'Nastiest landlord' Hoogstraten defies law over £15,000 unpaid footpath fines

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The Independent Online

Embarrassed ministers are promising to investigate why tens of thousands of pounds in fines remain unpaid over a blocked, public right-of-way that has become a cause célèbre for ramblers.

The row is based on a footpath at Framfield, near Uckfield, East Sussex, owned by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, a multi-millionaire who is described as "the nastiest slum landlord of the post-Rachman era".

Despite the new Countryside and Rights of Way Act and a test court case earlier this year, the path is still blocked and £15,000 in fines remain unpaid.

Van Hoogstraten has barricaded the path for about 10 years. Ironically, as the largest foreign landowner in Zimbabwe, he is a vocal supporter of President Mugabe's land seizure programme.

The new legislation, which was prompted by Hoogstraten's footpath protest, gives magistrates power to remove pathway obstacles and fine landowners .

Lewes magistrates fined Rarebargain, one of van Hoogstraten's former companies, to whom the land is registered, the maximum £15,000 and ordered that the obstacles should be removed.

A court hearing is this month due to demand Rarebargain pay further fines of about £50,000 for ignoring the court's rulings.

Kate Ashbrook, general-secretary of the Open Spaces Society, has asked Alun Michael, rural affairs minister, to investigate the footpath dilemma. Meanwhile, East Sussex County Council, which has received more than 2,000 objections to the blocked footpath from residents, has proposed a new route avoiding the obstacles.

A public inquiry will now decide the outcome of the path dispute.