Planning inspector quashes plans to demolish Victorian-era Athlone House and replace it with mega-mansion

Plans by Robert Adam to demolish a Victorian villa on Hampstead Heath and replace it a “fake Downton Abbey” have been thrown out for a second time by the Planning Inspectorate.

Plans submitted in 2014 by Adam Architecture on behalf of unknown owners to replace the historic Athlone House on the northern edge of the heath were decisively rejected by the planning inspector as causing “substantial harm” to the area and were “nowhere near sufficient to overcome the extensive harm it would cause”.

It is the second time in less than five years that plans to demolish the house have been thrown out and is considered a major victory for the Highgate Society, which fundraised to help pay for legal representation at the two-week-long planning inquiry. The society has campaigned for years to have the house restored. The campaigners, who had also dubbed the new plans an “Arabian Nightmare”, gathered a 5,000-signature petition opposing the demolition of the historic home. The plans had previously been opposed by both David Chipperfield and Monty Python star Terry Gilliam who is a local resident.

Speaking about the decision Monty Python star Terry Gilliam said: “It is fantastic news that the Planning Inspector has dismissed the appeal to demolish this wonderful historic house on the fringes of Hampstead Heath. I was appalled that the owner tried to wriggle out of his legal obligation to restore the building which is why I became involved. My congratulations to the Highgate Society and the Heath and Hampstead Society who have fought so hard to save Athlone House!”

Originally known as Caen Wood Towers, Athlone House was built by Edward Brooke in 1872 and was a private residence until it was requisitioned by the RAF in 1942. The house was passed to the Ministry of Health 1951 and was a working NHS hospital before being sold in 1999 to Dwyer Investments.

Under a previous planning agreement approved by Camden council in 2007, three blocks of luxury flats were built on part of the site in exchange for an agreement which commited the developers to restoring the house.

The site was bought from Dwyer Investments by mysterious billionaire owners who have gone to strenuous efforts to keep their identity secret. A Guernsey-registered holding company looks after the investment on behalf of the owner under a legal agreement.

“This is not just a local issue; the result has national implications. If it had been allowed then no undesignated heritage asset would have been safe from developers.” Michael Hammerson, Highgate Society

In his judgement the planning inspector laid into claims that the Victorian house was too dilapidated to restore, and also dismissed claims that a previously signed section 106 agreement - which committed the site’s last owners to refurbish the house - was redundant, stating: “The essential commitment is to refurbish Athlone House and there is a clear prospect of enforcement of that through injunction. While the details of a method of refurbishment and extension acceptable to both parties may change, I consider that despite the costs involved the obligation to refurbish cannot so easily be set aside.”

The dismissal is the culmination of an 18-year battle by campaigners to have the historic house restored. Highgate Society’s Michael Hammerson said: “The word “dismissed” was enough to lift about 5,000 tons from my shoulders.

“This is not just a local issue; the result has national implications. If it had been allowed, then no undesignated heritage asset would have been safe from developers, and no S.106 Agreement would have been worth the paper it was written on. Therefore, the result is immensely important for that reason.

“What is now essential – critical - is that Camden take immediate steps to enforce the s106 agreement. It appears to leave the way absolutely clear for enforcement action – as we have been arguing all these years: and we have, in effect, been fighting this since 1997.”

In his report planning inspector Colin Ball praised the “eclectic design” of the home and its importance in the historic architecture of inner London. “The significance of Athlone House lies primarily in the rare survival of an opulent Victorian merchant’s house in the inner suburbs; its eclectic design representative of a particular period of English architecture; and the survival of various original internal features,” he said.