Has Geoffrey Robinson's Tuscan villa broken the rules of the House? broken the rules of the House?

Nestling in the Italian hills lies the idyllic property - worth pounds 1.5m - that is causing the latest trouble for the Paymaster-General
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The Independent Online
THE SENSOR at the end of Geoffrey Robinson's drive is playing up, and the tall iron gate swings forlornly open at irregular intervals. It is the only flaw in this picture of perfection in the Tuscan countryside.

A white road leads up through cypresses and pines to an open space where a dolphin-adorned fountain plays. ("He [Mr Robinson, the paymaster-General] brought it from England," said one local, incredulous that anyone would ever consider importing statuary to Italy.)

On a rise to the left is a stone chapel, recently reconsecrated, and used by the Robinson family, according to local lore. Behind it is a huddle of buildings - a former monastery. The windows are still without glass, and all is quiet, but the paraphernalia of renovation work is strewn all around. Ahead is a sweep of idyllic landscape.

To the right is Mr Robinson's Italian bolt-hole, Il Mucchio - "The Pile", as in the common Italian expression un mucchio di soldi - heaps of money. It nestles in Tuscany, near San Gimignano, which with its 13 towers is popular with the British chattering classes.

According to Mr Robinson, it was his wife, Marie Elena, who first thought of buying more than the villa almost seven years ago. "My wife said if you buy that Italian villa you must buy the Borgo as well. I could not see what she wanted with a whole village. But I love it now. We've had the chapel redecorated and reconsecrated. It's very pretty," he told an interviewer.

The Blairs have holidayed at the villa twice, last year and the year before. Mr Blair fell in love with the surroundings: "Tuscany? I love it, there's so much history, culture, the weather's great, and I like the wine. It's fantastic," he told the Italian newspaper La Nazione, during his 1996 trip.

The late 18th- or early 19th-century villa, which stands on the top of a hill, was built and owned by the Pompedoni counts, and has gardens of about nine acres.

To one side of the villa is a 45ft swimming pool. In the summer, meals are cooked by Mr Robinson's Galician chef and served under giant umbrellas on a patio at the back of the house. Diners can look out on to a valley of olive trees leading to San Gimignano.

At the bottom of the hill is a former monastery and the small chapel, which dates back to the 14th century. The entire property, bought in 1992 for about pounds 330,000 but now believed to be worth around pounds 1.5m, includes about 140 acres of farm land. This is let out rent free to a local business, run by brothers from a nearby town, which uses it to grow wheat and sunflowers.

During their stay last year the Blairs took sanctuary from the massed ranks of the press, swimming in the pool and breakfasting on the terrace before strolling down a cypress-lined private road to the church, San Pietro, to hear mass.

Records in Siena show that the villa is owned by a company, Castelli Mucchio - Villa Robinson Geoffrey EC - SAS. The joint shareholders are Mr Robinson with19,800,000 shares and his daughter Veronique who holds 200,000 shares.

Borgo Mucchio Di Sotto SRL, a second company also set up in July1992, owns the monastery and surrounding farmland. Mr Robinson is listed as the sole administrator of the company.

The restoration work on the Borgo Sotto monastery has been going on for around 12 months or so, supervised by an Irish architect, and it is believed that it is being converted into about seven or eight flats. Locally, people say they believe that when completed the converted monastery will be used by "visiting VIPs".

The company that bought the monastery is allowed under its various aims and objects "to engage in the running of tourist accommodation and agri- tourist accommodation". It seems unlikely, however, that someone of Mr Robinson's wealth would want to turn the development into a commercial operation.

"The Pile" is a gracious, creamy-white mansion. So well buried is the house, down a long dirt track and surrounded by its coppice of trees, that even near neighbours - and near is a relative concept in such an isolated spot - are dubious about its whereabouts.

Until, that is, you mention Tony Blair. Then, local youths will tear themselves away from afternoon soaks in bars and enthusiastically provide detailed directions. When Mr Blair chose the villa in this solid left- voting neighbourhood for his summer break it was an event, and the movements of the Blair clan were followed carefully by the people of the San Gimignano area.

The Prime Minister's visit brought an army of curious Britons and Italians to the town "One man, an Italian, came with his little boy. He was desperate to show his son where Blair stayed," said the woman on the hotel desk. "He seemed to think it was a historic landmark."

Mr Robinson has improved the estate and restored the three-storey villa. The neat flowerbeds in front of the solid oak double front door contain pomegranate bushes, hydrangeas and white roses. They are tended by two full-time gardeners.

Villa Mucchio is not, by any means, Mr Robinson's only home. He also owns a hat-trick of Lutyens' properties in Britain. His main home, Orchards in Surrey, was built in 1897 for a sculptor and her husband. A more recent purchase, Marsh Court in Hampshire, is being renovated, and both have gardens that were designed by Gertrude Jekyll. During the week, the minister lives in a flat on the eighth floor of Grosvenor House in Park Lane, London, overlooking the Serpentine. The latter's facade was designed by Lutyens in the Twenties.

Mr Robinson also owns a flat overlooking the Mediterranean on the Avenue Hesperides in Cannes, in the South of France, left to him by his friend Joska Bourgeois.

Here's to you Mr Robinson ...

Born: Geoffrey Robinson, May 25, 1938, Sheffield.

Married: 1967, to Marie Elena Giorgio, a Maltese-born opera singer.

Career: Financial controller, British Leyland, 1971-72. Managing director Leyland Innocenti, Milan, 1972-3. MD and chief executive, Jaguar Cars, 1973-75. Labour MP for Coventry North West, since1976. May 1997 appointed Paymaster General, refused to accept ministerial salary

Fortune: Believed to be around pounds 30 million.

Owns: The New Statesman magazine, Stenbell Ltd, administrative services, TransTec PLC, specialist engineers. Shares held in trust since May 1997. Discretionary beneficiary with other family members of the Guernsey-based Orion Trust, worth at least pounds 12 million.

Properties: Two Lutyens houses, Orchards in Surrey and Marsh Court in Hampshire. London flat in the grounds of the Grosvenor Hotel, overlooking Hyde Park. Flat in Cannes, estate in Tuscany.

Children: Veronique, 27, an accountant, and Alexander, 19.

Interests: Architecture , gardens and cars. Gave up his chauffeur-driven Daimlers for a ministerial Rover to avoid seeming grander than the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

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