Grace... but should they still be in favour?

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The Independent Online
Perhaps there will be Federation Ale on tap and take-away orders for fish and chips at Chequers under new Labour.

Mr Blair has been enjoying weekends at Chequers with his wife and three children, it emerged yesterday. Despite his revelation during the general election campaign that he liked nothing better than a pint of "Fed" and Gladiators on the telly in his Sedgefield constituency home, the new Prime Minister has had little time for such pleasures since his election.

Instead, he holds meetings and relaxes with his wife Cherie and their children in a Tudor mansion set in 1,250 acres of Chiltern countryside, an aide confirmed. But yesterday a Labour MP called for the grace and favour mansions, set aside for senior ministers, to be put to new and better uses.

Paul Flynn, member for Newport West, has suggested that the Government could open up the residences for pensioners' day trips or to give a break to the families of the sick and disabled.

His parliamentary question to Mr Blair on the subject fell on stony ground.

"I expect these houses to be effectively used for the purposes for which they were designated, including for official entertainment and for conferences," the Prime Minister replied.

Senior ministers may have other plans, though. Neither Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, nor Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, have visited their residences - at Chevening in Sussex and Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire - though both have taken up government residences in London.

Yesterday a spokesman for Mr Brown said he hoped Dorneywood would be put to better use than under the Tories.

"Gordon Brown will be using Dorneywood for meetings and conferences. But it seems it was a bit wasted before and we want to use it more effectively," he said.

The house could not be sold, he explained, because it was owned by a trust, and would revert first to the Lord Mayor of London and then to the American Ambassador, if the Chancellor did not want it. Kenneth Clarke visited Dorneywood occasionally, but Norman Lamont spent almost every weekend there.

The Foreign Secretary will use Chevening for meetings but will not spend time relaxing there. "Mr Cook has not been there and is not planning to use it for residential purposes," a spokeswoman said. Malcolm Rifkind spent just 18 days at the house in Sussex last year, though Geoffrey Howe is said to have been heartbroken when he was forced to leave.

The only minister to have rejected a London residence in favour of his old home is the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who will continue to live in south London. John Prescott is to move into Michael Portillo's former flat in Admiralty House, and Margaret Beckett and the Secretary of State for Defence,George Robertson, will also live in the building.

Mr Brown will live in Number 10 Downing Street while the Prime Minister and his family will live in the more spacious accommodation in Number 11. Mr Cook has already moved in to his official residence at Number 1, Carlton Gardens.

Mr Flynn has other ideas, though: "I could think of 101 uses," he said. "Perhaps they could be used for holidays or for respite care."

Country joys

Chequers, Buckinghamshire.

Prime Minister's country residence.

Background: Tudor mansion bequeathed to the nation in the 1920s. Set in the Chilterns amid 1,250 acres, the estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book and is stuffed with works of art. Edward Heath, it is claimed, spent half a million pounds on garish wallpaper.

Cost to the state: pounds 466,000 in the last financial year.

1, Carlton Gardens, London.

Foreign Secretary's residence.

Background: Once occupied by Prince Louis Napoleon, it was built in the 1820s, just off The Mall, and is one of the best examples of a John Nash terrace.

Cost to the state: pounds 342,000 in 1995-6. In addition, pounds 1.5m was spent on a total refurbishment of the state rooms, which are used for official functions, between 1992 and 1994.

Chevening House and Pleasure Gardens, Sussex.

Foreign Secretary's country residence.

Background: Vast neo-Classical mansion built in 1630, set in 3,500 acres on the North Downs. The floors are marble, the spectacular circular staircase is "magnificent beyond dreams", according to one MP, and the chimney-piece of the tapestry room is copied from one by Vanbrugh.

Cost: Borne by a trust, though there are tax exemptions.

Admiralty House, London.

Three flats will be occupied by the Deputy Prime Minister, President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Defence.

Background: The front of the building is on Whitehall, the back looks on to Horseguards' Parade. It was built in 1786-88 as a residence for the First Sea Lord, a role it performed up to the Second World War, when Sir Winston Churchill lived in it.

Cost: pounds 723,000 in running costs in 1995-6.

Dorneywood, Buckinghamshire.

Chancellor's country residence.

Background: Parts are Queen Anne, though the house was rebuilt after a fire in 1910. It is more modest than other ministers' country houses with just nine bedrooms, four reception rooms and 200 acres of grounds. The dining room has silk curtains which were sent to China to be hand-painted; the library boasts a 17th Century Flemish tapestry and the walls are adorned with comic drawings by Sir John Tenniel.

Cost: Administered by a trust and paid for out of its former owner's estate, though there are tax exemptions.