Von Hessen, and Yogi Bear: the many names of Britain's most notorious landlord

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The Independent Online

Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, the most notorious landlord in Britain, has confessed to hiding his £200m property empire behind at least a dozen aliases.

Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, the most notorious landlord in Britain, has confessed to hiding his £200m property empire behind at least a dozen aliases.

The man known as the "sad Citizen Kane of Sussex" uses false identities to operate as a company director, the Independent on Sunday has discovered.

Public records show that he ignores the law which requires all directors to register under their current names, and to list any others used in the last 20 years. Challenged at one of his many hotels in East Sussex last week, the multi-millionaire admitted having "a string" of pseudonyms with which to evade enemies and rivals.

Our information has now been passed on to Companies House, where inspectors are looking into this apparent flouting of the Companies Act 1985.

Three weeks ago, this newspaper reported the furore over a footpath through the secluded estate in East Sussex where Mr van Hoogstraten is building a palace for more than £30m. He has blocked the public right of way with barbed wire, old fridges, and a shed.

More than 4,000 people have supported a campaign by the Ramblers' Association to have the bulldozers sent in. But a public inquiry looks more likely, since East Sussex County Council accepted his right to propose a diversion away from the new palace.

Legal documents relating to the building say the owner is "otherwise known" as Nicholas Adolf von Hessen. The same Mr von Hessen holds six other directorships - but the legal registration form for the most recent of them makes no mention of his true identity. Neither pseudonyms nor other directorships are listed, as they should be by law.

Speaking at the Courtlands Hotel in Hove - one of the many properties he owns in East Sussex - the developer said von Hessen was "my legal name. Well, one of my legal names. I've got a string of them."

Another was Nicholas Hamilton. "There were twenty something [pseudonyms], and now there might be a dozen. It means I can operate, particularly when buying buildings or buying assets, without people knowing."

Past and present partners have also been registered as company directors under various names. Caroline Williams, for example - also listed as Caroline Hamilton - was "one of the mothers of my children".

His reading of the law was that "as long as you're not trying to borrow money, as long as you're not involved in fraud, you can call yourself anything you like. I've actually called myself, in the past Yogi Bear. And I've had properties registered in that name."

Companies House took a less flexible view. "Our view is that you can only have one present name," said a spokesman.

A false declaration on form 288a would be an offence, with a maximum fine of £5,000 on conviction. But he added: "As far as we know this section of the Companies Act has not been tested in the courts."Mr van Hoogstraten is proud of the complex web of companies through which he administrates an international fortune, whose true worth is unclear. The company managing any one of his properties might be "two or three pieces of paper removed from the registered owner", he said last week. Tenants might never know he was their landlord.

Keeping his name out of deals kept prices down: "Earlier today we were buying a site down in the centre of Brighton next to a property we own. If anybody knew that I was the owner of the main block the price we're paying - £210,000 or so - would be 500 grand. Simply because when you add that bit to my bit you've got a £2.5m development."

Unlike other wealthy men he did not operate a pyramid system, with one central company at its peak, he said. "Everything is autonomous. I could buy a building in your name: you're the owner of it, you have the power to mortgage it, rent it, do whatever you like, but you've signed a deed with an offshore company in Jersey or somewhere where the beneficial ownership is with that trust. You can be called upon at any time to convey the property to them, or to anybody they nominate. Even your wife can't get her hands on it. It's a very useful device."

His business affairs were restructured after the Inland Revenue sequestered his property in the early Eighties and demanded a record £5.3m in unpaid tax. "In all honestly I own very little," he explains. "I'm probably worth less than £10m in my own personal stand-up right that I pay to the Inland Revenue. But globally it's an enormous amount of money."

Mr van Hoogstraten once said the purpose of creating great wealth was to be free of the "riff-raff" - and he seems to regard boring old company law as beneath him too. The irony, of course, is that common people continue to pursue him through the courts and the media because of an overgrown, unglamorous footpath.