by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 22
February 2022
Debate
07:00

In defence of the Gatsby house

Building a stately home is a constructive way for the rich to spend their money
by Peter Franklin
St John’s House

A new stately home — the biggest for a hundred years, according to The Sun — is to be built near Ramsden in Oxfordshire. Or rather, a plot of land with the requisite planning permission has just gone on the market. The proposed “mega mansion” would cover 68,000 square feet and contain more than sixty rooms. Spacious.

Predictably, the news has been met with outrage. It doesn’t help that the house has been compared to Pembroke, the palatial Long Island residence that helped inspire The Great Gatsby. At a time when affordable housing is in such sort supply, why are we literally laying plans for a new Gilded Age? Is there any excuse of such extravagance in the 21st century?

Yes, there is. Assuming that we’re not going to tax the ultra-rich out of the country, the issue moves on to what they do with their wealth. Ideally, we’d want them to prioritise philanthropy or investment in job-creating enterprise — but, failing that, it’s better for the economy if they spend their money than squirrel it away. 

Building a new stately home is a more constructive way than most of splashing the cash. If the architecture and decoration is of the highest standard, then it wouldn’t just provide employment for artists and craftspeople, it would also make a 21st century contribution to our national heritage. 

Today, we enjoy visiting stately homes like Blenheim Palace and Highclere Castle — plus thousands of other fine houses. Of course, most of them stand as a testament to the inequalities of their era; and yet our towns and countryside would be greatly diminished by their absence. Wouldn’t it be sad if our own era left nothing behind for future generations to admire?

In any case, we should be much more worried about the money that the rich don’t spend. Much of it finds its way into the property market, thus driving up the cost of land — and therefore house prices and rent levels. This sort of ‘investment’ (in fact, speculation) does a lot more to fuel inequality than the realisation of a grand design.

There’s scope here for a deal: let the rich build their big houses on land specially allocated for the purpose, but close-off the mainstream property market to their surplus millions. Reducing the amount of money chasing the finite supply of rental property and building sites would benefit tenants and first-time buyers. 

Of course, if we do grant planning permission for a stately home on a country estate, then the value of that acreage would be greatly increased. That would mean a huge windfall profit — unless, of course, the lucky landowner has to pay handsomely for the privilege. Re-allocated to a local council, the proceeds could be used to build new homes and community centres or for conservation work and improving access to the countryside. 

In a globalised economy, expropriating the rich is a fruitless pursuit. But there are other ways of making their money work for everyone. 

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Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
3 months ago

“inequalities of their era”?…. please do your historical research.. tge great houses were built when the first members of the family made their money…. way more often than not from ordinary backgrounds.

Look at the 19th Century and see how many new industrial entrepreneurs built great houses?…..In Britain, the way to wealth has always been available to all… much to the irritation of the Left..

Travis Wade Zinn
Travis Wade Zinn
3 months ago

We need more beauty in the world, notably in public architecture which can be shared by everyone. When the wealthy lose a refined sense of the possibility that wealth holds for making the world more beautiful, the collective psychogeography suffers. I hope the personal and the political can merge in this way in the future as it did in the past, we need beauty and hope.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 months ago

That house is not beautiful or original. Apeing Cliveden plus using Gatsby as a marketing point is hilarious. Both Gatsby and Profumo had issues with swimming pools. I guess most estate agents are’nt the most well read.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 months ago

I think Peter Franklin’s analysis is sound, and that’s sad.
Here in the US there’s no stomach for significantly raising taxes on the very rich. Both Republicans and Democrats are beholden to the wealth elite and don’t dare offend them. Despite some rhetoric from Biden there also seems little motivation to change the global economic system that fosters huge economic imbalances.
The best we can do is allow the super rich to spend some of that money and create jobs even if it’s just working as butler or house maid in the elite’s very own version of Downton Abbey.
Classic trickle down economics for the 21st century.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 months ago

When the rich leave these houses, who can afford to maintain them. The National Trust?

Let’s look at it in another light. The rich person builds a house, gets bored, leaves to build a house on Jupiter, the taxpayer tales over and spilts it into flats for immigrants. Problem solved.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
3 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Until one of them sets the whole lot on fire because he hasn’t been given a TV set as big as he demanded.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
3 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Many of these houses, after the First and Second World War, had to be sold, demolished or abandoned because of Death Duties, triggered by the loss of one or more family members.In the case of the 19th Century entrepreneurs, who had already given to this country by providing new industries, jobs, housing, investment return, and via charities that they set up, the state took all they had, after they had also given their offspring in war…. and many of their businesses died as a consequence…….

D Ward
D Ward
3 months ago

Ah! The politics of equality equity envy

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 months ago

Why build a new one when hardly anyone can afford to keep up the old ones? Why not just buy one of those, and do it up?

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

New money doesn’t like old things. It likes old-style with all the mod cons, plus lots of gold leaf. This leads to problems with old ones, which tend to be listed.

Last edited 3 months ago by Andrew D