Group behind failed George Best Hotel raided in £140m fraud probe

Four arrests made as Serious Fraud Office (SFO) conducts raids in Merseyside and Greater Manchester

The George Best Hotel in Belfast, which went into administration in April 2020. Picture by Hugh Russell.
The George Best Hotel in Belfast went into administration in April 2020. Picture: Hugh Russell.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has raided three residences and made four arrests in Merseyside and Greater Manchester in fresh £140 million property fraud investigation into the Signature Group, which was behind a failed bid to open the George Best Hotel in Belfast.

The SFO said Signature Group attracted more than 1,000 UK and international investors in the redevelopment of iconic landmarks including Belfast’s Scottish Mutual Building and the Coal Exchange in Cardiff.

Signature operated for more than seven years, buying up predominantly historic buildings within the UK for redevelopment into luxury hotels, residential apartments and office spaces.

Investors loaned money to Signature or purchased a hotel room, apartment or office space in one of the group’s properties, with promised returns on their investment of between 8% and 15%.

Interior shot of the new George Best Hotel in Belfast
How the interior of the George Best Hotel was meant to look. But the hotel in Belfast’s Scottish Mutual Building never opened

The business collapsed into administration with losses of up to £140 million.

Properties in the group’s portfolio included Millennium House in Liverpool as well as a cruise liner that was marketed as a “flotel” to be moored off Canary Wharf in London and travel to Ibiza.

This is the fourth new investigation launched since director Nick Ephgrave joined the UK’s specialist anti-fraud agency in September.

The latest SFO operation was supported by the National Crime Agency (NCA).

Mr Ephgrave said: “The scheme offered attractive returns and used much-loved local landmarks to lure investors.

“We have people up and down the country left out of pocket, and buildings left derelict at the centre of our cities.

“Today’s arrests and searches will help us reconstruct exactly what happened. This is now an active criminal investigation.”

Liverpool developer Lawrence Kenwright’s Signature Living acquired Bedford Hotel Ltd, the registered owner of building, for a reported £6m in 2017.

The 83-bedroom George Best Hotel was due to open in 2018 as the first of three Signature Living hotels in Belfast.

It went bust in 2020 owing at least £15.4 million, and it also emerged that 59 bedroom investors from around the world put a combined £4,260,062 into the venture at the Scottish Mutual Building, next to Belfast City Hall.