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Town held Hostage by Bank

Posted on: January 8th, 2012

EVERY morning, when I walk to the local Spar in Enniskerry for my news fix, I pass a car park. Nothing remarkable about that.

Next I breeze past the adjoining historic Powerscourt Arms Hotel, a listed building with a proud history. Then I glance at the landmark Enniskerry clock tower (1843), buy the papers and return home to digest the news.

Last week, the car park was closed. It was blocked by steel barriers.

I was a bit nonplussed, but I assumed that the owners of the Powerscourt Arms Hotel had decided to fill in the potholes. Alternatively, perhaps this was a mundane safety issue? Whatever the reason, it is always a tonic to see this beautiful Wicklow village being tarted up.

What an innocent I was.

On my doorstep, a typical Irish business bout is brewing. A hopelessly uneven contest looms. In the right corner stand the mighty trio of a big banker, a top-dollar solicitor and well-heeled accountants. Heavyweights ACCBank, KPMG and Matheson Ormsby and Prentice (MOP) are standing shoulder to shoulder.

As they eyeball the left-hand corner opposite, they gaze contemptuously at a few featherweights — a humble hotel, struggling shops and local residents. Big bucks and financial clout are confronting small businesses. A knockout beckons.

ACCBank (now owned by Dutch giant Rabobank) has sent in the receivers to close the car park adjoining the Powerscourt Arms Hotel. The receivers are KPMG, their solicitors are MOP.

No doubt there is plenty of money owed to our foreign banker friends. They were foolish enough to lend the new owners of the Powerscourt Arms property a big lump of cash. Back in 2005, South Dublin Construction paid €8m for the Powerscourt Arms Hotel and car park.

The purchasers tried to build unsuitable apartments on the car park site, were mercifully turned down and are now left with a pretty worthless strip of tarmac in their lap, enough for about 50 cars.

It seems that while ACCBank lent money for the car park, that the EBS more cannily lent €2.7m for the hotel. The hotel is a going concern. The car park, traditionally used by its customers and by the local community, is now being rendered useless to man or beast.

It is the only real car park in Enniskerry. It is used by visitors to the village, customers of the shops and patrons of the hotel. It is the vital vein for local business.

One Enniskerry resident told me last week (with a lively imagination that hardly reflects the historical facts) that the site had been a free car park since 1715!

The buyers leased the Powerscourt Arms Hotel to a couple of entrepreneurs who had no hand or part in the original speculative purchase. Their purpose was not to speculate, but to run a small business. Today their enterprise is haemorrhaging as a result of the bankers’ actions against the car park. No parking means no business.

The arrival of a receiver in the form of KPMG has been clouded by all sorts of legal red herrings, like who is entitled to access through which entrances, trivial arguments and a great deal of hot air.

Maps are being disputed, as though it mattered a damn where boundaries lay when jobs are in jeopardy. Accusations and vicious words are being exchanged. A security firm has been hired to patrol the barriers. Feelings are running high. Victims are believed to have removed the odd steel barrier in the dead of night. On Thursday, they were reinforced.

No one can blame the victims for taking action. Enniskerry is a typical Irish village with a string of small businesses clinging onto their solvency by their fingertips.

Hopeful entrepreneurs have come and gone in recent years, hindered by government measures and starved by the banks. Premises have frequently changed hands.

Many small businesses have somehow survived a litany of bankers pretending that credit is available — when it is not. They have cut costs to the bone, paid penal rents and somehow made ends meet.

Others have sunk.

The closure of the car park by the bank is punitive, not profitable. It is punishing the hotel operators, not the borrowers — the owners.

According to insiders, Christmas parties were cancelled, the staff feel insecure, customers are heading for Bray instead and the village is clogged up by double parking and traffic jams. Enniskerry, a key tourist attraction, is suffering. Tourism is supposed to be top of the Government’s recovery agenda.

ACCBank and its foreign owners do not give a hoot about Irish tourism. Its “scorched earth” banking policy was already highlighted in 2007 when it was hell-bent on selling properties owned by developer Liam Carroll for knockdown prices. ACC’s lending to Carroll was reckless, the same type of madness practised by Anglo and Irish Nationwide.

ACC decided to cut and run, hoping to gain first mover’s advantage , ready to extract its pound of flesh from Carroll’s crumbling corpse.

It is impossible to fathom how ACC hopes to profit by putting iron walls around a virtually worthless area that has served as a public amenity for decades. Its quarrel is with the developers who borrowed against the property. The only people suffering are the innocent.

Is this a new departure for a bank? It is holding a village as hostage in an attempt to put pressure on a consortium of outside developers. Such behaviour is perfectly legal, but chillingly unscrupulous.

Why has the bank not — at the very least — offered to lease the car park to the hotel?

The tale of Enniskerry is probably not yet repeated in such an unsavoury form in other Irish villages. We are conditioned to expect bankers to bully their weak customers by playing havoc with their loans, overcharging them and generally deceiving the public.

The ACC experience suggests that, despite all the recent political rhetoric, they are still a law unto themselves.

They can pursue their narrow interests while they share equal guilt in creating the problem. ACC made a diabolical error of judgement by lending money to a company to construct apartments that would never sell.

The consequences of that loan have been deeply harmful. ACC bears a responsibility for such reckless lending — equal to the misjudgement shown by the borrowers, the original developers. Yet ACC has opted to inflict collateral damage on small enterprises and businesses in an effort to settle a spat with their fellow speculators.

We are already enslaved to European bankers. Rabo of Holland (through its ACC subsidiary) is being allowed to strangle a tourist centre. It is time for burden sharing. Both borrower and lender are at fault. The lender must pay part of the price.

Last Thursday, it emerged that possibly the biggest drag on our economic growth was the sluggish spending by ordinary punters. The banks are instruments in stunting this growth.

Today, not only are they starving patients of oxygen, they are injecting carbon monoxide into invalids.