Health club members are left feeling sick: Forty-year membership cost pounds 2,000; now those who paid will get nothing back, reports Caroline Merrell

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The Independent Online
Thousands of people who bought debentures guaranteeing them long-term membership of a health club backed by the property developer David Laing are facing the loss of all their investment, plus loss of the use of the club, after it went into receivership owing millions of pounds.

Thousands of members of St Albans Health and Racquet Club bought debentures costing them pounds 2,000 apiece. These entitled them to 40-year membership.

The literature promoting the long-term membership said the debentures could be sold at any time and if the club closed or went into liquidation they would become repayable immediately.

One couple who spent pounds 2,000 on long-term membership for themselves and any family they might have are Phil and Gill Sheldon, from Hertfordshire.

Mrs Sheldon said: 'At the beginning of October the health club appointed joint administrative receivers who wrote to inform us that our membership had been terminated.

'On phoning them they confirmed that no payment of the debentures would be coming our way from them as they had sold the club and given all the proceeds to the biggest debenture holder.

'A few days later we received a letter from the new owner, Wates Leisure, which owns a chain of health clubs called Pinnacle.

'They told us our membership was cancelled and that they had no liability to previous members.'

Many members of the club paid their fees just days before the company went into receivership.

Rachel Walker, a managing director's personal assistant, wrote a cheque for pounds 220 to pay partly for her membership on 30 September.

The cheque was cashed on 4 October, one day after the receivers had moved in to freeze all the assets.

Ms Walker said: 'On Tuesday 4 October we were very distressed to find that the club had gone in to receivership. At 9am on Wednesday 5 October I went to the bank to cancel the cheque.

'I was even more distressed to find that the cheque had cleared on the day after the company ceased trading.'

Disgruntled former members of the club have joined together to form an action group to try to get their money back. The group at present has about 10,000 members who are owed on average about pounds 500 each.

The adminstrative receivers are Malcolm Cork and Patrick Hartigan, based at Watford, Hertfordshire.

Mr Cork said: 'The assets of the company were sold on the day after it went into receivership. The assets were valued by two independent valuers.'

The receivership was triggered by a finance company called Humberclyde Finance Group, the biggest debenture holder in the company.

Mr Cork said that a petition had been presented to the courts to put Cell Barnes Lane Properties, the holding company for the club, into liquidation.

'We did not bank any money from members after we froze the assets,' he continued. 'There was pounds 20,000 of membership cheques waiting to be banked. We returned them all.'

He added that he was looking into what had happened to Ms Walker's cheque.

Mr Laing is one of a handful of directors of the company. He said: 'I am extremely disappointed for the members of the club who may suffer considerable financial loss and have contacted the bank and Wates Leisure to see if the position can be reversed.'

He is a director both of the club and of Cell Barnes Lane Properties.

He is a former director of Laing Properties and chairman of New Zoo Developments, a consortium of City financiers which aimed to redevelop London Zoo.

The action group's telephone number is 0891 171213.

(Photograph omitted)

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