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Investors 'conned' in 'fields of gold fraud'

Trio deny tricking victims into buying worthless Newbury land

John Garvey

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John Garvey

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Court

THREE alleged fraudsters conned clients by persuading them to invest their savings into Newbury’s “fields of gold”, a jury heard.

Victims were conned into investing £20m in the land banking scheme in West Berkshire and elsewhere, the prosecution claim.

Paul Taylor, prosecuting, told Southwark Crown Court in central London that investors were offered “eye-watering rates of return” if they ploughed their cash into tiny pieces of worthless land in the four-year scam.

He said victims were cold called by smooth-talking salesmen and posted glossy brochures promising the value of land they bought would soar as there were developers eager to build on it.

But in reality, says the Crown, the £20,000 plots were not even large enough to build a single house on – and most investors never saw a penny of their money again.

Clients were sold land on sites in Newbury and in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, Huby in North Yorkshire and a site near Stansted, Essex.

West Berkshire Council planners were later inundated with calls from worried investors, jurors were told.

In the dock were former Asset Land Investment directors Stuart Cohen, aged 67, of West Lane, West Hampstead, North West London; David Banner-Eve, aged 55, of Rambles Lane, Harlow, Essex; and 54-year-old Susan Siggins of Whighten Mews, Isleworth, Middlesex.

All deny conspiracy to defraud.

Mr Taylor told jurors: “It is a case which is about these three defendants who operated a con, a scam, which related to a very large number of members of the public being tricked into parting with a very large sums of money for very small plots of land.

“It is called land banking – we say this is a land banking fraud.

“These defendants ran their operation offering what they made out to be unmissable opportunities to investors in these small pieces of land which would provide members of the public with eye-watering rates of return over short periods of time.”

The company also boasted it had well-known developers Henry Boot and Wimpey Homes “waiting in the wings” to buy the land and convert it into “fields of gold”, the jury heard.

Mr Taylor added: “Many, many members of the public invested tens of thousands of pounds – money down the drain. The defendants made millions of pounds between them.”

He claimed the companies used ‘virtual’ office addresses at 64 Knightsbridge and at Hanover Square in Mayfair to lend a veneer of respectability to the scam, but they told “lie after lie”.

A senior member of West Berkshire Council’s planning department, Brian Little, said he and colleagues were never approached about planning permission for Asset Land Investment’s Newbury plots.

He said: “It’s very unlikely that planning permission would have been granted – it would have had an adverse effect on the local environment, destroying woodland.

“The local planning laws covering West Berkshire has plans preventing the destruction of habitat and has procedures for the improvement of bio-diversity and the protection of green spaces.

“Since this site was wooded, it would be highly unlikely that the council would have granted permission to fell trees in order to build houses when there’s more suitable land without such constraints.”

Mr Little said he had been inundated with calls and emails from owners of the plots to see how the planning application was progressing, even though no application had ever been made.

In any case, he added, the earliest point the council would have even looked at plans for Asset Land Investment’s land in Newbury was 2026.

The trial continues.

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