Independents consider taking on Northern Ireland care homes set for closure
Independent operators in Northern Ireland's care home sector may ultimately step in to fill the void left following closures by Four Seasons Health Care, it has been claimed.
The troubled English company, which employs around 4,000 people across the province, this week said it was shutting seven of its 69 homes here as it copes with big debts, falling incomes and rising costs.
But it is understood that independent care home operators in Northern Ireland are already investigating whether they can buy some of the homes, which care for around 250 residents and employ around 390 staff.
However, one expert said that some of the properties were up to 25 years old and lacked facilities such as lifts large enough for beds - and in some cases featured twin rooms which were undesirable for potential residents.
Four Seasons has been owned since 2012 by private equity firm Terra Firma - a business led by controversial investor Guy Hands, a tax exile living in Guernsey.
Four Seasons has debts of around £500m and faces interest payments of over £50m per year.
The pressures on the company both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK have led to its strategy of selling off homes to raise funds.
But Mark O'Kane, director of O'Kane Commercial, which advises care home operators on property, said the independent care sector may well step in.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has said he will keep open statutory nursing homes which had been earmarked for closure.
There are a number of independents here, including Care Circle, Hutchinson Homes, Manor Healthcare and the Macklin Group.
Mr O'Kane said: "There are a lot of very good, high-quality local operators who are very capable and are trading well in their own right. They have the ability to grow and have good management teams, and have the ability to both take on new homes and build new ones."
Four Seasons Health Care has come under additional pressure from the prospect of the Living Wage, which will see the minimum wage go up to £7.20 per hour from next April - a jump which is expected to cost the firm £40m.
It has been estimated that around 60% of a care home's income is spent on salaries.
Four Seasons this week said that it was shutting homes in east Belfast's Victoria Park, as well as Donaghcloney and Hamilton Court in Co Armagh, Garvagh in Co Londonderry, another home in Antrim, Oakridge in Ballynahinch and Stormont.
It had previously announced the closure of Drumragh Care Home, Co Tyrone.
There are other national operators working across Northern Ireland, including HC-One, Bupa, Care UK, the Priory Group and more.
Four Seasons Health Care was acquired by Terra Firma in 2012, after it was sold by Royal Bank of Scotland.
That acquisition was welcomed by Northern Ireland's Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety at the time as it gave "security to residents and employees".