes this area.

From 2008 the townhouses were empty and pictures online show them boarded up. In 150 years they had gone from marking Liverpool’s ascent to the ranks of the world’s wealthiest cities to symbolising its post-industrial nightmare. Everywhere you looked, beautiful buildings erected in the golden age were decaying. The townhouses were listed by the Liverpool Echo’s “Stop the Rot” campaign in 2015. Someone needed to save them. And someone did.

‘Another success story’

Three years ago, Councillor Ann O’Byrne, Liverpool’s deputy mayor, told the Echo that the townhouses were going to be rescued. “These striking period properties have remained unoccupied for too long,” she told the newspaper. “We are delighted to be working with Elliot Group to make sure they become occupied again and complement the area when they are ready for sale next year.”

She thanked the newspaper for its campaigning, calling the deal “another success story for the Stop The Rot campaign we have been working on with the Echo.” Elliot Lawless, director of the Elliot Group, said: “We’re now working hard on our application and are in discussion with the council’s heritage officers to ensure a sensitive restoration of these lovely homes.”

The story was clear: the townhouses had been taken over by the Elliot Group “after the company completed a deal with Liverpool City Council.” But what was that deal? That’s what Merseyside Police have been trying to work out.

It was a year ago yesterday that a series of sensational arrests shook Liverpool’s closely linked worlds of property and politics. Lawless was arrested and questioned on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud, bribery and corruption. And Nick Kavanagh, Liverpool council's regeneration chief was suspected of conspiracy to defraud and misconduct in public office.

A senior councillor remembers being told by a colleague that the police had turned up at Cunard Building to pick up Kavanagh. He was said to have been pulled out of a meeting by officers. Panic rippled through the building. Not much was known about why he was being questioned, and no charges were forthcoming.

It was only when Lawless challenged the police’s seizure of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of cash from his home that details of the investigation emerged. The developer’s lawyers successfully argued that the warrant used to search his home was unlawful.

But in so doing, crucial facts about the police investigation came to light. The judge said the police investigation was focusing on two instances in which council land had been purchased by Lawless, “on what is alleged to be an improperly preferential basis."

The first was the L-shaped block of Georgian townhouses comprising 40-50 Percy Street and 53-57 Upper Parliament Street. The second was on 68 Falkner Street: a six-storey newbuild development five minutes’ walk away.

Lawless has always insisted on his innocence. After the hearing, he said: “I have consistently denied any wrongdoing and the allegations made are baseless.”

‘He paid market value’

The houses on Percy Street went on the market at the beginning of the year, the estate agent told me. Most of them came under offer this summer. At that point, neither Lawless or Kavanagh had been charged or were any longer on bail. It looked like the investigation had fizzled out.

But then, two weeks ago, the police struck again. Liverpool’s mayor Joe Anderson was arrested as part of Operation Aloft, the same investigation that had swept up Lawless and Kavanagh. Anderson’s arrest was on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation.

Anderson has stood aside as mayor and says time will “make it clear that I have no case to answer". Asked for her reaction to the arrest, the senior councillor said: “Shock horror.” Kavanagh was rearrested in September alongside four other individuals. It is not known whether the Percy Street townhouses are central to Anderson’s arrest, or whether the investigation has broadened out to more developments.

When I asked the estate agent if buying number 50 Percy Street might have legal ramifications down the line, she said her colleagues had received assurances from the Elliot Group’s solicitors that they had the right to sell the houses. Lawless himself had reassured the estate agency that the houses “were properly acquired,” she added.

We asked the Elliot Group if they wanted to comment on this story, but didn’t hear back. A press officer at Liverpool Council said they couldn’t comment on a live police investigation.

If you do buy 50 Percy Street, you will own a house whose history captures some of Liverpool’s key themes. Wealth and poverty; boom and bust; noble aims and their constant proximity to suspected corruption.

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