Property: Sighs of relief at the castle

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Britain's finest country houses has been sold, bringing to an end a saga that has been embarrassing for the Government. The problem arose in 1988 when Herstmonceux Castle near Eastbourne, the headquarters of the Royal Greenwich Observatory since the Second World War, was sold for pounds 8m. The National Audit Office suggested that state assets were being sold too cheaply when it emerged that higher offers had been rejected. Criticism increased when the new owners, a small development company, put Herstmonceux on the market as a leisure resort for pounds 20m.

Now the story has gone full circle. The developer went bust and the price set by the agents, Savills, plunged to pounds 5m. Queen's University, in Canada, has bought the castle and grounds with money provided by a former student to create an international education centre. There has been relief all round from local residents who feared plans for a timeshare and golfing extravaganza; from conservationists fearing damage to the 15th-century castle; and perhaps even from valuers at Savills and Knight Frank & Rutley, who recommended pounds 8m as a good price.

THE problem of housing ex-patients from mental hospitals has been brought to public attention and provoked calls for the provision of more places of safety by the case of Ben Silcock, the 27-year-old schizophrenic man who was mauled by a lion after he climbed into the animal's cage at London Zoo on 31 December.

The National Federation of Housing Associations has already sent the Government a study showing that current plans would leave the country short of up to 160,000 homes suitable for Care in the Community needs over the next decade. Even this may well be an underestimate, says the federation, because there is a lack of reliable information on the real need. Only about 3,000 homes a year will be built with the Housing Corporation funds provided for people with special needs, and only 40 per cent of these will be for community care groups.

SHORTAGES are general, as well as specific. The latest figures from the National House Building Council show a huge shortfall of new homes developing as builders wind down while potential buyers become better off.

Only 126,000 were started last year, the lowest number for more than a decade; and 25,000 of those were for renting by housing associations. Meanwhile, the 'ability to buy' index, which measures first-timers' incomes against mortgage and deposit costs, hit its highest point since records began in 1971.

The gap between the ability to buy and the supply of new homes has never been greater, says Basil Bean, the chief executive of the NHBC. When confidence returns, new homes will become scarce, particularly those in good locations - which would mean a swift end to the generous incentives buyers are now getting from builders. The backlog of around 100,000 unsold houses might not be enough to fill the gap. Many are unsaleable at almost any price, simply because they are in the wrong place.

A SWEDISH financial group has found an answer to the problem of homes in the wrong place: moving house. It is desperately anxious to get rid of repossessions, and since it cannot attract buyers to some homes, it is taking the homes to the buyers. Stadshypotek Vasterbotten, which has provided loans for around a third of the country's small homes, is putting a couple of them on the back of lorries and shipping them off to better areas. If it works, others will follow.

The research group EuroBuild says that a 15km move would cost between pounds 25,000 and pounds 40,000 per house. That rules out the average Swedish home, which now costs just pounds 58,000 after a price crash of 13 per cent last year, but high-value areas such as Stockholm - where homes are twice as expensive as the national average - may benefit.

But do not get too excited about moving yourself. Only timber-framed structures can travel on the back of a lorry, and they make up a mere 8 per cent of British housing stock.

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