Taste police feel the collars of super-rich home owners

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The Independent Online
THE SUBURBAN planners of Hampstead are to curb the extravagances of the super-rich by strictly controlling the design of new multi-million- pound homes built on one of Britain's most famous streets.

Recent buyers, on The Bishops Avenue, where property prices start at pounds 5m, are said by Barnet Council to have displayed such naked ostentatiousness and poor architectural taste that their worst excesses must be controlled for the good of the borough.

Several older properties in the street have been put to the wrecker's ball by the new influx of foreign owners. The pre-war mansions, built using traditional brick, stone and wood, have been replaced, in some cases, with sprawling concrete "super houses".

The council's planning department says these new homes are not in keeping with the "special charm" of the area. The Bishops Avenue is next to the Hampstead Garden Suburb conservation area, a community based on the ideals of William Morris and Dame Henrietta Barnett, and borders Hampstead Heath.

Councillor Jack Cohen, chairman of Barnet's development and protection committee, says the Avenue needs to be safeguarded from developers who have "more money than taste".

"People will have differing views on the aesthetic value of the more recent properties and the backgrounds of some of the residents, for that matter," said Councillor Cohen. "But some of the houses, particularly those built pre-war, have definite architectural merit."

A council report condemned many houses constructed since the Eighties. "Of late, the Avenue has become the renewed butt of public mockery, largely due to the erection of a small number of lavishly appointed yet architecturally incongruous huge mansions in a variety of styles," it said. "Design influences vary from Mediterranean to the classical temple. They are extremely dramatic, visible and ostentatious."

The council is ready to approve recommendations that the demolition of buildings listed as having local architectural or historic interest should be refused. In January, a public inquiry is scheduled, concerning proposals to demolish and redevelop two listed houses.

But Trevor Abrahmsohn, managing director of Glentree Estates, which has bought and sold many of the 110 properties (worth more than pounds 500m) on the Avenue in his 25-year career, said the council was being disingenuous and risked appearing "xenophobic".

He added: "The council has committed a volte-face. It approved many of the uglier buildings it is now decrying as overblown and tasteless. Now it is blocking plans that have real architectural merit. Many people who bought on The Bishops Avenue make a major contribution to the British economy and help to maintain London's reputation as a world- class city. It is important not to appear xenophobic."

Recent arrivals in the Avenue include the disgraced brother of the Sultan of Brunei, the world's richest man. Prince Jefri of Brunei is said to have paid pounds 10m for two adjacent properties and paid a further pounds 10m to demolish them and rebuild to his specifications.

His neighbours include several scions of the Saudi royal family and Britain's wealthiest woman, Usha Mittal, who owns half of the pounds 2bn Ispat steel empire and lives in a pounds 6m house.

Noel De Keyzer, a director at FPD Savills' Hampstead office said: "Today the road is a mecca for anyone who wants a flagship house that makes a bold statement about their financial and social status."

His company is selling Sunningdale, number 38 The Bishops Avenue - a snip at pounds 4m. One of the older English-style properties, it sits on a 1.4- acre plot and has a galleried entrance hall, four reception rooms, six bedrooms, six bathrooms and an indoor pool. Its grounds, with wildlife including badgers and foxes, have a "secret garden", an ornamental lake and a kitchen garden.

The Avenue's history is as rich as its residents. In 1985, a Bishops Avenue mansion became the backdrop for a real murder-mystery when fashion tycoon Aristos Constantinou was shot at prayer in his private chapel on New Year's Day, with six silver bullets from a rare Italian lady's handgun.

Suspicion fell upon his wife, Elena, a former shop assistant, and in 1996 detectives flew to Cyprus to question her. She had married a beach guard from Florida eight months after her husband was killed.

But the former Mrs Constantinou was not charged and the murder remains unsolved.

The Bishops Avenue was originally intended for expensive homes in a semi-rural location close to the West End and the City. George Sainsbury, who founded the supermarket chain, was one of the first residents. Showbusiness stars, such as Gracie Fields, made it the butt of jokes about new money and poor taste.

In the Sixties and Seventies, sinister characters fleeing coups and revolutions in countries such as Greece, Iran and Nigeria plumped for luxurious exile on the Avenue. In the Eighties, oil dollars financed Middle Eastern buyers. The Nineties ushered in new Russian capitalists, who, some said, have bought their homes with attache cases full of cash.