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November 1, 2006updated 01 Feb 2016 10:46am

Hip to be Squire

By Clive Aslet

Got the Eaton Square pad sorted? A nice house in the country is likely to be next on the must-have list, says Clive Aslet

Got the Eaton Square pad sorted? A nice house in the country is likely to be next on the must-have list, says Clive Aslet

Observers of the British countryside have been scratching their heads recently. It is a case of the dog that didn’t bark.

Any rational person would assume that, given the near-biblical scale of the plights and plagues that have assaulted the rural economy – mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, a ban on hunting with hounds, large-scale governmental incompetence – land prices would have nosedived over the past few years. Instead, they held up bravely, before soaring in 2006.

Without knowing the curious dynamic of the property market as it affects country areas, it would be easy to assume that a kind of collective hysteria had gripped Britain’s landowners, causing them to punt wildly on an uncertain future, in a spirit of après nous, le déluge.

But what seems like madness can be explained, in large part, by reference to the British (and increasingly international) psyche, in which agricultural capacity is only one function of land.

Another is showing off. Owning a country house and its surrounding landed estate is a must-have purchase for many of the global rich.

For a start, a lot of the super-rich already own homes in Britain. It is particularly attractive to Russian oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich, Vladimir Lisin and Boris Berezovsky, and it is easy to see why: London is only a few hours from Moscow, the majority of people speak English and the private schools have a tradition of excellence.

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However, the Russian effect must not be over-estimated. You would be hard pushed to find more than 20 oligarchs in residence – they could barely put on a match at Abramovich’s beloved Stamford Bridge stadium. Plutocrats from continental Europe, the United States and Asia, have joined their ranks and you can feel their presence through property prices.

Despite the building of virtually a new town’s-worth of luxury residential property along the Thames and elsewhere, London’s house prices continue to rocket.

Of course, not all the billionaires are foreign. Britain has been well placed to benefit from the globalisation of markets, given a new fillip by the internet. And not all of this new wealth is just coming from the capital: looking at the Sunday Times Rich List, it is noticeable how the Goldman Sachs millionaires have been outstripped by property tycoons, sports goods retailers, and the Patel brothers, with their pharmaceuticals empire focused on Basildon.

Vijay Patel recently bought a large country house in the southern part of Essex. He is typical of Britain’s new aristocracy of wealth. Having moved on to a stratosphere of riches far removed from the more humbly well off, let alone the ordinary toiling population; they have come to resemble the Whig grandees of the 18th century. To the extent that, until recently, it seems that some of them had a more or less open opportunity to buy peerages.

Such wealth means that when it comes to buying the right property – secure in London, pretty in the country – money is not an object for some buyers. Traditional British residents of the capital gleefully watch their own homes escalate in value, allowing them to finance expensive lifestyles through extra borrowing against this appreciating asset, while loudly bemoaning the downside.

Education fees soar ahead of the general inflation rate as schools compete to offer new facilities and subjects, irrespective of cost. They know that there is an oversupply of parents who want the best and can pay for it.

Today’s mega-rich seem to have adopted the tastes of their forebears as well. They like to buy art, houses and land. The art may be optional, and often far removed in aesthetic from Thomas Gainsborough’s or the Claude Lorrain’s. But the country estates look very much like those created by the movers and shakers of the picturesque movement of the late 18th Century. In this respect, aesthetic ideals have not changed very much since the age of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton.

Away from the hurly burly of the city, everyone wants their own Elysian Fields, a landscape refuge far removed from the tiresomely chaotic world of the less affluent. Land confers privacy. Who wants flashbulbs popping in their face every time they step foot outside the door? It also guarantees that the idyll remains an idyll, without some hideous new housing development blundering into view.

Remember those schools? Children are also helping drive the country estate boom: cities are gritty and full of temptations, especially to a young group as gilded as this lot.

The original landscape parks were not meant only to look pretty; indeed the visual reward only came decades after they had been planted, when the trees grew up and the scars of earth moving had healed. They embodied the latest contemporary thinking about agriculture.

Needless to say, today’s billionaires are not agriculturalists. But they still have to do something with the land that they own. The chances are that they will care less about farming for profit – why bother? – then about creating a wholesome environment. Organics are increasingly popular.

Laverstoke Park in Hampshire advertises itself as the biggest smallholding in the world, but it was not set up by a farmer. It was, actually, set up by former Formula One world champion Jody Scheckter on the strength of a business (established in the United States and sold for more than £100 million) training military personnel through simulators.

But you know how it is with money. It just can’t help making more. Land prices, which have been held up by City and other non-farming types buying to make homes, have started to rise. The countryside is growing for profit again. The new crops provide fuel, not food.

We have returned to the age when farmers made a good living from oats and straw: feed and bedding for horses. Today’s equivalent is wheat for bio-ethanol and coppiced willow for biomass. Still, it’s good for food security. It should ensure that the countryside remains in a productive condition for long enough to feed Britain again, once increased demand from China sucks in all available surpluses from around the world.

China? Now there’s a thought. Where will the new Chinese billionaires choose to buy? My guess would be the west coast of the US. With memories of the Opium Wars somewhere at the back of their minds, Britain holds no warm association for them. But one billionaire attracts another. When the shopping list is global, it may well include a country estate.

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