Casino war comes to court: Money is no object in the battle to run some of London's top clubs (CORRECTED)

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ABSURD as it may seem in these depressed times, three of Britain's richest men will this week join battle for the right to run some of London's best- known casinos.

In one corner is John Aspinall, legendary gambler and zoo- owner. In the other the identical Barclay twins, David and Frederick, owners of the European newspaper, London's Howard Hotel and 15 per cent of the PR company run by Sir Tim Bell, Lady Thatcher's favourite media adviser.

Tomorrow, magistrates will hear Mr Aspinall oppose the application by London Clubs, in which the Barclays now hold a 30 per cent stake, for licences to run six casinos, including the Ritz Club and Les Ambassadeurs. On Tuesday, Mr Aspinall is hosting the first of several parties to mark the opening of his new casino in Mayfair's Curzon Street.

Money is no object. Mr Aspinall, friend of the Zulu leader Chief Buthelezi, Sir James Goldsmith, Kerry Packer and the still missing Lord Lucan, is reckoned to be worth pounds 35m. The fortune of the Monte Carlo-based Barclays (big donors to the Tory party), who rarely give interviews and scorn publicity, is estimated at pounds 450m.

Mr Aspinall will not say what the refurbishment of his new club, the former White Elephant, has cost. 'We never mention any sums or figures,' he said. The price the Barclays paid David Shamoon for his shares in London Clubs was also undisclosed.

No money is being spared on the gladiators: Mr Aspinall has retained the services of John Matthew QC, of Blue Arrow fame; London Clubs has lined up George Carman QC, defender of Ken Dodd and recent attacker of Mona Bauwens, David Mellor's holiday provider.

Mr Aspinall maintains that London Clubs' application must be fully examined in open court. The Gaming Board's recent decision to grant certificates of consent for the company's casinos, he says, reduces the process to a rubber-stamping exercise. Under the regulations, the Gaming Board awards certificates of consent if it considers the applicants are 'fit and proper' to run the casino. In practice, magistrates hardly ever re-examine the Gaming Board's findings.

But with London Clubs accounting for an estimated 30 per cent of the total London drop or takings, Mr Aspinall claims that in this case there should be a detailed hearing. 'I regard the case as the gravest affair to have affected the gaming industry for 100 years, because it sets a precedent if they succeed,' he said.

Mr Aspinall claims questions are being asked within the industry about the ease with which London Clubs obtained its consents. 'Our objection means there is a chance for everything to be inquired into and aired in court,' he said.

In June last year, police and Gaming Board officials raided London Clubs' casinos. After a nine-month investigation, they concluded that London Clubs was not 'fit and proper' to keep its licences. The company faced collapse. But after a series of meetings with bankers, senior management resigned and Mr Shamoon sold his shares.

The Barclays will be hoping their investment proves more successful than previous forays into London casino ownership.

In April 1972, David Barclay joined the board of Hyde Park Casinos, operator of the Park Lane Casino, but resigned his directorship in December 1973.

Then, in 1978, together with the controversial City financier David Rowland, he became a director of the company that owned Maxim's. In 1980, after failing to obtain a licence to operate a casino at La Privee Club in the basement of the Barclays' Londonderry Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, they sold the company.


THE failure to obtain a licence to operate a casino at Le Prive Club at the Londonderry Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, reported last week, resulted from refusal of planning permission. It did not reflect in any way on the applicants or on David or Frederick Barclay, who owned the hotel. The Independent on Sunday apologises for any misleading impression or offence that may have been caused.

(Photograph omitted)