Country life in the big smoke

Like to reside in a quiet, relaxing, safe environment? Then come to the city, says Robert Nurden
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The Independent Online
FOR TOWNIES, one positive outcome of last weekend's countryside march was the realisation that living in the city is, perhaps, not quite so dreadful after all. If the green welly brigade can travel hundreds of miles just to tramp the pavements of the capital and bemoan their fate then maybe life in the country is not all it's cracked up to be.

Clearly, all is not well in the shires. There are genuine fears that large tracts of land are about to be eaten up by estates in a bid to cure the housing shortage. Average incomes in the countryside are much lower than in the towns. Public transport is invariably dire and using the car is no real substitute since roads are becoming increasingly clogged. Add to that the threatened rise in the cost of fuel in the Chancellor's forthcoming Budget and you have a smouldering tinderbox of green belt discontent.

As a result, residing in the city (something advocated by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott) may well have become the sensible option. Architects are starting to respond to this urban rebirth by providing a new kind of safe housing - the gated development.

Marco Goldschmied, of the Richard Rogers Partnership, says developments such as the soon- to-be-built Montevetro, a 103-apartment block bordering the Thames at Battersea, "meet the needs of a particular social group, affluent, mobile, cosmopolitan in outlook and not content to decamp to the suburbs."

Gated developments, in which security considerations are paramount, take many forms. There are the upmarket "loft living" conversions that have become de rigueur in New York and are now taking off here; there are swanky, state-of-the-art design-led creations; and there are the exclusive, out- of-town estates with all the facilities of a city development.

The thinking goes like this: today's hard-working thirty-somethings come home late, shattered and stressed from a day at the office. As they take the lift upstairs, the last thing they want to worry about is whether the flat's been broken into. And once inside, the home environment should be quiet, relaxing and comfortable.

"These days those in employment work longer and harder than people used to," says Harry Downes, sales director of the Manhattan Loft Corporation, a leading developer in this kind of home. "They want to return to an environment that is easy to live in and stress free."

Gated developments employ the latest security technology: CCTV cameras, sensor beams, pressure pads and smart cards to ward off intruders. Since some of these swish developments are situated in quite run-down areas (developers buy up cheap land to save costs), the best anti-burglary devices are essential.

Allied to the new technology is a round-the-clock concierge, caretaker or building manager. The bespoke service even extends to, say, buying a pint of milk for a resident flying in late at night from a business trip after the shops have closed; a chambermaid service for ironing shirts; or ordering a taxi to take someone out to a restaurant.

"If someone loses a key it's a constant source of worry until, at great inconvenience and expense, the locks are changed. But if you lose a smart card, you just zero the code and use another one. Hey presto, no stress," says Mr Downes.

Underground car-parkingwith entrance barriers operated by identity cards helps to reduce residents' security fears. Once inside the building, there is no need to go out again as access to the apartment is by lift through the body of the building.

Extending the stress-free theme, the flashiest of these developments will have a health and fitness suite, swimming pool, spa, sauna, and jacuzzi, as well as laying on fitness classes and personal exercise programmes. There may be suites for aromatherapy, massage, and beauty treatments. The less abstemious may prefer a bar on the premises, or a restaurant, supermarket or shopping mall.

Large complexes with everything on site are the way of the future, according to Alasdair Nicholls, managing director of Taylor Woodrow Capital Developments. "We have tended to build projects which effectively create their own environments," he says. "Kensington Green [in London], for example, is not on a roadside, not squeezed in between other buildings, but is of sufficient scale to create its own ambience and contain all the amenities people value, such as offstreet parking, leisure facilities, security and porterage. All this comes under a sensible management structure."

Today's gated complexes invariably have flexibility built into their specifications, providing the owner with room for creativity within the house. At Bankside Lofts, near London's Blackfriars Bridge, purchasers have a choice. They can either start with a clean canvas by buying a shell loft and then customising the layout, room divisions, design and decoration to their own taste. Or they can buy a finished loft designed by in-house architects, and, in consultation with designers, decide which kind of fitted kitchen, floors, tiles and colour scheme they want. As one resident said: "It's like Lego for grown-ups."

Today's high-speed achiever wants good transport connections, but that needn't mean a city centre. The Virginia Park development at Virginia Water, Surrey, is minutes from motorways and airports. "A high proportion of our residents work at the airports," says Graham Weiss, land and sales director of Octagon Developments. "So it's an ideal location for them. They also benefit from having the best of urban facilities in a countryside setting."

The centre piece of the 24-acre Virginia Park is the 19th-century Gothic revival masterpiece, all turrets and crenellations, which was built as an asylum in 1873. Its great hall, with its magnificent hammerbeam roof, now acts as private concert hall, art gallery, sports centre or function room while its smaller cousin, the old dining hall, houses the gymnasium, spa, jacuzzi, sauna and the country's only Grade One Listed swimming pool. The old chapel houses another multi-purpose sports hall, and there are tennis courts, landscaped gardens and a village green.

There are three-storey townhouses, with conservatories and private gardens, penthouse suites and period-style modern houses and apartments situated around the old block; prices range from pounds 250,000 to pounds 750,000. Its seems safe to assume that residents of Virginia Park - even though it is in the countryside - will not be marching on London quite yet.