For less than the price of a four-bedroom semi in London you could have, for example, Garlieston House, a huge red brick Victorian edifice at Front Corkickle in Cumbria, approached by a sweeping drive that skirts the walled garden. The sea is on one side, the Lake District on the other, and there are 30 bedrooms - all for around pounds 110,000.
For years Garlieston and many other similarly down-at-heel mansions have hovered unwanted on the fringes of the market, eyesores on the estate agents' books that nobody wanted to go near. Yet as 1993 came to a close there was a sudden, frantic surge in sales as local councils, who had previously used them as institutions of one kind or another, pushed them into the auction rooms in search of overnight buyers.
The reason was that the Government had offered a financial holiday on capital receipts to local councils. The haste was due to an end-of-year deadline. Councils were allowed to spend all the proceeds from sales completed before the end of December. After that date, only half the sale price could be spent by the council; the rest would have to be used for debt repayment.
So, as 1993 drew to a close, auction catalogues were stuffed with unwanted country houses as councils rummaged in the depths of their property portfolios. For some, millions of pounds were at stake. And the scramble for sales continues in the run-up to the end of the financial year in April, as councils try to balance their books before the next round of Government capping.
Though local authorities have always been known to hold large amounts of real estate, it still comes as something of a surprise that so many grand houses should be in their possession and that they should be in such poor condition. Often bought for use as residential care homes, or homes for the elderly, they are casualties of the Government's policy of care in the community.
'There has always been a flow of these properties coming on the market for nursing home use, but nursing homes are less profitable than they used to be,' said Simon Riggall, auctioneer with Conrad Ritblat Sinclair Goldsmith, estate agents who have cornered this market. 'With the new regulations in force, some of these would now be much more expensive to convert than the building of a new home.'
The mansions often come on to the market with a ragbag of other items from local authority portfolios, the contents of which can be extraordinarily eclectic. 'After the winding-up of the GLC,' said Riggall, 'we found ourselves selling one whole side of Charing Cross Road that had been bought for a road widening scheme that had never taken off. We found they owned the first 20 feet of every shop-front along part of the Strand for the same reason. And half roads - up to the white line in the middle.'
Many councils are relieved to relinquish them because the cost of upkeep can be punishing. 'Some of these places have to have round-the-clock security, so a local authority may run up a pounds 20,000 security bill in a year just to keep one in its portfolio. After two or three years they can find they have spent the entire value of the property just looking after it,' said Riggall.
One security guard employed to keep a night watch at Greystones, a forbidding granite-faced former vicarage at Seaham owned by Durham County Council, became quite convinced there was a ghost walking the premises. The house, with eight bedrooms, sea views and five acres, has now sold for around pounds 200,000 to a buyer who wants to turn it back into a private home.
Without security arrangements, the houses are vulnerable to vandalism. One house with 13 bedrooms in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, which had previously been used as a residential care home, was in very poor condition by the time it came up for auction. The pipes had been ripped out and water had been left to gush through the building. But even this Grade II listed Georgian house with 25 bedrooms found a buyer prepared to pay pounds 105,000.
Many of the houses are not sold at the auctions themselves, but buyers who have had their interest titillated by the publicity of the sale come forward later to close a private deal.
Others wait for someone to breathe life back into them. Derbyshire County Council has not yet managed to sell Grade II listed Rockside Hall in Matlock (100 bedrooms, views of the Peak District) for the required pounds 200,000. Cleveland County Council is still trying to sell Nunthorpe Hall, a beautiful sandstone house with terraced gardens and its own chapel for pounds 350,000. And Scarborough Borough Council has a hotel going for pounds 300,000, all through Conrad Ritblat Sinclair Goldsmith.
Three more imposing mansions in the wilds of Cumbria are also for sale, all costing no more than many ordinary town houses in Clapham might fetch. Orton Park, near Carlisle, is a Grade II listed Georgian mansion with seven bedrooms and a price tag of pounds 150,000; Derwent Lodge, near Cockermouth, with eight bedrooms and set in three-and-a-half acres, is priced at pounds 200,000, and The Towers at Silloth, with sea views and 12 bedrooms, at pounds 130,000.
The auction guide price, however, can sometimes be much lower than the final price achieved. A few of the lots, thrown in with a mixed bag of redundant town halls, police stations and school playing fields, have far exceeded their guide value. Kingswood Nursery in Finchley (which attracted publicity when the children who attended it lodged an appeal in the High Court against the decision to close it) fetched pounds 600,000, twice the pounds 300,000 guide.
And three lots of school playing fields in Darlington fetched pounds 100,000 each, in spite of the fact that they had no planning permission attached. 'This was absolute risk money being spent,' said Riggall. 'The buyers were just buying bits of fields, basically.' Out of such unwanted remnants, however, can come the fortunes of tomorrow. -
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