On a crisp winter’s day, the residents of Hastings enjoyed nothing better than strolling along the resort’s Victorian pier and gazing out at its panoramic views of the English Channel.
But last Saturday, there was an angry protest of about 250 people stretched out in a line from the padlocked wrought-iron gates along the promenade.
The object of their ire was the pier’s new owner, self-styled ‘Sheikh’ Abid Gulzar — a flamboyant businessman disparagingly known as ‘Goldfinger’ because he drives a gold-coloured Mercedes sports car and wears pebble-sized gold rings on each finger.
Protesters are angry Abid Gulzar was allowed to buy Hastings Pier last summer for just £60,000 — despite the fact it had recently been magnificently restored with £14.5 million of public donations and Lottery money. They are incensed he has closed it down for winter
Already appalled he was allowed to buy the Victorian relic last summer for just £60,000 — despite the fact it had recently been magnificently restored with £14.5 million of public donations and Lottery money — they are incensed he has closed it down for winter.
Mr Gulzar claims he was forced to do so because it was unsafe after being targeted by saboteurs and vandals displeased with his tenure. His opponents believe it is a cynical ploy to cut costs during the quiet season. They have many other grievances, accusing him of cheapening the 300-yard pier — whose designers were awarded the Stirling Prize, the architectural equivalent of an Oscar — by festooning the decking with fibreglass zoo animals and playing constant pop music over the loudspeakers, and behaving ‘like an 18th-century mill owner’ to staff.
Indian-born Mr Gulzar counters that there are racial overtones to the campaign against him, depicting his ‘enemies’ as an unruly mob who’d like the pier to be run on ‘donations, grants and government handouts’ and ‘want everything for free’.
Mr Gulzar (pictured) claims the pier was closed as it is unsafe after being targeted by saboteurs
The stand-off has turned so ugly that locals have dubbed it ‘The Battle of Hastings Pier’.
So what do we know about the controversial ‘Goldfinger’? How did he gain astonishingly cheap ownership of this 150-year-old national treasure, with an illustrious history that includes its use as a World War II landing jetty, and as the venue for concerts by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix?
I met Mr Gulzar in the cluttered boardroom of one of two hotels he runs in Eastbourne, 17 miles along the East Sussex coast from Hastings, and where he also owns the pier. Being an inveterate self-publicist, it wasn’t difficult to glean his backstory — or at least his colourful version of it.
Whatever his enemies think, he is certainly an engaging character; a fierce British patriot (a signed portrait of Baroness Thatcher hangs in his hallway) and dandyish dresser with a gold tie adorned with Grenadier Guardsmen.
His penchant for gold (the fake variety) is everywhere — most items in his office appear to be made of the stuff, from elephant-shaped tea-pots and goblets to giant pineapple statues.
He delights in showing off his ten jewel-encrusted (real) gold rings and two chunky gold watches; and wastes no time in mentioning the gold-coloured Mercedes sports car, which was vandalised a few days ago. (A local woman has been charged with the offence, which was apparently unconnected to the pier wrangle.)
In 2008, structural damage forced the pier’s closure and two years later it was almost completely destroyed by fire. The gutted remains of the pier are seen in 2010
After buying Eastbourne Pier — or ‘Sheikh’s Pier’ as a banner proclaimed it — for a reported £1 million, in 2015, Mr Gulzar controversially painted its domes gold and embossed its 50 lamp posts with golden lions (his favourite symbol) without planning permission.
‘I’ve loved gold since I was a child,’ he chuckles. Yet almost in the next breath, he is complaining about his ‘Goldfinger’ nickname, saying it was invented by his enemies to besmirch him.
‘If I liquidated everything, yes I’m worth good money, but in no way am I a multi-millionaire — the man with the gold fingers and gold car,’ he snaps. ‘I mean, it’s crazy? What man has a car made from solid gold? I just covered the Mercedes with gold wallpaper!
‘And these rings: I bought most of them for a few hundred pounds. Who is a multi-millionaire these days, with all the taxes you have to pay, except maybe a bank-robber?’
Rant over, he runs through his biography. Born in 1945 into an entrepreneurial family of Punjabi leather tanners, he attended a Himalayan boarding school and his father served with the distinction in the British Raj.
He arrived in London at 19 and worked in the leather business before buying houses and shops. However, he was ‘disowned’ by his family for marrying a German, with whom he had three children before they divorced 20 years ago. He then wed again and had two more sons.
Tears fall as he recalls how one — a teenage soldier — was mysteriously shot dead when visiting his girlfriend in Switzerland. His third marriage, to a Pakistani woman, was short-lived.
After these marital travails he escaped to Eastbourne and worked ‘seven days a week’ to build his business. ‘For the past 18 years I have lived in the bridal suite at my hotel — without a bride,’ he says balefully.
He admits he is not a genuine sheikh, saying nor does he pretend his business career has always run smoothly. Yet the failings never seem to have been his fault.
However, legal records and Companies House documents reveal his chequered corporate history.
In January 2017, two of his Eastbourne hotel firms — Lions Hotels Ltd and Chatsworth Hotel Ltd — went into liquidation, owing around £2.5 million to creditors.
Mr Gulzar is also sole director of a string of other ‘dormant’ companies which have outstanding county court judgments against them running into many thousands of pounds.
In 2013, he was fined £45,000 and ordered to pay £90,000 costs for damaging a conservation site at Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, where he owned land and had planted non-native trees, and erected various structures without consent.
Then, five years later, a tax tribunal heard how he had racked up debts of £640,000 to HM Customs and Revenue. Mr Gulzar assures me he has paid off all these sums.
Mr Gulzar — a flamboyant businessman disparagingly known as ‘Goldfinger’ because he drives a gold-coloured Mercedes sports car and wears pebble-sized gold rings on each finger.
In Eastbourne, he seems to be a well-liked figure, praised for his charity work. His decision to ban dog-walkers, picnickers and fishermen from the pier did not go down well, though, despite the National Piers Society being impressed by the improvements he has made.
‘There was a big risk at the time that the pier could close,’ says chairman Timothy Wardley. ‘Mr Gulzar has proved himself to be a highly competent owner. He continues to invest heavily on repairs and new attractions. I have always found him very well-intentioned on the community side of things.’
A glowing testimony. Why, then, is he so unpopular in Hastings?
Well, in a struggling town with high levels of deprivation, driving around in a gold Merc can’t help. But the main concern is his stewardship of the pier. For many years it was run by an offshore Panamanian company and fell into disrepair. In 2008, structural damage forced its closure and two years later it was almost completely destroyed by fire.
A community group raised almost £600,000 and secured a further £14m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to save it. The resulting facelift, by London-based architects dRMM, was deemed ‘a masterpiece of regeneration and inspiration’ by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Its running was entrusted to the Hastings Pier Charity, whose noble aim was to turn its vast, open decking into a ‘community space’ — but, much as locals liked the idea, it failed to generate sufficient income. By November 2017, it entered insolvency and administrators Smith & Williamson sought a buyer. They say they received ‘five firm bids’, including one from a community group, Friends of Hastings Pier (FOHP). Mr Gulzar’s initial gambit was just £30,000, which he doubled after FOHP — who’d amassed a war-chest of £750,000 and had an impressive five-year development plan — opened with an offer of £55,000.
He was awarded ownership, and there was astonishment that he had paid so little for a pier that cost the public £14 million.
The borough council leader complained and FOHP have called for a parliamentary inquiry, enlisting the help of local MP and Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd. She was at Saturday’s protest, as was Gulzar himself.
In the latest edition of Architects’ Journal, dRMM’s founding director Alex de Rijke voices his shock and dismay. Last week, however, Smith & Williamson defended their decision, which they said was taken in consultation with the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Mr Gulzar’s offer had been ‘carefully reviewed’, they told the Mail, and his ability to transact quickly at a time when the pier was making huge losses — together with his ‘proven track record’ — had counted in his favour.
The backlash against Mr Gulzar began the night the deal was signed, last June. According to Steve Wilkins, 52, then the pier’s duty supervisor, the new owner’s first act was to muster the staff — numbering more than 40 — and call them ‘scruffy’.
Mr Wilkins, who had worked as a volunteer at the pier, resigned three days later, followed by a steady procession of colleagues, appalled by the allegedly ‘dictatorial’ style of the new boss and his low-brow vision for the ‘people’s pier’.
At least five former members of staff have taken Mr Gulzar’s company, Lions Hastings Pier Ltd, to an employment tribunal, among them former functions organiser Debbie Grant, who was awarded more than £3,000 in holiday pay and unauthorised wage deductions. Mr Gulzar intends to appeal the judgment.
Cases have also been lodged by Peter Wheeler, 63, a respected engineer who’d worked at the pier for five years and played a key part in its restoration, plus two members of his team. They have raised £7,500 by crowdfunding to pay their legal fees.
Sheikh Abid Gulzar owner of Hastings Pier faced the protestors with local MP Amber Rudd asking questions about it’s sudden closure
Bizarrely, sources say one woman staff member will allege — among other things — that Mr Gulzar offered her extra money to flounce around the pier deck dressed as Marilyn Monroe!
He has dismissed this as ‘absolute nonsense’ but admitted asking staff to enlarge an old photograph of Monroe which was pinned up on the ice-cream kiosk. However, Mr Wheeler says the main reason
staff left was because the new owner declined to pay for vital maintenance to protect the pier’s cast-iron ‘legs’ – which have withstood the tide since the 1870s — from corrosion.
Up to £70,000 a year should have been set aside for maintenance, he said, but in four months, Mr Gulzar forked out just £395. ‘Everyone gave him a chance after he got control, but we loved the pier so much that what he was doing was just disheartening,’ Mr Wheeler said. ‘Everything that was aspirational about the project was suddenly washed away.’
Mr Gulzar strenuously denies all these claims. On a tour of the deserted pier with him, he spoke grimly of the supposed plot to undermine him.
It began, he says, with pilfering by former staff and grew more serious when vandals removed caps from sewage pipes, smashed the navigational light that wards boats away from the pier, and daubed the entrance sign with graffiti (‘Fake Sheikh’ being one of the more printable insults).
Then, in November, a fire broke out in the pavilion restaurant — fortunately it was quickly extinguished. Mr Gulzar is convinced it was arson although Sussex Police say it was caused by an ‘electrical fault’ which was not ‘suspicious’. The most recent incident occurred a day or two before New Year, when burglars broke into the office, stealing a computer and breaking into the heavy iron safe to take a few pounds before dumping it over the railings. It lies rusting on the beach. By then, Mr Gulzar had closed the pier, claiming the saboteurs had rendered it unsafe.
Over 100 protestors gathered on Hastings Pier when it was sold earlier this year to Mr Gulzar
According to Mr Gulzar’s public relations man — who styles himself as ‘Lord’ Brett McLean, claiming he was bequeathed his title by a former Hastings councillor — it will re-open on Valentine’s Day. Then, he promises, townsfolk would begin to appreciate the pier’s new owner. There would be new huts selling traditional seaside fare, a dome for concerts and a jetty for boat trips to Eastbourne Pier.
But he had to make a profit, so, yes, there might be a slot machine arcade, too. ‘People are attacking Mr Gulzar unfairly — he really does have a heart of gold — no pun intended,’ smiled the so-called lord.
Listening to this, his boss nods in approval. He wants to secure the pier’s legacy, he insists, and it will take more than a group of malcontents to deter him.
‘They call themselves Friends of Hastings, but I am the real friend of this town because I put my money where my mouth is,’ he says. Gazing defiantly across the Channel as the crimson sun sets, this stand-off reminds me of the another Battle of Hastings — the one in 1066. And we all know what a bloody affair that was.
- Additional reporting by Tim Stewart and Nadene Ghouri.