Property: Morse ends up victim of a ball and chain

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FANS of Inspector Morse can forget any possibility of a comeback. He no longer has a home. His headquarters, familiar to millions of television viewers, has been brutally cut down by a mystery assailant.

Prime suspect is a Mr Barratt. He had the means - witnesses report a giant ball and chain smashing down the old building. He had the motive - unbridled lust for the acres of prime land hogged by Morse during an interminable series. And the murderer has shamelessly returned to the scene of the crime, putting his name on more than 100 homes going up on the site. But one mystery remains: They are not in Oxford.

A former Ministry of Defence aeronautical testing laboratory in the grounds of Harefield House, near Uxbridge, west London, had a starring role as 'Oxford Police headquarters'. But no more. It will be Wellington Place, named by Barratt Homes after the legendary bomber that was developed and tested on the old site.

Meanwhile, Morse has fled the country. His alter ego, John Thaw, will be transformed into Peter Mayle, the author, for the new television series A Year in Provence, which begins tomorrow evening on BBC 1 at 8.25pm.

A SENSE of deja vu surrounds the battle over plans for leasehold reforms that will allow many flat-dwellers to buy out their landlords. As is my habit after a hard day at the computer, I relax with a little light reading, such as the 1961 edition of the International Review of Social History, which reveals that exactly 100 years ago the same argument was taking place. Surveyors twittered about 'dislocation of the property market' while landowners trumpeted that changes would destroy 'good estate management' and involve 'wholesale destruction of the rights of property'.

A briefing note sent to me by lobbyists claims that the Housing and Urban Development Bill 'sets a dangerous constitutional precedent' by removing private property rights; it will 'undermine confidence in the market' and threaten Britain's heritage . . . etc, etc.

The Bill last week provoked the resignation from the Conservative Party of the Duke of Westminster, who was following something of a family tradition. A previous duke was a leading player in the battle between landlords and the Leasehold Enfranchisement Association at the turn of the century.

THE ERA of the dirt-cheap repossession may be coming to a close. Bidders at auctions are finding prices soaring far above the guidelines that attracted them, and that is bound to spill over into homes dumped by lenders at the same sales. A one-bed flat in south-west London's New King's Road sold for pounds 37,500 at the last Winkworth auction - still a cheap thrill, but 50 per cent more than the reserve price. A four-storey house in Paddington, London, went for pounds 130,000 compared with a reserve of pounds 100,000.

The trend is not restricted to the capital. A semi in Tonyrefail, south Wales, sold for what appears to be the giveaway price of pounds 11,000 at a Newport auction by General Accident Property Services, yet this was more than double the reserve. Other property went the same way, and developers and investors were constantly outbid by private buyers. 'Only nine of 95 lots failed to sell, probably the highest of any auction we have held,' Colin Wilton-Smith of GA says.

Once lenders have shifted half their stock of repossessed property, the remainder will show price increases across the board, says Robin Wilson of Winkworth. That may be a tad premature, however. While repossessions are becoming rarer, forecasters estimate that another 200,000 or so will pour on to the market over the next few years. The difference is that buyers will be stepping in before they reach the salerooms.

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