'Disgrace' of ruined Austen film house

Mansion that 'starred' in Sense and Sensibility could be saved by compulsory purchase after years of neglect
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The owners of the 18th-century London mansion used in the film of Sense and Sensibility may be forced to sell following accusations of "disgraceful neglect" by English Heritage.

In a highly unusual move, the quango announced yesterday that it had started proceedings for the compulsory purchase of Chandos House, built by Robert Adam in 1770 off Portland Place, central London.

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, said: "We have taken this exceptional measure because we are not prepared to see this outstanding building suffer any longer from disgraceful neglect."

It is only the second time English Heritage has issued such an order, and follows the failure of Fairgate Investments, the building's owner, to comply with a repairs order to what is one of London's finest town houses.

However, the property company - chaired by a Nigerian chieftain, Chief Akindele - immediately announced that it had started a programme of repairs to make the Grade I-listed house "wind and watertight".

Its move follows years of neglect of Chandos House, which Fairgate Investments bought for pounds 6m in 1988, at the height of the property boom.

The company obtained permission to turn the house, which featured as John and Fanny Dashwood's town house in Sense and Sensibility, into a luxury hotel. But investment was not forthcoming, and for the past five years Chandos House has lain empty, an expensive white elephant.

Meanwhile the interior has deteriorated to the point where extensive dry rot threatens to spread into the finely decorated principal rooms. Cracks on the wall suggest structural damage, and in April last year thieves stole four Adam fireplaces from the house.

Last February English Heritage was so concerned by the dilapidation of the house that it gave Fairgate two months to carry out the pounds 900,000 repairs to the roof, dry rot and cracked walls.

Nothing was done until yesterday, when Michael Simmons, Fairgate's solicitor, said that scaffolding was going up on the house and that work would begin right away.

If the work is done to English Heritage's satisfaction, it will avert a crisis which could have resulted in the forced sale of the mansion at a price suggested by an independent assessor.

Chandos House was built for the third Duke of Chandos, and between 1815 and 1871 was used as the embassy for the Austro-Hungarian empire, notably lavish parties by Prince Esterhazy, the ambassador. It was last used as a headquarters for the Royal Medical Association.

Fairgate Investments, meanwhile, is suing a security company for pounds 1.5m following the theft of the four fireplaces.