Scandal clouds the English Riviera

Michael Prestage reports on reaction to dramatic events in a sleepy resort
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The Independent Online
With hotels in genteel Torquay beginning to fill with the first of the out-of-season Saga trips, it was difficult to picture this quintessential English seaside resort as the centre for an international banking scam.

There was an armed bank raid five years ago. And wasn't it last year the police helicopter was mobilised in pursuit of drug smugglers? However, most agree this is a sleepy resort.

Allegations of rip-offs do occasionally surface. This week the local newspaper, the Herald Express, carried a letter complaining about the pounds 1.60 charged for a pint of lemonade at the Riviera Centre.

At Torbay District Council the feeling yesterday was that the publicity over the police inquiry into the suspected pounds 100m bank fraud was not the image the town hoped to project.

Its tourist brochure extolling the virtues of the English Riviera prefers to concentrate on the 22 miles of coastline and a thousand hectares of parks and ornamental gardens enjoyed by Torquay and its neighbours Paignton and Brixham.

But the arrival of allegedly major league fraudsters in their midst had raised some suspicions. One passer-by at the former TSB building that was raided by police said: "I thought they were funny names for banks," referring to the name-plates of the operations.

News of the raid had solved the mystery of why scaffolding and sheets have surrounded the building for months. "They were obviously building their helicopter pad on the roof," said Tren Gove, proprietor of the Tropicana Restaurant on the seafront.

What excitement the police operation may have generated in the town was not reflected in trade. The rain was keeping visitors away. "I'm going to close if things don't pick up," said Mr Gove. "The thing I don't understand is why nobody twigged something was wrong with a bunch of Germans running a bank in Torquay."

Ernest Freed, a businessman and chairman of the South Devon Chamber of Trade, said yesterday: "I went into their building earlier this week because I'm going on holiday and they were advertising attractive exchange rates on foreign currency. I'm only glad I didn't order any."

None of the names he had heard mentioned were members of the chamber. "I had no inkling anything was going on until I heard about it on TV. Perhaps because Torquay seems such an unlikely destination is why they chose it."

However, a local statistic may give a clue. There is double the national average of self-employed people in the area. People flock here to open hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and now, it seems, banks.

A town called Torquay

Three things you didn't know. . .

Agatha Christie was born here.

With 1.45 million visitors in 1994, it is Britain's most popular long- stay holiday resort.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel rerouted the London to Paignton railway line away from Torquay so it wouldn't block the view from his planned retirement home.

. . . and one you did

A local hotel was the inspiration for Fawlty Towers.