‘Super-rich developer is trying to bend the rules’

BRITISH planning rules should not be bent to service the whims of the “super-rich plutocrat” who has bought Athlone House, lawyers have argued.

The argument was made during the appeal hearing launched by the Victorian Highgate mansion’s mystery foreign owner against a decision to stop him demolishing and replacing it.

The team behind the controverisal development has suggested that the economic benefits the billionaire owner would bring to London should add extra weight to his request.

But barristers representing objectors have dismissed this argument.

David Altaras is representing the Athlone House Working Group, made up of Hampstead and Highgate residents and Heath users.

He said: “The appellant constantly reiterates that whatever house emerges from the process must be acceptable to a super-rich plutocrat, with extreme requirements for mega-entertainment – an ‘ultra high net worth individual’.

“This mystical beast, whose identity is wholly unknown, is apparently prepared to spend vast sums of money in the UK and regards anything in a lower category of luxury with contempt.

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“Thus, goes the argument, a restored Athlone House cannot play in this league and should be disregarded. We disagree. Our planning system simply cannot be tailored to his needs.”

At the start of the inquiry on February 15, Peter Harrison QC, representing the council, also criticised suggestions that there were special circumstances relating to the prosperity of the owner.

“Nor can it be suggested that because the owner is ‘transnational… very wealthy and ultra high net worth’ his wishes should be accommodated even if this breaches planning policy, presumably because of a hinted-at contribution to the London economy.”

Mr Altaras also claimed that the owner had reneged on his original planning agreement dating back to 2004.

Under this order, the council had allowed the developer to build 27 luxury flats on the site of Athlone House provided the mansion would be refurbished.

But, in 2005, the owner decided that, rather than revamp Athlone House, he wanted to knock it down and replace it with a neo-classical eight-bedroom property complete with staff quarters and an underground car park.

“It seems manifestly unfair to many that this appellant, having reaped the benefits of the planning permission, is now seeking to renege on its obligations under the section 106 agreement,” Mr Altaras said. “It is like the little boy who, given a tube of Smarties, eats all the red ones, throws the tube away and then demands a new one.”

This view was backed by renowned architect David Chipperfield who had previously been involved in the project.

In a letter to the inquiry, he said that the plans to demolish rather than refurbish the house were a “betrayal” of local residents.

Deborah Walton, from the working group, said that removing the existing building would erode an important buffer zone or “fringe” protecting the Heath from the urban sprawl.

Ms Walton, co-author of two respected guide books on Hampstead Heath, said: “Athlone House, an old and familiar landmark, is part of this ‘fringe’ landscape so vital to the character of the Heath. People say of Athlone House that it blends. It’s familiar and, in the architectural sense, it’s a language we understand.

“We like this romantic and ambitious Victorian villa. Robert Adam has described it as old, weathered and seriously debased. We like the fact that it is old, weathered and unobtrusive.

“From the point of view of the Heath user, there is no justification for demolishing Athlone House. We know it, we like it and we want to keep it.”

The appeal is being heard by the government planning inspectorate and finishes on March 18.