Tory fund-raiser blamed for loss of town ice rink

Campaigner claims pounds 22.5m council deal was preposterous. Chris Blackhurst reports
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The Independent Online
John Beckwith, the property developer behind the Premier Club for Tory donors willing to pay pounds 100,000 each to dine with the Prime Minister, is still under attack over one of the biggest planning coups in recent years: the demolition of Richmond Ice Rink in London.

Mr Beckwith, 49, was revealed last week as not only the organiser of the Conservatives' most secret fund-raising organisation, but also as a bidder for the 58,000 army homes being sold off, amid controversy, by the Ministry of Defence and regarded as the potential property bargain of the decade.

But Mr Beckwith is still under fire for his role in the earlier Richmond deal. Even though his then property company, London & Edinburgh Trust, bought the rink and its site for redevelopment as long ago as 1989, passions continue to run high in the town over the failure to replace it.

Under the original agreement struck between Liberal Democrat-led Richmond Council and LET, which Mr Beckwith chaired with his brother, Peter, the company said it would knock down the old rink and build 250 luxury flats in return for building a pounds 22.5m replacement. In the event, in an extraordinary twist, the brothers got away with paying the council pounds 2.5m.

Today, the flats on the prestigious site by the Thames are selling fast, John Beckwith has moved on to grander things, and the people of west London have nowhere to skate.

At its peak, the rink catered for 12,000 people a week. John Curry trained there, Torvill and Dean practised there, and in an earlier era it was used by another great champion, Sonia Henje. The Queen, her sister and their children all learned to skate at Richmond.

Owned for much of its history by the Rule family, the converted munitions factory near Richmond town centre was a landmark.

In the late Seventies it was sold to Tony Carratu, a property developer. A decade later, in 1987, with the rink showing its age and in urgent need of an overhaul, it was sold again to LET, a thrusting property group run by the Beckwiths. The rink changed hands for pounds 5m and the surrounding land, making a 7.5-acre site in all, was also bought by them for pounds 12m.

In Richmond, there was a feeling of salvation: the borough was to get a new pounds 22.5m centre; the brothers would get their flats and the increasingly dilapidated rink would cease to be an eyesore.

The council was prepared to grant planning permission in return for the new centre nearby. It seemed like the perfect solution all round.

The optimism soon faded. A plan to revitalise Richmond Baths in the Old Deer Park with a combined swimming- skating centre was scuppered by objections from the neighbouring exclusive Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club and an insistence by the Department of Transport that road access be improved.

Then came the Beckwiths' bombshell. After consulting their lawyers, they were told they could fight the council tooth and nail over the replacement rink.

If they were refused planning permission for the flats, they would appeal and win. The council had no right to force them to build a new pounds 22.5m centre. They would, however, give the council pounds 2.5m.

This was proposed in a letter to the council on 5 September 1989. Little over a fortnight later, on 25 September, the planning committee met to consider the Beckwiths' proposal. In the chair was Tim Razzall, a Liberal Democrat councillor and the party's national treasurer.

His ability at persuading people to part with their cash was no match for the Beckwith brothers.

Despite a mass petition organised by Richard Meacock - a local art gallery owner who has made the disappearance of ice skating from Richmond a personal crusade - and signed by 48,000 people (only 10,000, according to a spokeswoman for the Beckwiths) the deal went through.

By the time the rink came down, the brothers had effectively gone. In 1990 they sold their company to the Swedish insurance group SPP.

They each received pounds 40m from the sale, but how much of that came from the rink redevelopment has never been disclosed.

The council remains unrepentant about the lack of a replacement rink. There was, said Councillor David Williams, the council leader, little he or his colleagues could do.

"The reason we settled is that our legal advice was that we were almost certainly going to lose a planning inquiry," he said. "It was not the council's fault."

John Beckwith was not available for comment but a spokeswoman said there was no doubt where the fault lay.

"LET can't be blamed for not handing over money," she said. "The Liberal Democrats accepted pounds 2.5m to build a rink. The money was frittered away and not spent on the purpose for which it was intended." The Beckwiths, she said, "carried out their legal obligations and handed over the money and that is the end of it".

Not quite. Having fought long and hard through the courts - he failed to have the decision overturned on judicial review because he was out of time - the redoubtable Mr Meacock is now pressing for National Lottery cash from the Millennium Commission to develop a new rink on the site of an old gasworks at nearby Mortlake.

He is scathing about the council's alternative suggestion for the location of a new rink: on top of a multi-storey car park by the station.

Apart from at the council, his venom is directed at John and Peter Beckwith. He claims the pounds 22.5m offer was "so preposterous and financially unsound the Beckwith brothers cannot ever have seriously contemplated anything other than not building a replacement ice rink, embarrassing the council and offering cash - it was a plot to achieve planning permission at the expense of the children of London and the pride of councillors."

Mr Meacock claims the brothers must have known all along, through their contacts with the council, that they would never need to build a replacement.

Whatever the truth, two things are certain: people in west London have nowhere to skate and the Beckwiths have moved on, to much grander deals and much more powerful dinner companions.

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