Gummer's vision for our rural future: more stately homes for the rich

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The Government wishes to see a revival of the stately home set amid rolling acres. Yesterday, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, published new planning guidance encouraging a new generation of magnificent country mansions for the nation's fast-growing number of millionaires.

Under present planning guidelines it is almost impossible to get planning permission from local councils to build new homes in the open countryside. The new guidance supports this, in order to stop the countryside turning slowly into suburbia. But adds: ``An isolated new house in the countryside may exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality. This means each generation would have the opportunity to add to the tradition of the country house, which has done so much to enhance the English countryside.''

The new stately homes would have to be ``truly outstanding'' in terms of their architecture and landscape design, and enhance their surroundings. It would be up to the elected councillors on the local planning committees to decide whether to grant planning permission for such a home, with the Secretary of State for the Environment able to intervene and have the final say.

When The Independent suggestedthat this would give only the wealthiest individuals the option of a new home in the open countryside, Mr Gummer briskly dismissed that as ``old-fashioned Marxism".

``Many of the finest rural landscapes in Britain are enhanced by having marvellous buildings in them,'' he said. He gave Lancing College, a public school on the South Downs in West Sussex, and Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley as examples. The royal palaces of Balmoral and Sandringham were also fine examples of magnificent homes which enhanced their rural surroundings.

To get planning permission, a new house in the country would have to be ``very fine and very original,'' he added. Mr Gummer suggested that derelict or run-down sites, such as the overgrown gardens where a great house once stood before it was demolished, might be appropriate.

The Department of the Environment's planning minister, Robert Jones, pointed out that Britain now had more millionaires - potential clients for tomorrow's stately homes - than ever before. And they will need the money. British architect Claudio Silverstrin, who has built a couple of grand country houses, puts the cost at pounds 2m to pounds 5m.

``There's more people with money and the desire to have such houses built than you might think,'' he said last night. ``But they can't be bothered to waste all the time and expend all the energy that you need to get planning permission. People just give up and say I'll build it in France, or Ireland.''

He praised the new government guidance. But John Outram, who won two awards for an unashamedly modern country house near Wadhurst, East Sussex, was deeply sceptical about Britain's ability to produce a new generation of stately homes which stood the test of time.

``This is a commendable idea but it is elitist and rather off-the-wall,'' he said. New building in the open countryside might best be for more communal uses, such as new towns. His house, built in 1987 for an industrialist, stands on a hilltop and features concrete coloured in several different bright shades.

``To be frank, British architecture hasn't got much credence when it comes to building great country homes since the war,'' he said. ``A lot of very ugly ones have gone up.''

Recent clients for large new country homes include the publisher, David Sullivan, (his is in Essex) and the controversial property magnate Nicholas van Hoogstraten. And there was "South York", the big house built in Berkshire for the Duke and Duchess of York which some thought was inspired by architecture from the soap opera, Dallas.

The Duke of Westminster, Britain's wealthiest aristocrat, owned one of a tiny number of truly modern-looking stately homes at Eaton Hall near Chester. It was built for his father in the 1970s to replace an earlier Victorian Gothic mansion.

Architect John Dennys, a modernist, came up with an ambitious stark- white, flat-roofed mansion which many critics attacked as an eyesore. The present duke has since had it ``de-modernised'', adding traditionalist carapace with pitched slate roof, pink sandstone cladding and new window arches and doorways.

The new guidance covers the entire range of development in the countryside. It seeks to control house-building tightly, but favours smal-scale business developments to keep jobs in rural areas.

``There's a difference between protection and taxidermy - you don't want to stuff the countryside in order to preserve it,'' said Mr Gummer. The guidance was welcomed by both the Country Landowners' Association and the anti-development Council for the Protection of Rural England.