Saved, but at what cost?
Apethorpe Hall will be restored with taxpayers’ money – and then a private buyer will move in. Ross Clark can’t see the sense in it
From the windows on the east side of Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire, Sir Walter Mildmay, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was able to watch for the carriage procession that marked the arrival of Elizabeth I. It was one of the queen’s favourite overnight stops on the Great North Road: she, James I and Charles I between them made no fewer than 13 visits to what is still acknowledged one of the finest Jacobean houses in England.
Time, however, has not treated Apethorpe Hall well. It has a leaking roof and dry rot; and if you look out from the east windows today, you see not processions of royal carriages, but a row of leylandii trees planted after the adjoining parkland was sold in the 1940s and the house became an approved school.
Better times lie ahead. Last week, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport succeeded in the compulsory purchase of the property for the purpose of preservation under section 47 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. It is only the second time the Government has used these powers. The Grade I listed property, for which the DCMS paid almost £3.2 million, will now be handed over to English Heritage, which plans to spend a further £4 million on essential repairs before seeking a purchaser willing to take on the cost of turning it back into a private residence — and prepared to open it occasionally to the public.
What at first appears a happy story, however, has been fraught with controversy. Put simply, taxpayers will spend more than £7 million on a restoration project that a private buyer was prepared to do at no cost to the public purse. Moreover, the case has acted as a warning to all owners of historic houses of the powers that can be wielded by the Government’s heritage police if they take a fancy to your property.
The story of Apethorpe Hall’s decline begins in 1982, when the approved school in the building closed down. The following year the property was sold to Wanis Mohamed Burweila, a Libyan businessman. He left the building vacant and its condition deteriorated, resulting with him being served in 2001 with a statutory repairs notice — an order by the secretary of state for culture, media and sport to undertake urgent works and so ensure the future of the building. Rather than do so, Mr Burweila decided to sell the property, exchanging contracts on June 19, 2002 with a developer called Kestral Armana Ltd, subsequently renamed Apethorpe Country Estate Ltd (ACEL).
The very next day, in spite of the fact that the building had just changed hands and the new owners were in the process of planning a restoration scheme, the DCMS served a compulsory purchase order on Apethorpe Hall. With the threat of compulsory purchase hanging over the property, ACEL undertook a number of “holding works” to prevent further deterioration of the building and proposed to sell the property on, at a price of £3.1 million, to Simon Karimzadeh, an entrepreneur whose personal wealth has been put at £95 million. Mr Karimzadeh planned to restore the main house as his private residence: a project that, thanks to the poor state of the property, promised to cost him several million more than the end value of the property. In order to help fund the work, Mr Karimzadeh proposed to demolish a sports hall and four 1950s properties that had been built to service the approved school and replace them with 11 new homes. Although development of this kind would not normally be allowed in a rural area such as Apethorpe, it is established practice that exceptions can be made in the case of “enabling developments” that help to fund the restoration of an important building.
The DCMS, however, proceeded with its compulsory purchase, resulting in a 12-day public inquiry in 2004. Mr Karimzadeh, argued the DCMS, was so rich that he could afford to carry out the restoration of the main house without waiting to see whether he could get planning permission for the new homes. After weeks of deliberation, the Government’s planning inspector agreed that the compulsory purchase order should go ahead, although he was severely critical of the DCMS.
There remained the issue of what the DCMS should pay ACEL for the building. Originally it agreed a price of £2.3 million, only to later reduce the price to £1.4 million. After a Lands Tribunal in July, however, the DCMS conceded that the market price for Apethorpe Hall ought to be at least what Mr Karimzadeh had offered to pay ACEL for it in 2003: with interest, taxpayers will now be stumping up £3.18 million, plus substantial costs.
So what, exactly, is the taxpayer getting for his money? He is certainly not going to be making a profit on his investment. While English Heritage has promised there will be public access to Apethorpe Hall, experience of its previous schemes do not suggest that this will amount to much.
Hill Hall, near Epping in Essex, was restored by English Heritage and sold on to a developer in 1998 with a similar promise. According to English Heritage’s website, it is possible to visit the communal areas of the building, which amount largely to a hallway with a rather nice fireplace. However, you can do so only if you are part of a prebooked group and you visit on a Wednesday between April and September — and even then you have to pay £3.
English Heritage is not even promising to save Apethorpe from new housing development. Although its preferred scheme is to sell the house as a single private residence, it has also presented an alternative scheme in case the first plan proves unfeasible. It would use part of the hall for a visitor attraction, split the rest into three dwellings and turn the stables into a further five dwellings.
Undoubtedly, it is to be regretted that in the 1950s and 1960s, when country houses were being demolished by the week, the government was not inclined to step in with powers of compulsory purchase. Back then, it could have made a big difference. But to start doing so now, when private owners are willing to save country houses with their own money, is simply to subsidise the home improvements of the wealthy.
At risk: Apethorpe Hall, near Oundle, Northamptonshire, is described by English Heritage as ‘one of the finest Grade I listed buildings in the country’. It has been listed as a Category A property on the Buildings at Risk register since the list was...