Monday, 31 January 2011

Sir Elton John, his wealthy neighbours and the fight to keep gipsies out of their village

The wealthy residents of the quiet village of Old Windsor in the grounds of Windsor Castle are up in arms over plans to open a gipsy and traveller camp near their homes amid fears of reprisals if they object.

Sir Elton John, his wealthy neighbours and the fight to keep gipsies out of their village
The multi-millionaire singer flew into Britain in the middle of last week and is believed to have travelled to his Windsor home with civil partner David Furnish and their son Zachary. Photo: REX FEATURES
The developer behind the scheme is a controversial businessman who owns mobile home parks across the country.
Maurice "Fred" Sines, a racehorse owner who claims Romany heritage, has been involved in a number of disputes after being accused of harassing his tenants.
Mr Sines' plans threaten the tranquillity of Old Windsor and Sir Elton's palatial estate, which backs on to the land where the permanent gipsy camp would be built.
The multi-millionaire singer flew into Britain in the middle of last week and is believed to have travelled to his Windsor home with civil partner David Furnish and their son Zachary.
A close friend of the star reacted in horror when alerted to the proposal by Telegraph.
Sir Elton is weighing up whether he should join his neighbours in objecting to the planning application in a field within sight of his house.
Just a few acres of grazing land separate the singer's back fence and the location of the planned gipsy site.
The siting of the camp will also affect the £3.6 million holiday home of Croatian racing driver turned billionaire business magnet Goran Strok, who brought the neighbouring mansion from golfer Nick Faldo four years ago.
Last week angry residents, among them retired bankers, doctors, university professors, senior airline managers and even the secretary of the local "shift and punt" club, who take to the River Thames every week, staged a mass protest.
Mr Sines, 48, who drives a Bentley, made his money from a string of caravan leisure parks around Britain, including one adjourning the site of his proposed new development at Newtonside Orchard.
The current leisure park, which he runs with his 22-year-old son Fred junior, sits alongside one of the main roads through the village, south of the town of Windsor itself and Windsor Great Park, once the Royal Family's private hunting ground.
Mr Sines, who once owned a thoroughbred racehorse called Romany Princess, is no stranger to controversy.
In the past he has featured on the BBC consumer programme Watchdog which investigated how he had allegedly attempted to "persuade" residents in King's Lynn, Norfolk, to give up their homes to make way for another money making scheme.
He has also paid residents in Blewbury, Oxfordshire, £75,000 in damages and signed an order promising not to threaten or harass residents after they accused him of preventing them from selling their homes.
Mr Sines denied the allegations and said the damages were to compensate people for living in a building site for three years.
He angered residents at another mobile home park when he raised the annual rents for their allotments from £1 to £300 per plot.
The land he wants to build his new "facility" on is currently set aside for recreation and leisure, but earlier this month he submitted a full planning application for a change of use to a "gipsy and travellers accommodation site".
Last week 300 Old Windsor residents crowded into the village's day centre to protest against the gipsy camp plans. The elected members of The Old Windsor Parish Council were forced to move their monthly meeting from their normal parish hall to cram in the angry locals.
Chairman Ian Troughton addressed the meeting through a loudspeaker so those at the back could hear what was going on.
And rows of immaculately dressed locals were asked to shuffle forwards to squeeze more of their neighbours in to the packed hall.
Normally at the bottom of the agenda "planning matters" was elevated to the top of the Parish Council list and, after some debate, was thrown open to the floor for discussion on the "travellers proposition."
"My concerns are the levels of crime really", said one woman who refused to give her name for fear of "reprisals".
Others also refused to give their names as they rose to speak, again talking darkly about fears of intimidation.
One woman, again asking to remain anonymous, said: "I have lived here for 28 years and it's a sleepy village and it's family orientated. Everybody has got to have a place to live but if they could only live in a civilised manner and pay taxes like everyone else in the village.
"I know they have to live somewhere, but this is right in the middle of the village."
Another villager said that people did not want to write to the planning authority to object because it would have to publish people's names and addresses. She said: "Everybody is upset about it. The last thing they want you to do is put your name in."
The developer Mr Sines did not attend the Parish Council meeting and did not respond to messages left at his office by the Telegraph.


Guru’s multi-million pound spiritual property empire

An octogenarian couple has built up a multi-million pound international network of spiritual healing centres – with the help of members who donated their wealth to the “Family”.

Richard Curtis (R) and his wife Fiananda, inset, signed over their farmhouse, inset, to the centre run by Rena Denton (L)
Richard Curtis (R) and his wife Fiananda, inset, signed over their farmhouse, inset, to the centre run by Rena Denton (L)  Photo: WALES NEWS SERVICE 
She is the granddaughter of a French Count, a former ballerina who claims she has healing powers to treat broken bones and even cancer.
Yet despite her exotic background, perhaps the most remarkable thing about 80-year-old Rena Denton is her power of persuasion.
In January this year a judge ruled that the strong influence of Mrs Denton, or Mata Yogananda Mahasaya Dhama as she is known, was sufficient to convince a former Army intelligence officer and his wife to hand over the keys to their £800,000 converted farmhouse.
In 2003, Richard Curtis, his wife Fiananda and their young son had joined the enlightened “Family” who run The Self Realization Healing Centre, a charity founded by Mrs Denton and her husband Peter, 81, in the village of Queen Camel, near Yeovil, Somerset.
The court agreed that Mr Curtis, 53, had been “unduly influenced” by his “spiritual adviser” before giving away the house, in south Wales. Following his separation from his wife, 48, who is still part of the group, the charity must now return his share of the property.
Describing his experiences in an online discussion, Mr Curtis wrote: “A precondition of our joining the organisation was that we had to give all our possessions etc and home to 'God and Guru’. Many people have been recruited in the same way.
“If you’re thinking of joining, think twice. Once you have signed the form, as they say, there’s no going back.”
The charity is to appeal against the court’s verdict, but last night the Charity Commission, the statutory watchdog, said it was examining whether it should take “regulatory” action over the court’s findings.
Yet the couple were not the first to give up all their worldly goods to Mr and Mrs Denton’s organisation. A Sunday Telegraph investigation can reveal that in 20 years their healing centre, helped by donations from members, has grown from the backroom of the couple’s Cornish bungalow into an international operation worth millions of pounds.
Mrs Denton tells in her self-published autobiography how she was born Judy Rena Nicholson, in Solihull, West Midlands. Her mother, Catherina Reine de Belcastel, was the daughter of a chateau-owning French Count; her father, Stanley Nicholson, was a shop manager and wartime RAF pilot.
She says she was accepted at the International Ballet – a rival to Sadler’s Wells ballet in post-war London – but had to leave when she grew too tall. After stage school and a series of short-term jobs she married Bert Meredith in 1956. The couple had three children, but later split up.
She says she met her second husband, Mr Denton, while convalescing with him and his wife Joan at their Sussex home. Her feelings for her host grew, she says, until his then-wife agreed to step aside “without rancour”.
In 1988, as they approached normal retirement age, Mr and Mrs Denton started The Denton Realization Healing Centre from a small cottage next door to the Golden Plaice fish and chip shop in the village of Castle Cary, Somerset.
A self-proclaimed guru and spiritual head, Mrs Denton says she wants to “give unconditional love and teaching to help all to Self–Realization”.
Giving their occupation as “healers” the pair set up a charitable trust registered both at Companies House and with the Charity Commission and began offering their services to the sick, needy and those seeking spiritual enlightenment.
Mrs Denton claims to be a natural spiritual healer, practising the “Divine science and art of balance”.
She says: “This means that while the innermost layers of a person are balanced and energised, a sense of being more at peace with oneself and the world is achieved.”
Mrs and Mrs Denton’s expertise, it is claimed, helps “broken bones, muscle and tissue damage, and whiplash” to improve faster. She even treats cancer patients.
The group’s website says: “All animals can benefit greatly from healing; domestic and farm animals happily receive healing.”
And even “non-believers” can be helped, although perhaps more slowly than the more enlightened, the website suggests – “The more we believe in it, the faster it works”.
By 1995 the group had moved to its current home, the so called “Mother” centre, at a house called The Dring in the pretty village of Queen Camel.
According to Pauline Allen, a trustee of the charity in the early 1990s, the property, on Laurel Lane, was donated to the organisation by Joyce Pratt, a wealthy local woman and early disciple of Mrs Denton’s, who has since died.
By then, the Dentons had sold a bungalow they lived in Launceston, Cornwall, which was owned by the charity, for around £200,000, and the first healing centre in Castle Cary had also been vacated.
However, company records show that by now the charity owned freehold properties for which it had paid £1.2 million had and £320,000 in the bank.
It was also expanding, spending £123,000 to buy a property in Christchurch, New Zealand, to establish a centre there and another “independent” centre had opened in Australia.
In the UK, land registry documents suggest that some of the pretty cottages and the new healing centre in Queen Camel were at one time owned by the Dentons themselves.
But by 1995 all four had been transferred to the ownership of the charity in its new name The Self Realization Healing Centre Charitable Trust. The houses were now occupied by members of what it calls the “Alpha–Omega family”, who include Mr and Mrs Denton, and others who have trained to continue their work.
The charity said the ownership transfer had been a mere formality. But at around that time the Denton’s charity began to face troubles.
Dr Yehu Azaz and his wife Lisanne had become members of the Family and given the trust hundreds of thousands of pounds. Most of the cash was from Mrs Azaz’s inheritance.
When the couple split, Mrs Azaz left the group and demanded her money back. The 1996 and 1997 accounts show the huge cost of this litigation.
The trust lost a High Court battle over the money and in all it had to pay out more than £1 million. Mrs Azaz was awarded £690,000 in refunded donations and interest and the charity paid out £369,000 in legal costs.
Last year Dr Azaz also sued. He had helped the trust fight his estranged wife’s claim but now he too claimed that he had been brainwashed into handing over £750,000 and sued for £2 million in damages.
The surgeon claimed he had signed over his entire in the early 1990s under “undue influence” but the case collapsed on the basis that he had waited too long to bring his action.
Another setback came when Mrs Allen, 82, resigned as a trustee in protest at the way the centre was being run. She told The Sunday Telegraph: “I think they brainwash you. They condition you.
“They gave lectures on how you mustn’t hoard, how you must give to the needy. It was very subtle.
“The group was always pleading poverty. They would never let us see the accounts. Then I found out their income was £2 million, and that money was going abroad.
“I felt very used. I was a pleasant woman who they could count on for my support.
“At first I did support them. Peter and Rena were gifted healers. I believed in what they were doing. They helped my daughter who suffered migraines.
“Then Rena became a guru and it all went wrong. It became about just about money.
“I started asking questions about the money and they accused me of undermining the centre.”
The trust’s current financial disclosures show it has largely recovered from the legal battle. Filed before Mr Curtis’ successful claim on his former home, it shows total assets of £2.1 million.
The trust describes Mr Curtis’ former home, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, as a sister retreat from where, every evening, a “winged prayer” is sent out “to all souls in need”.
It values it at £451,000 and the “Mother” centre, which has recently installed a swimming pool and has vast gardens where the group grow prize plants shown at local horticultural shows, at £1.5 million.
In 2010 cash donations from individuals almost topped £50,000 and healing, yoga course and its side line in bed and breakfast accommodation brought in near £200,000.
Among the B&B’s offered is Mr and Mrs Denton’s one-time home, Owl Cottage, which the trust describes as “a 17th century cottage in the picturesque and peaceful village ... (which) sleeps 4-6. Ideal for holiday accommodation, or those seeking a quiet retreat or short break.
“It is equipped with an electric cooker, fridge with freezer compartment, washing machine, radio cassette and CD player, DVD facilities (please note TV access is not permitted.)”
Drinking coffee and wearing shoes are also banned on the premises and at the other houses at the Mother centre.
The charity’s international influence has also continued to grow. As well as the centre in New Zealand, which it run by the Dentons, and the sister centre in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, it also has other retreats in Vancouver, Canada and Michigan, USA.
Describing her attitude to donations in her autobiography, entitled Come – A Spiritual Journey, Mrs Denton says: “My belief in giving anything at all to anyone, from friendship to money, is that it should be given freely, without restrictions, or not given at all because by imposing petty restrictions, it stints the personal thinking of the person receiving it and the giver receives power, instead of an opening of the heart, alongside good, positive karma.”
Last night Mrs Denton was unavailable for comment. Mr Denton, answering the door at a cottage called Daoseva on the Queen Camel estate, said she “was around from time to time” but was “not available at the moment”.
Robert Soper, a neighbour, said: “The woman behind it all was involved in a healing place up in Castle Cary. Then suddenly they got all this money and bought this big house down the lane. You can see they’ve spent a fortune down there.”
Another resident, who did not want to be named, said the organisation appeared to be “quite hierarchical”.
“You speak to some of the people there and ask them if they want to take part in a village event, and they say they don’t know if they can.
“You get the feeling they are controlled by a guiding brain down there.”
In January this year, a member of the Family approached the last remaining private resident on Laurel Lane in a bid to buy his orchard.
The neighbour, who asked not to be named, said: “Every two or three years they ask me to sell the orchard to them. Every time I say no. It’s a quarter of an acre or so. I think they want to put goats or chickens on it.”
Last night a spokesman for the Charity Commission said: “The Charity Commission is aware of this week’s court ruling concerning the Self Realization Meditation Healing Centre. We are currently assessing whether there is a regulatory role for the Charity Commission in this matter.”
It said that “as part of this process” it was also examining details of previous legal actions against the charity in the light of the new judgement and other aspects of its financial dealings.
Solicitor Edward Yell, of Carter Ruck, which represents the charity, said: “The idea the Charity Commission didn’t know about (about previous litigation) is completely wrong.
After that litigation was concluded the Charity Commission looked at the circumstances of that case and there was no finding of wrong doing but (asked) that accounting procedures (at the charity) should be tightened up.”

Monday, 10 January 2011

High-rollers turn tables on casinos

They bet millions of pounds on the turn of a card or the drop of a roulette ball and are the gamblers that exclusive casinos love to court.

Casino Royale, the Ian Fleming novel made into a film, was thought to be based on an Aspinall casino
Casino Royale, the Ian Fleming novel made into a film, was thought to be based on an Aspinall casino Photo: ALLSTAR
When they are on a losing streak, the so-called Whales — the big players in the gambling world — can lose a fortune in a few short hours, boosting their host’s profits.
Recently the world’s high rollers appear to have been on a winning streak – and London’s top casinos have been hit.
Just before Christmas one of the capital’s gaming clubs lost £12 million to one wealthy sheikh in a couple of hours.
The accounts of another casino — Aspinall’s — show that profits have been hit by an unusually high number of wins by its clients.
After a run of “bad luck” the casino has been put up for sale by its owner Damian Aspinall, the son of the late John Aspinall, bringing an end to the family’s interests in high end gaming.
The Aspers Group, which runs the Mayfair club and three modern casinos in Newcastle, Swansea and Northampton, reported an overall loss of £12 million on top of a £19.4 million deficit the previous year.
It was also in breach of its loan agreements with the Royal Bank of Scotland and its total debts climbed to £55 million – up £15 million in just 12 months.
Last July it signed a refinancing deal with the bank, reducing the RBS loans from £33 million to £24 million.
A report, signed by Mr Aspinall last July blamed the London casino’s losses on the success of the high rollers winning big at its tables.
All casinos’ profits are based on the drop and win ratios — how much clients bring to the club and how much of this ends up in the club’s coffers. The Gambling Commission, the watchdog that oversees gaming in Britain, said the six “high end” casinos in the West End saw clients buy £1 billion worth of chips to play at the gambling tables last year. Out of this huge sum, they lost £151 million to the casinos — a “house win” or “percentage drop” of 15 per cent.
According to the Aspinall’s directors’ report, the company’s “London casino sustained a prolonged low hold percentage of half the normal rate for almost the entire financial year”.
With it paying nearly £2 million for the lease on its Georgian mansion in Mayfair — where John Aspinall opened the club in 1992 — and facing group staff costs of £17 million and gaming duty of nearly £10 million, the big wins of the its wealthy clients “had a direct effect on the profitability of the business”.
The report warns: “All high end casinos experience periods of volatility in their hold percentage, due to runs of bad luck.”
After the disastrous year, Aspinall’s bank has imposed strict covenants on the group which require regular checks on its financial performance and the possibility that its loans could be called in.
In the 1960s it was dukes, earls and cabinet ministers, who made their way to the exclusive gaming tables in Mayfair. Aspinall’s Clermont Club, which John Aspinall sold in 1972, is believed to have been the basis for Casino Royale in the James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.
Today’s Whales tend to be secretive Chinese, Russian, Asian and Arab billionaires who can lose millions at the tables without breaking sweat.
The Saudi Arabian entrepreneur Adnan Khashoggi has been a regular big player at the top London clubs for many years. Other names whose win/loss positions have reputedly moved in the multiple millions in a single night include the Malaysian tycoons Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay and Quek Leng Chan, and Indonesia’s Putera Sampoerna. Other prominent members in the West End include Pini Zahavi, a football “super-agent”.
Now Damian Aspinall, a regular in the gossip columns after a string of relationships with glamorous women, including the TV presenter Donna Air, with whom he has a daughter, and the model Naomi Campbell, has decided to sell Aspinall’s.
He confirmed the scale of the club’s debts but said it was not unusual for a casino business.
He said: “You are talking about a business that has £250 million a year drop (the money staked by its clients). So it is a bit circular. You are looking at unlucky years. That is the business we are in.
“Anyone in the business with high value VIP tables will have years when you do well and years when they don’t do well because it is volatile.”
Asked about the house’s performance last year, he added: “That’s completely normal. You are talking about a volatile business.”
He said over a 10-year period Aspinall’s was winning 18 per cent of the money gambled at its tables. But he added: “You have years when you do nine per cent and years when you do 24 per cent.”
The most recent available accounts for the club are for 2009 and Mr Aspinall said the club was now doing better.
He said that despite his plan to move away from the elite clubs founded by his father such businesses would not die out. “I think there is a future,” he said.
“You have got to be grown up about those sorts of investments. You lose £10 million one week, and win £8 million the next. It is part of the business. When you lose these amounts it is a knock for the casino concerned, but you have weeks like that. We also had a week where we won £11 million in six days. It is big numbers these days. The winners could be three people over a number of days, it can be one person in one night. There are plenty of players all over the world who have won and lost that sort of money in a night.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Heathrow bosses knew an inch of snow would cripple airport

Heathrow Airport closed its runways, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers, because its "winter resilience" contingency plan was only designed to keep the airport fully operational if less than an inch of snow fell.

Heathrow Airport closed its runways, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers, because its
Hundreds of flights were cancelled at Heathrow Photo: AP
Britain's transport authorities knew the airport did not have the equipment, the manpower, or the crucial chemical de-icers to cope with the six inches of snow that fell on Saturday Dec 18, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose. The airport was forced to shut the southern runway indefinitely to concentrate its limited snow-clearing resources on the northern runway.
The decision meant that the southern runway was shut for almost four days, leading to the cancellation of 2,000 flights and huge delays for hundreds of others. Many flights were still being delayed and cancelled six days later.
Our investigation can reveal that Heathrow:
* Regarded more than "two centimetres" (0.8 inches) of "continuous snow" as blizzard conditions and grounds to suspend flight operations indefinitely.
* Had only 10 snow sweepers and three airfield de-icers available to clear the runways despite publicly claiming it had 60 such vehicles.
* Previously notified the Government and the aviation authorities of its limited snow clearing capabilities.
* Ruled out the Civil Aviation Authority's offer to relax its rules on runway clearance which would have allowed planes to take off and land without clearing all the snow.
* Ordered in emergency supplies of runway de-icer because it had insufficient stocks to clear both runways.
Last week, David Cameron, said he was "frustrated" that it had taken "so long for the situation to improve" and even offered servicemen to help clear the snow.
But Heathrow's limited "plan" to deal with snow should not have been a surprise to the Government, as it was drawn up under orders from the Department of Transport and Philip Hammond, its Conservative Secretary of State.
The airport agreed the plan following the Government's "Winter Resilience Review" in July which was set up after last winter's weather chaos. Heathrow said it was "sourcing additional snow clearing vehicles; additional de-icer providers for greater certainty of supply (and) had increased its storage capacity for de-icing products".
Heathrow's "Snow Plan" came into force on Nov 1. It warns: "Extended runway sweeping and ploughing required with extended restricted runway operations and possible full closure". It adds: "In the event of significant snowfall … aircraft operations my be suspended indefinitely."
The report makes it clear that Heathrow relies on 17 vehicles to keep its runways and taxiways clear of snow and ice. The airport has just 10 "Sicard" snow sweepers, three airfield de-icers and four airfield apron de-icers.
The details in the report contradict a statement released in November that claimed there were "60 vehicles" to keep "the runways clear". In fact, most of the equipment is designed to clear snow from aircraft parking stands, passenger walkways and airside roads.
Despite the Government ordering Heathrow to update its snow plan last summer it showed few changes from the previous year's version. Crucially the airport had not added to it's runway clearing equipment.
According to the Snow Plan, the "immediate aim is to keep the runway(s), associated exits and entry points for the runway(s) in use". It adds "runway(s) will be cleared first".
Last week Heathrow managers abandoned this aspect of the plan, deciding to leave the southern runway uncleared and closed to flights for almost a week.
This decision ended the hopes of at least half the passengers stranded at the airport hoping to take off for their holidays. The reason was that the airport had no means to ensure the runways would stay open if more than an inch of snow fell. The internal report makes clear the size of the task facing the airport in clearing the two centimetre (0.8 inches) snowfall it had planned for. It says: "Dry snow can have a weight of 300kg per cubic metre but wet snow/slush can approach 1 ton per cubic metre and is also much more difficult to sweep.
"Heathrow airport's runway(s) covered to a depth of 2cm (0.8 inches) of wet snow … will require the removal of almost 5,300 tonnes of snow … the area of the airfield from which snow must be removed to facilitate aircraft operations is 1,688,460sq/m (417 acres)."
Faced with more than 12,000 tons of snow, Heathrow's plans were hopelessly inadequate.
Last November, Heathrow had boasted that it had been "working for months to ensure the UK's hub airport would once again be prepared for the onset of winter".
The press release boasted of "an extra half million pounds of investment", "specialist teams (of) 50 highly trained staff" and "more than 60 hi-tech vehicles".
It added: "While London may have run out of grit last winter, Heathrow is determined that it doesn't run out of the highly concentrated de-icing fluid it uses on the runways". Heathrow boasted it had storage for 500,000 litres – almost 500 tons – of de-icer.
It was not prepared last week to say how much glycol de-icer it had in its storage tanks when the snow hit. What should have happened is that, with snow forecast, de-icing vehicles should have been dispatched to spray every inch of the airfield.
The chemical works better before ice forms and protects the runway from damage caused by ice crystals building up in its structure.
With snow falling the snow sweepers take over, clearing the runway of snow and ice.
What is clear, is that by Saturday afternoon managers were desperately calling its two glycol suppliers attempting to secure further stocks.
Glycol is imported from Europe. Heathrow's main supplier, the Seattle-based chemical distribution company Univar, refused to discuss the Heathrow situation but said it was meeting "dramatically increased demand" and had "sent staff to work with BAA (to) provide additional technical support".
A second supplier, Wakefield-based Brotherton, is understood to have also been asked for emergency supplies and has sent the airport an additional
28 tons since last weekend.
There are also questions about whether Heathrow could have remained open despite having snow on the runways. Britain, unlike countries more used to snow, has operated a "back to blacktop" policy requiring all snow and ice to be cleared off runways and other manoeuvring areas before flights can go ahead.
But in October, the Civil Aviation Authority issued a notice relaxing these rules. It said: "Although this is seen as the best scenario, there may be circumstances where it is better to keep the runway open."
This option was rejected by the airport operators.
Last night a spokesman for Heathrow said: "These procedures were considered but given the shifting conditions we faced on the day, we could not have operated safely and that is our overriding priority."
The spokesman said Heathrow had been "told to expect snowfall in varying amounts on Saturday" and "de-icing fluid was laid on the airfield one hour before it snowed. "The issue was not de-icer," he said. "It is untrue that we have run out of de-icer or failed to order enough.
"On Saturday Heathrow received between 5 to 6 inches of snow over a very quick period of time. De-icer is only effective on snow of approximately one-inch thick, after this snow needs to be physically cleared.
"To do this it is necessary to close the airport as it would be very unsafe to have people and snow clearing machinery at work while aircraft are landing and taking off. It would be very unsafe for aircraft to manoeuvre on snow and ice.
"We have accepted that we need to review the equipment and machinery in place to enable us to deal with the extreme weather conditions experienced on Saturday more effectively."
Last week BAA said it would make £10 million available to buy new snow clearing vehicles and launch an inquiry into what went wrong in the pre-Christmas snowstorm.

Tony Blair makes £710,000 from mysterious web of companies

Tony Blair made made a profit of at least £710,000 last year from a mysterious web of companies set up to further his business interests, it can be revealed.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair on a visit to Kuwait this year. In the 11 months up to 31 March, his company's net assets increased to 2.159 million pounds 

The former prime minister's companies also declared net assets of £2.2 million - four times what they were worth last year - suggesting Mr Blair's "pulling power" is as strong as ever.
The profits, funnelled through an "opaque" and highly complex web of financial structures, was declared to Companies House as it closed for business for Christmas last week.
The money is believed to have come from his often controversial private work, including his six-figure speaking fees, his banking and insurance consultancies, including work for JP Morgan, and his pay from advising Middle Eastern and African regimes.
Mr Blair - who has made at least £20million since leaving Downing Street - has a commercial consultancy, called Tony Blair Associates, plus paid jobs advising a US bank and a Swiss insurer.
In addition, millions of pounds have passed through two parallel company structures, called Windrush Ventures and Firerush Ventures, in the last three years.
Mr Blair has so far refused to discuss what these financial structures, centered on a pair of mysterious limited partnerships, are for.
What Firerush does is still a mystery, the several companies linked to Mr Blair with that name have yet to make any financial declarations.
However the company accounts give some insight into the group of Windrush firms and the cash they generated during the 11-month period up to the end of March this year.
The Windrush firms appear to oversee his international work, both private and public.
One company Windrush Ventures Limited pays for Blair's £550,000 five-year-lease on his Mayfair office, in Grosvenor Square near the US embassy.
Last year it also took out an additional £12,000 lease, although it is unclear what this was for, and spent nearly £200,000 on IT and telecoms equipment.
The firm also charges other parts of the business empire £5.2 million a year for undisclosed "management services".
The company is personally owned by Mr Blair. The limited financial information available under company law shows that more than £5 million has been passed through several other Windrush partnerships to the firm during the last year.
In the 11 months up to 31 March 2010, the firm's net assets increased from £633,000 to £2.159 million. In the same period its profits increased from £357,000 in the previous year to £710,000.
The public declarations come in the wake of claims that Mr Blair is earning up to £100,000 for making guest appearance and was paid a reported £600,000 signing on fee by the prestigious Washington Speakers Bureau.
He is also said to have earned around £6 million in consultancy fees, including £500,000 a year from Zurich Financial Services, £2 million from JP Morgan, the investment bank, and another £1 million from the Kuwaiti Royal Family.
As a former Prime Minister he also gets money from the public purse, including a £63,468 pension and an £84,000-a-year office allowance.
Earlier this year it was also revealed that the police bodyguards protecting the former prime minister were costing the taxpayer £250,000 a year in expenses.
The confusion over the role of Mr Blair's firms is increased by the fact that, in the past, they have also been used to handle some charitable donations for projects in Africa.
A Sainsbury family charity, the Gatsby foundation, declared it has paid a total of £992,000 to the Windrush limited partnership. This was for charitable projects in Rwanda, in the two financial years to April 2009.
The Gates foundation, funded by the founder of Microsoft, declares it paid $2.46m (£1.49m) to the Windrush LP in June 2008, for similar projects in Sierra Leone.
Mr Blair has a series of charities, including the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, and another called the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Mr Blair's office has claimed his companies are set up "sensibly to administer his different projects, in accordance with relevant regulations and company law in the UK.
"He has an operation that has over 80 people working for it around the world. This was done on the basis of advice."
The accounts give no indication of how much Mr Blair pays himself from the fees and other money channelled through his companies.
A spokesman for Tony Blair said: "Tony Blair does not get paid for his role as Quartet Representative, or by any of his charities.
"Tony Blair is a UK resident taxpayer on all of his income, and the Windrush group of entities is UK registered for tax and regulatory purposes."
A footnote on the statements reads: "The Office of Tony Blair is a trading name of Windrush Ventures Limited".
In August Mr Blair said any royalties from his autobiography A Journey - including a reported £4.6m advance - would go to the Royal British Legion's Battle Back Challenge Centre which is set to open in summer 2012 to help former soldiers injured in the Gulf War.