The Old Town Hall has had some terrible owners. Is Gary Ata the worst?
‘The council has neglected that building for far too long. It’s a disgrace’
By Dan Hayes
The Old Town Hall is rotting from the inside out: we see the grand judge’s quarters, its floor completely missing. A fireplace hangs suspended in mid air halfway up the wall. This isn’t a fever dream, but a photo taken by an urban explorer published in the book Sheffield in Ruins.
The 215-year-old building has been decaying for a quarter of a century. Back in the 90s, it was still used as the city’s Crown Court, but a series of delinquent owners have left the Grade II-listed building in a sorry state. When Valerie Bayliss from the Friends of the Old Town Hall saw the photograph she was shocked. She stood on the missing floor the last time she was in the building and describes its very rapid deterioration as “a bit suspicious”.
Bayliss says much of the deterioration could have been stopped or at least slowed down had the council served an urgent work notice (a way local authorities can force the owner of a listed building to carry out essential repairs) on previous owners G1 London Properties back in 2007. This year she spent six months working with the current owner and the council’s conservation officer to repair a tarpaulin over the biggest court to stop even more rain getting in through holes in the roof. “The council has neglected that building for far too long,” she tells me. “It has been a disgrace.”
The building’s latest owner is property developer Gunes Ata, who also goes by the name Gary Ata. He bought it in 2021 after the previous owner Efe Omu went bankrupt. But in 2018, the council passed up an opportunity to force G1 London Properties to sell them the Old Town Hall via a compulsory purchase (a legal mechanism which allows you to buy land or property without the consent of the owner). Since then, many think the future for the building looks bleak, Valerie Bayliss included. To find out why all you need to do is ask those unlucky enough to live in Gary Ata’s other properties.
‘Please guys don’t take this house’
“What’s it like living here?” I ask. The young man stood on the steps of the building repeats my words back to me several times in a strong West African accent. He seems to find the question increasingly amusing as he does so. After rolling my words around his head for a while, he produces an answer. “Hell,” he says.
I’m stood at the bottom of London Road, outside St Mary’s House, a residential building owned by Gary Ata’s company Noble Design and Build. The firm owns several residential blocks in and around Sheffield city centre, including St Mary’s House, London Court on Boston Street, the Lightbox on Earl Street, Printworks on Hodgson Street and Kelham Works in Kelham Island.
What’s wrong with it, I ask him. He settles in for a list. The lift has been broken for six months and the gym hasn’t been open for a year. If you need a door fob you can’t get one and getting things fixed is almost impossible. Is there anything good about it at all? “It’s cheap.”
In total I speak to three people outside St Mary’s House, all of whom have similar stories of woe. A quick Google is all it takes to realise that they are not an aberration. A review on the website Student Crowd from July 2021 is typical. “Please guys don’t take this house,” it reads. “Is the worst house I have lived in. Don’t reply to emails, no maintenance, rude staff. Stay away from this building.” Another on the same website says the heater only works for an hour each day leaving the rooms freezing cold in winter. “Never would I recommend anyone to stay here,” it says. “Please avoid if you don't wanna waste your money.”
Reviews for the Lightbox (which has now been renamed Sheffield Central) and Printworks don't make any better reading. But perhaps the worst of all are reserved for London Court. “Rooms are too hot — hot enough to cause distress,” says one featured review. “27 degrees and no way of turning it down or getting airflow through the rooms. DO NOT RENT THESE ROOMS.”
‘Basically, they are just cowboys’
The problems in Gary Ata’s buildings don’t just spark the ire of residents, they have also attracted the attention of the authorities. In November 2020, Noble Design and Build was fined £1,000 for obstructing fire inspectors while in July 2018 they were fined £4,500 for processing CCTV data without registering with the data protection watchdog. In January 2021, Mr Ata was also ordered to pay £10,000 to a former staff member for unfair dismissal.
In August, Sheffield City Council successfully prosecuted Mr Ata for the second time in less than a year over failing to provide information to tenants. And in September, 40 investors in the Kelham Works development won a three-year-long legal battle over the right to manage the building themselves after taking Mr Ata to a property tribunal. A piece in The Star said the fight followed disputes over rent, charges, lack of transparency, upkeep and complaints from tenants, “all leading to a lack of trust and confidence.”
Jon Roper bought a flat in Kelham Works for £80,000 six years ago in the hope of capitalising on the real estate boom in one of Sheffield’s most desirable locations. But what was meant to be a modest investment to create a nest egg for the future quickly turned sour. “As soon as we paid our money the problems started,” he says.
The block took four years to build, substantially longer than had been advertised, during which time the communication was so bad that Jon says he genuinely thought he had been scammed. While money did start coming in after the building was finally completed, the problems continued. These include Ata taking £5,000 off every investor to buy furniture that never materialised and constantly demanding money but refusing to publish financial records. On one day they even decided to take all the washing machines away without ever giving a reason. “Some investors are owed thousands of pounds,” Roper tells me.
Now they have control of the building, things have improved for both investors and residents, but the problems of the last few years haven't magically gone away. As well as the money they have lost on furniture and service charges and washing machines, the main cost is to the properties as a whole, which have depreciated in value due to Noble’s mismanagement. Many of those who have lost out have considered taking them to court to reclaim their money, but have been put off by the threat of counter suits from Gary Ata and Noble.
“A lot of people are very angry with the situation and the helplessness but there's just nothing you can do,” he says. “They demand money or intimidate you by telling you they are going to take you to court. People get scared and fall for it. Basically, they are just cowboys.”
‘It's miserable for people who are living there’
City ward councillor Douglas Johnson tells me Kelham Works is a prime example of how a poor quality development can have an impact on the whole area. As with many of the big developments in Sheffield, it was filled with “small, substandard flats” that are designed for short term occupation and maximising profits. “That's been the downfall of Kelham Works,” he tells me. “But of course it's miserable for people who are living there.”
But as well as the poor quality building itself, Councillor Johnson says Noble’s management of it has made a bad situation substantially worse. He tells me it took the council’s hard-pressed planning enforcement department three years to get them to add in a pavement they had promised to build outside the flats. Plus, all the while a water pipe was left sticking up out of the ground. Since then things have improved but there is only so much you can do with a substandard building. “There has been a big step change in the management practices since Noble were forcibly removed but the building is still physically the same,” he adds.
When I ask him whether they are the kind of company that should be looking after an important part of Sheffield’s heritage, he actually goes further. “They’re not the kind of company we want to be looking after any buildings in Sheffield,” he tells me. “They have a track record of being irresponsible in their obligations to both their residents and the wider community. In many cases they've only complied with their legal obligations as a result of serious enforcement action.”
Johnson hasn’t heard about any plans for the building, and says that Gary Ata hasn’t spoken to either the ward councillors or any of the stakeholders involved in the Castlegate Partnership about his plans. And despite repeated requests, Noble Design and Build have not responded to The Tribune. When and if any plans are published, Ata would also have to apply for listed building consent, so the council does have some power to prevent development. However, Johnson says the best solution would be for the building to be transferred into sympathetic ownership which understands the long-term value of heritage buildings, in a similar way as has happened with the Abbeydale Picture House. “But that doesn’t fit well with property developers who are very much about short term returns,” he says.
‘That was the opportunity’
Valerie Bayliss has heard that a planning application may be imminent, but says nothing has materialised yet. The company set up by Ata when he bought the Old Town Hall was called The Old Court House Apartments, indicating that he sees residential use as the future of the building. There has also been suggestions that he may choose to demolish the building’s 1955 wing to build on that site alone. Whatever happens he will have to get listed building consent, meaning the council does have some leverage. But Bayliss warns that while the council does have some power, this power isn’t total.
“I have great sympathy with Councillor Johnson’s views based on what I have read about Mr Ata, but the council can only take decisions based on planning law,” she says. “What they can’t do is say we're not going to give you planning consent because we don't think you’re the right person.”
The only way an owner can be removed is by compulsory purchase, but that isn’t easy. The council needs to have a very good reason to force a sale, and it also takes two years and costs quite a lot of money. Five ago the Friends put together a complete plan for a 10-year restoration of the building. At the time it was thought that the building would cost the council around £500,000, not a million miles from the £600,000 that Gary Ata is believed to have bought it for in 2021. However, in 2018 the building was sold to Sheffield-based businessmen Efe Omu, whose company went bust during Covid.
“We had begun discussions with the council about getting them to compulsorily purchase for sale on to us when it was announced by Councillor Iqbal that Efe Omu had bought the building.” At the time, Bayliss tells me there was a great deal of funding interest in getting the building back on its feet, including from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Architectural Heritage Fund, the Sheffield Town Trust and the government. “We could have been nearly halfway through the 10-year program by now,” she adds. “That was the opportunity.”
The Old Town Hall was built at the beginning of a century which saw Sheffield transformed from a parochial backwater into an industrial powerhouse. During that time, it bore witness to huge events. In 1840, Chartist Samuel Holberry hatched a plot to storm the building but found himself on trial there instead after the plan was discovered. After the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, the Old Town Hall became a refuge for flood victims, hundreds of whom huddled together for warmth in front of its huge fireplaces.
For a building with such a storied history to have been left to rot for 25 years is more than a shame: it’s a scandal. Gary Ata may soon bring forward plans to reuse all or part of the building, but his track record as a landlord might suggest to some people that he is not the ideal person to do it. But the clock is ticking. If the council could find a way to compulsory purchase it and then transfer ownership to a building’s trust, the Old Town Hall could still have a brighter future. If it’s left to deteriorate any further, it might soon be beyond saving.
What do you think should happen to the Old Town Hall? As ever, Tribune members can let us know in the comments.