Fears for future of historic pub as owner arrested in Kenya
- Credit: CMCH/KENYA CITIZEN TV
Campaigners trying to save a village pub fear their plans are in jeopardy after being unwittingly drawn into a row about property investments stretching from Suffolk to Kenya.
The group which formed to buy The Marquis Cornwallis in Chedburgh, near Bury St Edmunds, was left shocked after the pub's owner became embroiled in financial allegations and appeared in a Kenyan court charged with assault.
Steven White, 64, is accused of assaulting his 28-year-old fiancée Peris Njambi, whom he met on Facebook in 2017 and got engaged to the following year.
Kenyan television filmed Mr White at Kiambu Law Courts in Nairobi on Monday, June 24, describing the case as a disagreement over a "business deal gone wrong". Kenyan media also reported the couple established a "lucrative business", dealing in real estate. But after a disagreement led to the closure of their company, Ms Njambi claimed Mr White wanted all his investment, leaving her with nothing.
Mr White's trial is scheduled for July 22.
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A representative for Mr White told this newspaper that "he is not afraid to prove his innocence". The representative claims Mr White has himself been the victim of fraud and would be pursuing his own legal case against his fiancée.
The Chedburgh Marquis Community Hub (CMCH) Ltd, meanwhile, which formed last year to raise funds to buy the pub, has been in disagreement with Mr White over the sale.
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And members fear the news about Mr White's arrest could further jeopardise their plans to save the Marquis.
The pub, which closed in October 2016, has been registered as an Asset of Community Value, which gives community groups a right to bid to purchase it.
But the campaigners' £300,000 offer was rejected by Mr White. His agents, writing to St Edmundsbury Borough Council in August 2018, disagreed with their claim it represented "market value" and instead sought planning permission to convert it into housing.
Mr White's two applications to convert the pub, however, were refused by St Edmundsbury Borough Council; the latest in January.
Land sale row
The potential pub sale has been further complicated over company and land ownership disputes.
Land Registry searches show the pub was bought for £295,000 plus VAT in 2016 by Kenya Trading Ltd - a company set up by Mr White and his then girlfriend Rachel Linnell.
Companies House records show the company was incorporated in 2015 with Mr White and Ms Linnell as equal shareholders.
But documents filed in May 2018, towards the end of their relationship state Mr White was awarded 96 extra shares "in recognition of his ongoing support for the company", making him the majority shareholder.
Further records show Ms Linnell was terminated as a director on November 21, 2018.
Ms Linnell claims the change of shareholdings and her removal as director were "all done in darkness and behind my back".
"I'm devastated," she added. "I sold my house and put all my money to invest in something I thought was going to be for my future. But then I found out all my hard work had been taken from me."
Ms Linnell's solicitors wrote to Mr White the day before she was removed as director asking him to sell the Marquis of Cornwallis for the £300,000 offered by community group and for Ms Linnell to receive £175,000 from the proceeds, together with her legal costs.
Although Mr White had indicated an agreement may be possible, the negotiations stalled.
Meanwhile, Mr White continued trying to sell a parcel of land adjoining the pub.
Campaigners had been hoping to buy the entire site - including the parcel of land, which was used as the pub car park - and now say they fear its sale may further complicate their efforts.
Land Registry documents show Kenya Trading Ltd owned both the pub and the 1.5acre plot of land next to it.
But by June 2018, the plot of land was transferred to a company called Durian Property Ltd, which was set up by a woman called Trudy Lovatt
Ms Lovatt, who ran the Lakenheath Hotel with Mr White in 2007 and is believed to have been in a previous relationship with him, has declined to comment.
A further Land Registry search, showed the plot was sold on again in January 2019, this time for £30,000 to a David Eric Shipp, registered as living at a farm in West Row, near Lakenheath.
Mr Shipp was also recorded as having made a 'Contract of Sale' for the pub itself - although Kenya Trading Ltd is still registered on Land Registry as the proprietor.
The phone number listed for Mr Shipp's farm was this week out of service. People in West Row said he had leased the farm to tenants and left the village.
Ms Linnell said Mr Shipp was a friend of Mr White and had been involved in several of his previous property deals.
Even after the land was registered in Mr Shipp's name, Mr White continued to advertise it for sale on Ebay.
As reported previously, his listing for the land stated it had a valuation of £475,000 and he would consider an exchange with a "property or land overseas or motor yacht". "This is a retirement sale, no time wasters please," he added.
Other properties listed for sale by Mr White on Ebay include a £100,000 apartment in Malinda, Kenya, a large Spanish house for £395,000 and a £495,000 building plot for a mansion in the Masai Mara game reserve.
A CMCH spokesman said the group was shocked to hear of Mr White's arrest and surprised to learn of the sale of the field and car park.
"It is not yet clear how this complicated situation will affect our efforts to save the Marquis Cornwallis pub for the community around Chedburgh, but we are continuing our campaign," she added.
In light of recent events, the group's fundraising deadline has been granted a two week extension. The group has until 7pm on July 13 to raise the additional £75,000 towards buying and refurbishing the pub.
"We remain committed to doing everything we can to ensure it is not developed into more housing, by Mr White or anyone else, when what Chedburgh really needs are services and a pub," the spokesman added.
Companies House said it would not comment on specific accounts and the claims that Rachel Linnell had been removed as a director from Kenya Trading Ltd without her consent.
A spokesman said: "Companies must inform us of any changes to their own company registers within certain statutory timeframes.
"Companies House is a registry of company information and can't intervene in disputes between directors.
"Our priority is to ensure the register is accurate and up to date.
"Where we receive a complaint about inaccurate information on our register, we will contact the company concerned to clarify the position."
The spokesman added that Companies House could investigate claims that a company had deliberately filed false information.
"But there has to be evidence for us to take action," the spokesman said.
Pub saviour campaign
The campaign group trying to save the Marquis of Cornwallis pub hopes to make it a "hub for our community".
The Chedburgh Marquis Community Hub Ltd has been raising funds through a share scheme, which launched last year towards the costs of buying and refurbishing the pub.
Following a survey of 100 households and a public meeting, CMCH said the reaction from villagers about had been "very positive".
"We have researched various ways of running community pubs and prepared a business plan, detailing how we propose to achieve our goals," a spokesman said. "We intend to turn The Marquis into a successful community pub, with a café and ultimately a small shop. Our vision is of a hub for our community, where groups can meet, good food and beer can be served, and friends and neighbours can be found."
Visit www.savethemarquis.co.uk for more information.