Duke backs down over 'excessive' property fees

Britain's richest man, the Duke of Westminster, has backed down in the face of fierce protests from leaseholders who were facing huge maintenance bills at their central London homes.

Half a dozen flat owners took on the duke's legal team in the so-called Battle of Belgravia over rising maintenance costs that were costing them tens of thousands of pounds this year.

Grosvenor Investments, Eaton Square Properties and Belgravia Estate Services, all part of the duke's property empire, were legally challenged by the homeowners who took their case to a tribunal. But Grosvenor has now moved to settle the dispute and the leaseholders have withdrawn their claim, thus avoiding embarrassing public hearings over the huge redecoration bills and financial position of the residents.

Some of the leaseholders claimed in initial documents that they faced charges of up to £70,000 per flat. The cost of repairs and maintenance on the £10m block topped £310,000 this year and has exceeded £1m in the past six years, they said.

Costs covered by the charges included £26,000 for a caretaker and £56,000 for a security system. The company has agreed to pay for the security system and renegotiate the costs of redecoration, spreading it over a number of years in some cases. A Grosvenor spokesman said: "The increase in the levels were as a result of these exceptional charges this year, one was the installation of the security system and, in some places, external redecoration.

"We would have hoped we would have been able to resolve these issues through the normal course of conversations. Obviously it's regrettable residents felt they had to do it in a different way. It's one of those things."

One resident of Eaton Square - an upmarket area that includes the home of Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson - said the relationship between the company and flat owners had become increas-ingly strained.

Judy Sherren, who has lived there for 25 years, said: "They used to be quite gentlemanly. Recently they have turned to bully-boy tactics and much more bureaucratic. Most of the people here are over 90."

The claim was led by Vanessa Brady, 44, an interior designer, who has a two-bedroom top-floor apartment.

On the other side of the battle was the Grosvenor group, which has a portfolio worth about £5.4bn and has interests in 16 countries.

The Duke of Westminster, the country's biggest land-owner, is estimated to have a fortune of about £4.9bn. In addition to his London property interests, which include 300 acres in Mayfair and Belgravia, the duke's wealth is founded on the 145,000 acres he owns in Scotland, Lancashire and Cheshire. He also has property in Canada, the United States and Australia.

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