The freehold's in the Harrods bag

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The Independent Online
IT IS true, the rich are subtly different from us. Early in the morning in Wilton Place, on his Grace the Duke of Westminster's Belgravia estate, the rubbish was waiting for the dustmen, neatly parcelled up in shiny green bundles. In Belgravia they put their rubbish out in Harrods bags.

A Filipino maid takes a terrier for its morning walk. Another washes down the steps. Ring a doorbell in Belgravia and, after much grinding of locks, a Filipino housekeeper will appear, if anyone answers at all, for many of the houses and flats in these cream canyons are shuttered and dead. Some are owned by foreigners for the few weeks they stay in London each year. Even the English are peripatetic.

'We're only here during the week,' said a chauffeur in a blue Mercedes waiting in one of the mews. 'We only come here to see the doctor, something like that. Rest of the time we're at the country place.'

In the Halkin Arcade, there are small cross-stitch cushions for sale, bearing Belgravian philosophies: 'I like Old Money, Young Men, and Me'; 'Eat, Drink, and Re-Marry'; and, simplest of all, 'Born to Shop'. Not all the residents of the area, of course, are wealthy. 'He's been a very good landlord to us - we don't have much,' said a retired vicar, emerging from Wilson Place, wrapped in a tweed coat.

But it is not the few who live in shabby gentility in Belgravia who will be buying their freeholds from the unhappy Duke of Westminster. Nor will the many upper-class English here who have been hit by Lloyd's losses. The Conservative Party's legislation on leasehold reform, which has lost them one of their richest supporters, will not, in Belgravia, be benefiting the huddled masses. What will be mainly achieved on Westminster's estates will be a transfer of value from the stupendously rich (the Duke's fortune has been estimated at around pounds 2bn) to the extremely rich.

At present, a house in Chester Square on a 75-year lease is worth around pounds 1.2m. On a 24-year lease it would sell for around pounds 400,000, according to Giles Anslow-Wilson, of Debenham Tewson Residential. What it would be worth freehold, nobody knows. pounds 1.7m? pounds 2m? No such property has ever been available on the Duke's Belgravia estate. But the Government's guidelines suggest that, on a property with a 50-year lease worth pounds 1.6m to the leaseholders, the freehold could cost pounds 215,000. That figure is likely to be higher in Belgravia. Freeholds on shorter leases will be still more expensive.

'I will not be buying,' said one old lady coming out of a mews off Wilton Place, warmly wrapped up in a short mink jacket and Balmain scarf. Like every leaseholder I spoke to, she refused to reveal her name, claiming fear of ducal wrath. 'Things are not as good as they were. There used to be someone there all the time,' she added, pointing to a small glass lookout box where, during daylight hours, a menial used to sit. 'Now people park everywhere. And the service charge is the same]'

She spoke too soon. Around the corner, where an offending car loitered, two men in the navy uniform of the Grosvenor Estate approached. A young blonde woman in a white BMW swept up the mews and parked nearby. ' 'Scuse me, madam]' said a navy uniform. 'Do you have to fly up and down the mews like that? I should tell my Guv'nor about it.' The blonde crept out of her car like a naughty schoolgirl. 'I'm sorry,' she murmured.

Not far away, in Kinnerton Place, a middle-aged man with a French accent was reflecting on this strict Belgravian regime. ' 'E acts like a medieval squire,' he said. ' 'E bosses people. Like 'e is the landlord, and we are tenants who must obey. I 'ave already bought my freehold against 'is will, under the last reforms. If you drive in a nail on your own 'ouse they immediately come round and ask what you are doing.'

He leant against the wall. 'I would like to ask,' he said rhetorically ' 'Ow did this Duke acquire 'is lands? They were confiscated from the Church by Henry VIII and given to 'is family. Why should government not give them to us now? Dog eats dog.'

A beguiling argument, but not, of course, strictly true. The Grosvenor family came into the Belgravian estate in 1676 because, as was customary at the time, an 11-year-old heiress to an unusually wealthy Fleet Street scrivener was effectively sold to them in marriage. In later life she went mad. The second Earl Grosvenor laid out the squares and crescents of present day Belgravia in 1826, and they have been passed down the family ever since.

In the Nag's Head pub, down the road, four men were discussing the leasehold proposals over lunch. They too objected to the bossiness that the Grosvenor estate says is necessary to keep the place up to scratch. 'Have you seen all the notices round here?' said one. 'No Dogs. Please Don't Breathe Out Loud.'

'Serves him absolutely right,' said one of His Grace's American leaseholders over his pint. 'It's an anachronistic system. I'm delighted to see it coming to an end. He won't even let me put a satellite dish up. He's made enough money out of these houses by selling them over again in the past 160 years.'

An Englishman with a white moustache was not so sure. The estate had, he said, always been well managed. The Duke could afford to take the long view, rather than going for maximum profit. 'Caveat emptor, I say,' he said. 'People knew what they were getting when they bought here. If they were prepared to pay ludicrous prices for leaseholds, serve them right.'

The afternoon drew on. Small vans flitted too and fro, carrying groceries, interior decorators, clipped bay trees. A young nanny pushed her charge through the streets, a rare sight. Most of the Duke's leaseholders are middle aged or older: the young of the English upper classes now have their town houses in Fulham or Clapham or Notting Hill.

The tot looked out from his pushchair at the Duke's great walls around him. He will live to see the break up of this great estate, as pastel colours defiantly break through the Grosvenor-cream tyranny of paintwork, the future revolt of freehold Pekinese dogs against the Grosvenor noticeboards. But these changes are likely, alas, to be superficial. In his hand this child of the next generation already waved the shibboleth of his tribe: one shiny green Harrods carrier bag.

(Photograph omitted)