LONDON • When former Manchester United footballers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs got planning permission to turn the historic Manchester stock exchange into a boutique hotel replete with basement gym, spa and rooftop private members' terrace, they envisaged opening it up to an exclusive and moneyed clientele.
Instead, a group of homeless people with little or no money have moved in - with Neville's blessing.
The hotel, which is undergoing extensive renovations before opening its doors to paying guests, was occupied on Sunday by a group of squatters and housing activists called the Manchester Angels.
Instead of the usual response of property owners - rushing to court to obtain an order to get the uninvited new incumbents evicted - the famous former players who own the building have told them they can stay, not just for a few days, but throughout the coldest months of the winter.
Wesley Hall, 33, a housing and human rights activist who is leading the protest, said that he broke down in tears following a phone conversation with Neville on Sunday in which Neville said he had always supported homeless people and had no problem with the activists using the hotel to house people during the cold winter months.
I even suggested to Gary that he might be interested in employing some of the homeless people who are living here as labourers to help with the redevelopment work on the hotel.''
WESLEY HALL, a housing and human rights activist in Manchester
"From my point of view, I'm quite relaxed about this," Neville replied. He added that for the past 10 years he had offered support to homeless people he has seen on the street while walking through Manchester.
"Thank you so much - you don't understand what you have done for us," Hall said repeatedly to Neville.
Hall and his fellow activists say they can now act on their plan to provide a one-stop shop for homeless people - a roof over their heads, hot food, health check-ups, benefit advice, workshops, signposting to other services and help with securing permanent accommodation.
They are calling the initiative Operation Safe Winter, and have renamed the stock exchange the Sock Exchange , as they will be distributing clothing to the new occupants.
"We were expecting that as soon as Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville found out that we had occupied the building, they would try to get us evicted and that we would have to look for another building," said Hall. "Having a few months during the winter to work with homeless people without the threat of eviction hanging over our heads is brilliant."
He said Neville's only stipulation was that surveyors and other work people would be able to gain access to the building as and when they need to, which was readily agreed to by Hall.
"We undertake not to cause any damage to anything and to leave the building in as good if not a better state than we found it in. I have ordered smoke alarms to keep the building safe," said Hall.
"I even suggested to Gary that he might be interested in employing some of the homeless people who are living here as labourers to help with the redevelopment work on the hotel."
The former stock exchange in Norfolk Street in central Manchester was built in 1906 and is Grade II-listed.
Neville and Giggs have permission to turn it into a 35-bed hotel with basement gym and spa, also featuring a rooftop private members' terrace and a ground-floor restaurant and bar.