It’s a truth universally acknowledged, at least among the landed classes, that owning and running a large stately pile is a considerable financial burden.
When the producers of ITV’s Downton Abbey first approached the Earl of Carnarvon in 2009 about a filming location, Highclere Castle was facing a £12 million repair bill, of which £1.8 million was needed urgently. Over at Blenheim Palace, it costs an astonishing £1 million just to paint the doors and windows (exterior only).
Gentle asset stripping is one route towards paying for a new roof: in 2015, the Howard family raised £12 million at Sotheby’s to fund repairs for Castle Howard in Yorkshire and secure the long-term future of the estate. These days, it is popular to run some sort of income-generating business from such property — from hosting weddings to fashion shoots and music concerts.
The Earl of March, who brilliantly runs the Goodwood Estate on the Sussex Downs, is one of the most successful landed entrepreneurs, with a hugely popular race course and annual festivals of classic and vintage cars, as well as a golf club, a hotel and an organic farm.
With a firm eye on income generation, and another on Britain’s shortage of housing, and maybe even a feudal hangover over responsibility for providing housing for local people, landowners are beginning to release acres for house building. However, instead of selling land to the highest bidder and watching the village revolt as a drab, red-brick estate destroys their neighbourhood, landowners are being more strategic.
Classical architect Hugh Petter, of ADAM Architecture, has designed 20,000 to 25,000 houses on landed estates across the country. “With a different way of going into contract with house-building firms — selling land off in phases, with the landowner retaining control by signing off every stage — the landowners can control the quality of the outcome and husband the long-term value, both social and economic.”
Other architectural practices and designers favoured for schemes include Ben Pentreath, John Simpson and ESHA. Landowners are keen to follow Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall model — particularly his Nansledan scheme, the 218-acre extension to Newquay which has been dubbed the “Poundbury of Cornwall”, a project which will deliver 4,000 houses on farmland over a 40-year lifespan. At its core is a commitment to spend the money in Cornwall, using local labour and materials and a pattern book with typical Cornish vernacular details, as well as providing schools, surgeries and green spaces.
The plans include setting up a town farm in some listed buildings to provide food for residents of the development. The plan has been met by very little local objection and new home buyers like it, especially as resale prices are generally higher than those in neighbouring areas.
The Government’s recent housing White Paper didn’t, believes Petter, look hard enough at the underlying issues of the causes of the crisis: the lamentable quality of much new-build development, 80 per cent of which is currently delivered by volume house builders with short-term investment cycles.
Nicholas Boys Smith, of the social enterprise Create Streets, agrees: “Politicians trying to solve the housing crisis have been asking the wrong questions. Instead of, ‘How do we build more homes?’, they should have been asking, ‘How do we make new homes more attractive?’.”
To a certain degree, the answer is by reassuring locals that their opinions will be taken into consideration and that the new builds will fit in with the existing town or village. “No one wants a Little Chef in their back yard,” says Tom Hudson, of Middleton Advisors.
Jamie Blandford, dubbed the “Duke of Mortar”, plans to build 1,600 homes on the edge of Woodstock, part of his Blenheim estate, eventually doubling the size of the town.
An original proposal met with fierce objection from the town, but has since been revised and the first tranche of 300 houses, built by a local builder with Cotswold stone, with small shops and offices based around a neighbourhood square, have just been given the green light by a vote of 9-2.
Property director Roger File says: “We’re doing our best to ensure that this development will be to the benefit of everyone in Woodstock.’’
A study by The Prince’s Foundation, Building a Legacy, concludes that this approach also makes financial sense. “Building popular places can benefit the landowner and the people who make a better profit through enhanced resale values, in some cases 20 or 30 per cent more than a standard builder’s scheme over a three-year period. We are building a community, not just houses,” says senior director Ben Bolgar.