from The Derby Telegraph
NEARLY eight years after Derbyshire County Council thought it had solved its Elvaston Castle woes, the authority has to go back to the drawing board again. Derbyshire County Council has spent nearly £6 million maintaining Elvaston Castle since Highgate Sanctuary was first selected as its preferred bidder in 2004. The building and gardens now need £6.5 million of repairs.The authority has, for more than a decade, said it could not afford the upkeep of the rundown castle and gardens, which now cost £700,000 a year. In September 2004 it selected Highgate Sanctuary, with its plans for a hotel and adjoining golf course, as its preferred bidder to take over the building.
But criticism of the plans from English Heritage, and now from an expert report, have proved too difficult to overcome.Yesterday's decision that the council would "terminate" the firm's first-choice status has almost put the authority back to where it started in 2002 – tendering to businesses across Europe for someone to take over the castle.
Despite its need to save, the council has spent nearly £6 million on running the castle and its grounds since Highgate was first selected. The developer's director, Dr Tanya Spilsbury, has seen a silver lining in the ongoing saga, saying it will rebid when the council retenders for another takeover plan. She said the expert report had shown how Highgate could forge ahead with another application. But the dismay at the council is clear.
The expert document was commissioned by English Heritage and the county council and was drawn up by property management specialist Jones Lang LaSalle. It has stated that the castle has three potential use options – as a hotel, offices or as a residential development.
Councillor John Harrison, cabinet member for finance and management, said: "I'm disappointed. I thought that we (the Conservatives) would have made more progress with it since we took power in 2009." After years of the council suggesting dates when a planning application could be made or renovation started, he will no longer make a prediction. Mr Harrison said: "We are deeply conscious of how long this issue has been on the council's agenda and against that background we will move as swiftly as we possibly can without prejudicing the retendering or consultation process." The only date that is clear is that the retendering process will begin in July.
But there is at least a potential solution to who will take over the gardens. Little is known about what the National Trust would like to do with the castle's remarkable grounds if it were to take them over. But the authority has confirmed it expects an "initial response" to the idea "later this month". Mr Harrison said: "The trust has expressed an interest in involvement with the country park, historic gardens and peripheral buildings but not the castle itself. "As soon as we know their answer we will embark on preparing for the retendering process."
He said that one reason for not starting this until July was that legal work would be needed to ensure any successful proposal maintained public access to the country park. He said this was "a sacrosanct requirement and always had been". But a National Trust takeover would not happen without a fight. Campaign group The Friends of Elvaston Castle has been battling to keep the attraction in public hands. The Friends are furious at how long the future of the grade two* listed building has taken to resolve, especially as the castle and gardens now need repairs worth £6.5 million. The group fears that more delays will lead to further "deterioration" of the attraction. A group spokesman said the trust idea was not acceptable as it could mean visitors having to pay an entry fee which currently does not exist, bar a small car-parking charge.
He said: "We will never back any scheme in which the current level of public access is in any way restricted and so the news that Highgate Sanctuary is no longer the preferred bidder is welcome. If the National Trust only takes over the gardens and not the house, the public may well have to pay to enter them, thereby creating zones of exclusivity. They could have to be fenced off if that were the case."
The Friends want the castle and country park to return to being a tourist attraction, funded through Heritage Lottery grants, the Big Society Bank and the Esme Fairburn Foundation, which funds charities. But the expert report which doubted Highgate's plans does not list this kind of idea among its favoured solutions either. Its authors believe the "optimum" use would be for housing. Highgate's plans had already been criticised by English Heritage, which said access roads to the golf course and a proposed extension to the castle building could have damaged the attraction's historic setting.
But the report was the final nail in the coffin, agreeing with English Heritage that the proposals' "impact on the setting" was a problem. And it added that the golf course and country hotel market had both taken a hit since English Heritage commissioned an analysis of the scheme in 2006. The report then casts doubt on whether Highgate's plans as they stood could have succeeded, especially given the cost of restoration.
Mr Harrison said: "As a responsible authority, we can't just wash our hands of the castle. We have a duty to ensure that the person we hand the castle over to has a sustainable plan for the future." He said that yesterday's decision by the council's cabinet to end Highgate's preferred bidder status was made on the basis of the report.
Council chief executive Nick Hodgson said the report was "bound to" have an effect on the new bid which was eventually picked. But he said the authority would be "open to any ideas as long as they are sustainable and have a strong business plan". He said the re-tendering process would be "within a framework of seeking to achieve an economic advantage for the council". Whoever wins the bid will get a long lease for the castle from the council, as Highgate would have done.
Mr Hodgson added that any bidder would have to make a substantial contribution to the attraction's repairs bill. The report suggests that cash for this could be raised by developing some of the buildings in and on the periphery of the country park into housing.
Dr Spilsbury, from Highgate, said this would be one way her firm could raise the necessary cash if it built a hotel on a smaller scale than first planned. She said: "Our plans are still likely to include a hotel with leisure facilities but on a smaller scale after English Heritage withdrew its previous support for building to take place on the paddock.
"New jobs will be created if the hotel plans go ahead. The company will drop plans for a championship golf course as a result of concerns by English Heritage about the impact on the estate, even though it would have largely been built on land outside the estate boundary. We believe that the proposal which we intend to submit for retendering will maximise revenue for Derbyshire taxpayers and we are committed to the continuation of our involvement."