Busy GP surgery faced with notice to quit - or pay double in rent to private developers linked to new health hub
A GP surgery in a deprived area of Belfast has received notice to quit its premises or else pay double the rent to a private development company - which has links to a planned £100m 'health hub' in the city's suburbs.
Doctors at Kensington Medical Centre on the Donegall Road received a letter from a new landlord informing them their lease would be terminated by next March, unless they agreed to a substantially increased rent for the next 25 years.
The busy practice has more than 8,000 patients from across the city, with many from socially and economically deprived backgrounds.
Sources say that Kensington's senior GP partners were deeply distressed by the move as they could not afford the new £91,550 a year lease and have refused to sign the tenancy agreement.
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The south Belfast premises, close to Sandy Row, has a rental value of approximately £50,000 which the health service reimburses each year, as it does with all private GP surgeries across Northern Ireland following their valuation by a government body.
Correspondence seen by the Irish News shows that the new landlord, Kensington Medical Investments Limited, issued the rental increase through its solicitor in August with a 'bombshell' letter sent by recorded delivery to the practice to "terminate their tenancy" by March 2, 2019.
The company is headed up by David Burrows, who is also the chief executive of Benmore - the high-profile development firm currently seeking planning permission to build a multi-million pound health centre on the 16-acre King's Hall site.
Benmore's ambitious application is currently sitting with Belfast City Council and includes proposals to build a GP centre as well as a number of privately-run facilities including a care home, hotel and possible on site-diagnostics such a x-ray and ultrasound testing.
'Standard practice' to quote higher rent
The Irish News asked Mr Burrows to explain the inflated rental increase and respond to concerns about the anxiety caused to the GP practice by the hike and potential threat of losing their premises - and whether they were planning to move the busy practice to the King's Hall site.
Mr Burrows said it was "standard practice" to quote a rent that was higher than its valuation by Land and Property Services to "begin negotiations".
"Our only real intention has been to enhance the premises and we are not trying to inflate rental prices," he said.
"We have no intention of moving the practice out of Sandy Row to the King's Hall."
He also said he had been made aware of "some of the GP concerns" and met with the partners three weeks ago to provide reassurance they will not be asked to leave the property.
'Sensitivity around this area'
A detailed written statement was also provided by a company known as 'Kingsman Medical Investments' on behalf of Mr Burrows, in which they confirm they purchased the surgery last year from two of its retired GPs.
The statement added that prior to the purchase, Benmore had spent a year working "working with Kensington GPs" to expand and merge the practice with another Belfast surgery "to improve facilities" - but the deal fell through.
The Kingsman statement, on behalf of Mr Burrows, added: "Having bought the premises we attempted to agree a lease with the GPs but, after making no progress over a number months, we instructed our commercial property agents to negotiate the rent through Land and Property Services (LPS).
"A notice offering a new lease - as is standard practice - was issued, within which a rent was quoted to start the negotiation. The rent is a first offer and cannot be implemented until agreement has been reached or, in the absence of an agreement, the rent would be set by a tribunal."
The statement added that they understood the "sensitivity around this area".
"We have been sure to communicate with the GPs that rent would need to be agreed through LPS and could not be arbitrarily implemented," it added.
Doctors in talks
Senior doctors from the Kensington Medical Centre did not wish to comment on the matter and have been locked in talks with the Health and Social Care Board to try to find a solution - at a time when the GP sector is in the midst of a workforce crisis in the north.
It is understood that such was the level of concern about the surgery's future that its senior staff were unsure if they would be able to keep their contract with the health service.
A board spokeswoman confirmed they had been working with the practice to "support them through this period of negotiation" and were "confident a solution can be found".
She added: "In the meantime, we would like to reassure the patients of Kensington Medical Practice that our priority is to ensure everyone has access to a local GP in Northern Ireland".
Statement in full from Kingsman Medical Investments
“We own the premises occupied by Kensington Surgery after purchasing it in 2017 from two retired GPs.
“This followed a period of over 12 months when Benmore Octopus Healthcare Developments were working with the Kensington GPs to expand their premises to accommodate a merger of another practice to strengthen and improve the patient facilities in Sandy Row. The scheme was agreed with the GPs and the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the rent agreed with Land and Property Services (LPS). This did not proceed due to a change of circumstances in the GP practice.
“Having bought the premises we attempted to agree a lease with the GPs but, after making no progress over a number [of] months, we instructed our commercial property agents to negotiate the rent through LPS.
“A notice offering a new lease – as is standard practice – was issued, within which a rent was quoted to start the negotiation.
“The rent is a first offer and cannot be implemented until agreement has been reached or, in the absence of an agreement, the rent would be set by a tribunal. We understand the sensitivity around this area and have been sure to communicate with the GPs that rent would need to be agreed through LPS and could not be arbitrarily implemented.”