Property magnate denies link to arson flat: A millionaire businessman has found himself at the centre of a new controversy. Stephen Ward reports

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The Independent Online
NICHOLAS van Hoogstraten's name has surfaced again in connection with a flat where a fire killed five partygoers in East Sussex, just when it looked as though the multi-millionaire property owner with a conviction for a hand-grenade attack and a record of harassing tenants was trying to keep his head down for the first time in his adult life.

Mr van Hoogstraten, 45, speaking to the Independent from France, through an intermediary, denied yesterday that he had any link with the large house in Palmeira Avenue, Hove, where the five died in April.

He has not always been so remote from trouble. He was already rich when convicted in 1967 of demanding money with menaces and carrying out a hand grenade attack on the empty living room of a Brighton synagogue official. He has also in the past forcibly evicted tenants of his properties and had their furniture thrown on the street.

In an interview screened by World In Action in 1988 he said his ways of 'winkling' tenants out included 'everything from taking the roof off to making sure they meet with a nasty accident'.

The son of a shipping agent, he made his fortune by buying rented residential properties in the Brighton and Hove area. He prospered by buying cheap, then waiting for the tenants to leave, after which houses would be worth a lot more. He has been a businessman since his schooldays when he reputedly had a stamp collection worth pounds 30,000 by the age of nine. He moved into the property business after speculating in land in Jamaica while he was in the merchant navy.

In 1988 he was cleared of nine charges of harassing tenants in west London. He was said in court to have cut off hot water and electricity supplies, removed furniture, and kicked down the door of one flat in the middle of the night. He had also denied making threatening telephone calls and acting like a gangster.

Even by then he had started trying to be liked. He said yesterday he had begun selling his properties in England in 1987 and 1988, seeing the slump coming, but still had enough to have lost pounds 30m- pounds 40m on their value in the recession. But because none was bought by borrowing money, there was no liquidity problem.

Mr van Hoogstraten is now concentrating on building what is planned as the biggest country house this century at High Cross Estate, Framfield, East Sussex. He calls it his 'palace'.

He said yesterday that he lived mainly in France and the Caribbean and no longer did anything except 'harvest' the income from his remaining properties in Britain, and from properties bought in the south of France. He could not quantify his personal fortune, because much of it was intangible assets such as gold shares. He said he was so disillusioned by the recession that he planned to spend most of his time in future 'looking at' his country house.

The fatal fire in Hove at Easter is something he wants nothing to do with, but relatives of the dead told the inquest, which ended on Tuesday, that there was evidence that Mr van Hoogstraten was the owner of the freehold of the building. Dr Donald Gooding, the East Sussex coroner, refused to call him to give evidence, after examining evidence published by the Evening Argus newspaper in Brighton showing common directors and addresses linking the house in Palmeira Avenue to companies connected to Mr van Hoogstraten. The families have been granted leave to seek a judicial review of the inquest on the basis that the coroner acted 'unreasonably and unlawfully'.

The owner of the freehold at the time of the fire was a company called De Alnie, registered in the British Virgin Islands, where the names of directors are not open to public scrutiny.

Mr van Hoogstraten said yesterday the nearest he had been to ownership of the property was that 'some years ago' one of his finance companies lent De Alnie a sum of pounds 400,000- pounds 500,000. This had all been repaid before De Alnie bought the building in Hove, he said. Two of the owners of De Alnie are known to him, he said, but he had no interest whatsoever in De Alnie, or the property where the fire took place.

He said he would willingly give evidence to a reconvened inquest if the relatives would donate a 'four or five figure sum' to charity through the Evening Argus Christmas Tree Fund.

An unemployed airline steward confessed to starting the fire as 'as a prank', then two days later, after discovering it had caused five deaths, committed suicide under the wheels of a lorry.

(Photograph omitted)