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

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Battlegrou­nds -

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...

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