£200m thug tramples on footpath law

Cole Moreton on how Nicholas van Hoogstraten, 'Britain's most intimidating landlord', cowed a weak council into giving him his way

Sunday 20 August 2000 00:00 BST

The footpath is a public right of way. The landowner has built a huge shed over it, with barbed wire and "no entry" signs. The courts say this is illegal. End of story? Not when the villain of the piece is Britain's most intimidating landlord.

The footpath is a public right of way. The landowner has built a huge shed over it, with barbed wire and "no entry" signs. The courts say this is illegal. End of story? Not when the villain of the piece is Britain's most intimidating landlord.

Yesterday, the deputy leader of the local council admitted his officers were "frightened to death" of Nicholas van Hoogstraten, the multi-millionaire who is building an extravagant palace within yards of the footpath. They refuse to send in bulldozers to clear the way - despite having received 4,000 letters of protest as a result of a campaign by the Ramblers Association, which accuses them of "betraying the public".

Instead, East Sussex County Council looks set to ignore the court ruling and accept a proposal from Mr van Hoogstraten's lawyers that the path be diverted around the shed, to the edge of his land.

The 54-year-old has been called "the nastiest slum landlord of the post-Rachman era" and "the sad Citizen Kane of Sussex". He has been building his own Xanadu - in this case called Hamilton Palace after the capital of Bermuda - on his estate near Uckfield for more than 10 years.

At £30m, it is said to be the most expensive private house built in Britain for a century - complete with a 600ft art gallery and a basement mausoleum designed to last 5,000 years.

The contents of this new home - which will be bigger than Buckingham Palace - are apparently to include his collection of Louis XV furniture and one of the few Holbein paintings in private ownership.

Footpath Framfield 9, designated in 1862, runs across one corner of the estate. Walkers approaching from the South Downs Way get a teasing glimpse of the scaffolded, mosque-like palace as its shining copper cupolas rise above and behind a row of trees. Then, their route is blocked by a rusting, corrugated iron shed, with discarded masonry from the house scattered among weeds.

"High Cross Estate, Private Property," say the signs posted on blue barbed wire. "Keep Out". Those approaching from the opposite direction, past the handful of pretty houses on Palehouse Common, are halted by an iron gate and a row of white industrial refrigerators. The land was deserted on Thursday, but those who have tried to walk the footpath in the past claim to have been harassed by security guards.

Police turned up when 50 Ramblers Association members staged a protest walk in January 1999. The Association, which has 127,000 members (2,000 of them in East Sussex) says one-quarter of all public footpaths in Britain are blocked - and, with the forthcoming Countryside Bill in mind, has turned this local planning spat into one of its most high-profile campaigns ever.

The result has been a war of words and writs between the flamboyant landlord and the ramblers he calls "riff-raff" and "the dirty mac brigade". When the association launched a private prosecution, Mr van Hoogstraten said: "Let them waste their time and money. I'm not going to open up the footpath. Would you have a lot of herberts in your garden?"

Nobody was surprised to hear those words from a man who had already declared that "the only purpose in creating great wealth like mine is to separate oneself from the riff-raff."

Supporting the ramblers' action, David Lepper, MP for Brighton Pavilion and author of the "the sad Citizen Kane of Sussex" jibe, said: "He has amassed great wealth and can find nothing better to do with it than incarcerate himself within the monument that he is building. A great many of my constituents rejoice at the notion of Mr van Hoogstraten's self-incarceration, but that should not be at the expense of the rights of way that exist across his estate."

The association prosecuted a company called Rarebargain Ltd, which owns the land, but Mr van Hoogstraten resigned as a director before the trial, and claimed to have nothing to do with it.

In January, magistrates in Lewes found Rarebargain guilty on two counts of unlawful obstruction and fined it £1,600 plus the ramblers' legal costs. The verdict was described by their spokeswoman, Kate Ashbrook, as "a victory for the British public".

Afterwards, the County Council served the company with a notice to clear all obstacles within 90 days. But that time limit was suspended when Rarebargain proposed the diversion. If the 4,000 letters are counted as objections, it will be referred to the Secretary of State for a public inquiry.

"If we don't do it by the book he could take us to a judicial review," said Cllr Skinner. "He does have an extremely good record in the courts, and English law tends to be biased towards people like him. We don't stand a bloody chance."

Other landlords who have successfully applied for diversions include Prince Charles, Lord Puttnam and the Crown at the Prime Minister's country retreat, Chequers.

"I'd like to get him as much as anyone," said Cllr Skinner. "Unfortunately, planning law does not take into account the character of the applicant. I've had him on my patch for 15 years and the policy of the council has always been one of managed appeasement."

The footpath was "very little used" and "not an issue to us" before last year, he said. Of the 4,000 letters received, only 166 have been from residents of East Sussex. "I'm elected by the people of Uckfield, not those of Cornwall or Banffshire, and yet now they write letters from those places haranguing me that I should represent their issues."

The Ramblers Association says the council should act now, with the court decision as its mandate. "It's unacceptable that bullies like Mr van Hoogstraten can get away with blocking a path for over a decade," said Kate Ashbrook. "The council has a legal duty to keep the path open for the public, but instead is conniving with the van Hoogstraten estate to help the landowner keep the path blocked. The police might as well help a burglar keep his loot."

Mr van Hoogstraten is thought to be worth at least £200m, with homes in Barbados, St Lucia, Florida, Cannes and Zimbabwe, where he has been a passionate supporter of Robert Mugabe. He has spoken of having five children by three different women, but very few people get close enough to know the truth about his money or his offspring.

He spent four years in Wormwood Scrubs during the Sixties after hiring thugs to throw a grenade into the home of a man he claimed owed him money - a Jewish minister with six children. The judge described him as "a sort of self-imagined devil who thinks he is an emissary of Beelzebub".

In 1992 he was linked with a fatal fire at a property in Hove, but told the London Evening Standard: "People will always think it was me. I am used to that." While denying any involvement, he described the five people who died as "Lowlife. Drug dealers, drug takers and queers. Scum."

Mr van Hoogstraten has always revelled in his demonic image. Shoppers in Uckfield refused to discuss him. One man said: "Things happen, you know. You should be talking to the council people. He's a rich man, he does what he wants, you know?" The suggestion, repeated by other shoppers, was that Mr van Hoogstraten had bribed or threatened officers to get his way. A spokesman for East Sussex County Council said: "We totally refute that suggestion."

Mr van Hoogstraten was unavailable for comment.

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