A plume of jet-black smoke carried asbestos fibres over Bristol on the evening of 3 May 2019. Anxious neighbours watched as the Strachan and Henshaw (S&H) building became an inferno, awed by the scale of the fire towering over East Bristol. A drone captured footage of the fire from above, but that was as close as firefighters and police would get to investigating the scene.
Over the next week, the building was declared unsafe to inspect by a specialist team and returned to the owner. And so, despite being treated as a potential case of arson, a search of the building was ruled out. It was, as one tenant sighed, a case of “the bigger and more dangerous the fire, the less scrutiny it receives”.
With no forensic evidence in the case, investigating authorities had their hands tied. They relied on nearby CCTV after all the building’s footage burnt in the fire. It took more than two months to interview 43 potential witnesses but, to tenants’ frustration, no evidence of arson emerged.
Avon Fire and Rescue Service (AF&RS) would record the cause of the fire as unknown. And Alan Dykes, the building’s landlord until 2018, could breathe a sigh of relief that he had sold the site. Before The Office blaze, a spate of fires and health and safety breaches has bedevilled his property portfolio over the years.
Out of the ashes
Only five months after the site was written off as too dangerous to enter, scaffolding and builders can now be seen creeping up the sides of the S&H tower, while adjacent buildings remain a wreck. It is being converted into 71 flats after Bristol City Council granted planning consent in January to a company called Douglas Homes Ltd, which had originally applied two years earlier.
The damaged building complex had housed more than 40 small businesses. The main tower was infamous for its Swingers Club and as a Hells Angels’ haunt for ageing bikers who ran tattoo parlours and security.
Long a local eyesore, and a thorn in the side of the local authority for health and safety breaches,‘The Office’ as it was known, was home to hard grafting mechanics, upholsterers and tradesmen benefiting from cheap rents, often paid in cash. Some homeless people had lived onsite, and as police would find in January 2019, a cannabis farm was hidden away in the building.
Many of the businesses destroyed in the blaze had no insurance.
“My livelihood is gone, my business has gone,” said Michael Dubique, mourning the loss of his upholstery and furniture business.
Car mechanic Jason Pittaway also lost everything. He had just returned to work after an absence of three months while donating his kidney to save his son’s life.
It’s difficult to know what really happened that spring evening in May. Among former tenants and builders on the site, speculation is rife. Some who claim inside knowledge have kept schtum rather than sign police witness statements.
“You’ll struggle to find anybody to point the finger or tittle tattle about anything,” one tenant remarked. Some offer all manner of sinister explanations, but others claim more innocent causes.
Detective Inspector Roger Doxsey from Avon and Somerset police told the Cable: “There have been multiple theories and speculation throughout this investigation around who was at fault for the fire. What is now really clear is that there is no evidence to support that this was a case of arson. The theories around criminal motivation due to insurance gain or swift eviction of tenants do not hold up to scrutiny”.
Some were quick to point the finger at the bikers. But one Hells Angel told the Cable that this line of enquiry doesn’t add up. “There were about four of us who had our vehicles stored there and we’ve probably lost between us £60,000. So, anyone who’s putting the Hells Angels’ names forward is talking a load of shit.”
One thing is certain. Bristol has an insatiable hunger for housing. And a potentially more lucrative residential development is underway on site, although hampered by the need for structural repairs and the removal of asbestos.
Stricken Strachan and Henshaw
Roll back to 2018, one year before the fire. The building had been sold by a Mr. Alan Dykes to a Dubai registered company.
“The ‘Old Kingswood Boy’ was at the right place at the right time and the banks loaned him money,” an old friend said of Dykes. Over decades, the 71-year-old built a multi-million-pound property portfolio of industrial and residential sites in Bristol and South Gloucestershire. He is believed to have upwards of 300 tenants, but local authorities have been kept in the dark on exactly how far his property empire extends.
Working out of a dilapidated portacabin on his Bridge Road industrial estate, he doesn’t project the image of cash rich landlord. “He wears a rope instead of a belt,” an ex-tenant said of his former landlord, who has a reputation for cutting corners with the upkeep of flats.
An internal South Gloucestershire Council investigation in 2018 into Dykes’ properties said it did not have the resources to undertake a full review into his many residential properties.
The report went on: “There is a history of non-compliance with housing standards in Mr Dykes [sic] rented properties”.
“The Private Sector Housing Team have appointed a new housing officer with a strong enforcement background and this officer has been tasked with handling all future complaints relating to Mr Dykes [sic] properties.”
Records obtained by the Cable reveal that South Gloucestershire Council transferred to Dykes and his company £250k for tenants on housing benefits last year. This made him the fourth largest recipient of taxpayer-funded rent in the county. This is despite Dykes’ name being well known to local councils as a major rogue landlord.
A series of unfortunate fires
At the Speedwell tower block, swingers were hoping to see in 2019 with a bang, but by the time Big Ben struck midnight there were 60 firefighters dousing the flames consuming The Office.
An investigation found not only that an electrical fault had sparked the fire, but that the building also had its own cannabis farm. Little did firefighters know they’d be fighting an even bigger blaze five months later.
The Cable understands that four major fires had occurred at Dykes’ properties since 2012, even before the two at the Speedwell tower block. Although police have not declared the fires connected in any way, a pattern does seem to have emerged. At first, several of the fires were investigated as arson but then recorded as accidental; no prosecutions followed.
In February 2019, 300 containers on Dykes’ Bridge Road Industrial Estate in Kingswood caught fire, with smoke again contaminating Bristol’s skyline. The fire began in drums outside a recycling company based at the site. Two teenage boys were interviewed but no-one was ever charged.
A fly tippers’ dumping ground on the Douglas Industrial Estate in Kingswood, also owned by Dykes, caught fire in 2015. This followed another blaze on the same site around three years earlier. And, in 2012, CT Pallets saw hundreds of their pallets go up in flames on the Bridge Road estate. This was initially treated as arson by investigators, but no one was ever charged.
This series of fires placed Alan Dykes’ properties on the radar of emergency services, councils and environmental health officials.
2013. Bridge Road Industrial Estate, Kingswood. Acting on information received, 50 police, fire service, environmental health and council officers swooped on the site. The landlord was found to have failed to manage asbestos, alongside fire safety issues including dangerous electrics, waste offences and sleeping accommodation with inadequate protection. Cannabis with a street value of £60k was being cultivated in one of the units.
Operation Suspension Bridge Road Industrial Estate cost taxpayers £16k and concluded:
“Cash only deals are frequent, both tenants and landlords carry out structural changes with no references to safety law or building regulations. Businesses trade (some with toxic/ hazardous materials) with a lack of regard to their duty of care, the environment or the law.
“The culture within the site appears to emanate from the landlord and results in a situation that has a very serious impact on local residents and their quality of life, as well as very real concerns that a serious incident with potentially serious consequences for human health or for the environment could occur. There are also concerns that some of the units may be used for criminal purposes.”
The landlord, Arcade Plus Ltd, is directed by Alan Dykes.
The visit by the authorities wasn’t Dykes’ first and wouldn’t be his last. Two years later in 2015, Dykes pleaded guilty to five health and safety offences at the S&H site, and was sentenced to eight months in prison and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £7,660. Then in 2016, he was fined £15,500 by Avon Fire & Rescue for not complying with fire safety rules at the Bridge Road site.
“I thought that after prison he’d be scared of going back in again, he’d change his ways and stop messing around, but it never worked,” a former business associate of Dykes told the Cable.
County Court papers reveal that Dykes was still up to his old tricks. In 2017 he was fined more than £10k for failing to keep a tenant’s deposit in a deposit protection scheme, as required by law. A source who was involved in litigation with Dykes told the Cable that when deposits were taken, they were rarely, if ever, held in a protection scheme.
In the early 2000s, Dykes contributions to the public purse caught the attention of somebody other than the taxman. Andrew aka ‘Ginge’ Wylde, a relative of assassinated Brink’s-mat gangster John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, obtained Dykes’ company papers and threatened to pass them to the Inland Revenue unless he was paid £15,000.
All this took its toll on the ‘Old Kingswood Boy’. In recent years Dykes decided to take a backseat, making room for a younger and more ambitious associate to manage much of the property portfolio.
The mystery offshore buyer
On 5 April 2018, a year after a planning application had been submitted to convert the S&H tower block into flats, Dykes sold the freehold for £1 to a company registered in Dubai – Douglas Homes Housing Incorporated. Despite the sale of S&H, two tenants said they continued to pay Alan Dykes rent until the fire in May, while others paid men working for the new owner in cash.
Dykes also sold a large slice of land and buildings on either side of Moravian Road, Kingswood to the same company in Dubai. In September 2019, police would seize 1,000 cannabis plants worth £1.1 million at an industrial unit on Moravian road.
Dykes’ sale of large chunks of land for £1 each naturally raised eyebrows among tenants. The Cable understands a private property valuation calculated the required repairs were in excess of the S&H building’s value, hence the token sale price.
When the fire in May broke out, councillors and local residents were puzzled as to who owned the Dubai company behind the S&H freehold. The secretive jurisdiction does not publish information on company directors or shareholders. But the Cable understands that Wayne Braund, Dykes’ long-time business partner, is the majority shareholder of the offshore company.
And as the S&H tower in Speedwell gets a facelift from Douglas Homes, Braund and Dykes are also involved in another lucrative development of more than 300 homes in Kingswood.
However, could a costly insolvency claim in the High Court, a director disqualification order, and a case currently before Bristol Crown Court threaten to throw plans off course?
Neither Alan Dykes or Wayne Braund have so far responded to the Cable’s request for comment.
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