Russia’s billionaires dig up Highgate

A few years ago I went to a charity evening at Tom Conti’s pleasant house in Hampstead. The evening was organised by Conti’s charming wife, Kara Wilson. We had drinks in the garden and the speeches and a short concert were held in the house’s lovely ballroom, with its high ceilings and stone-mullioned window. The couple bought the house 30 years ago for £165,000, according to the Mail Online. Now they’re selling it – for an eye-watering £17.5m.

It’s an extraordinary sum, given that it’s by no means a huge house. But they don’t really want to sell. Conti has been “in dispute” with his neighbour, the footballer Thierry Henry, who wants to demolish his home, which backs on to Conti’s, and build a new one that would include a 40ft fish tank spiralling from a swimming pool in the basement to the master bedroom on the second floor. Faced with this, Conti has lost patience and put his house on the market.

It’s a familiar London tale: long-established residents objecting to super-rich incomers. Take the next door borough to Hampstead. “Highgate these days is full of Russians,” Ian Jack’s friend, Diana Athill, told The Guardian columnist. Athill once asked a taxi driver if he ever drove any Russians. “He replied, ‘No, but I often drive their cooks’.” Athill laughed. Highgate’s Russians, says Jack, are “unobtrusive as pedestrians, pub goers and frequenters of local shops, possibly because they are too rich for any of these activities. Theirs is the world of the bodyguards and the black-glass limousine.”

The most visible evidence of Russian wealth is a huge house called Witanhurst, which is close to the high street and, for the last five years, has been surrounded by Portakabins, containers and scaffolding. This impressive Queen Anne-style house, built for a soap mogul between 1913 and 1920, is now being given a makeover. Its service wing is being replaced by an orangerie and (of course) there is a huge extension going on underground, where a 40,000 sq ft cavern has been excavated to house a swimming pool, a sauna and a cinema.

The refurbishment, says Jack, “has been difficult and prolonged, and Highgate residents have protested often about the noise, dust, heavy trundling of lorries and the risk to the landscape of the heath”. But they “can only complain to the servants, as it were” – until very recently all anyone knew was that it was owned by an offshore company.

Now, thanks to an investigation by the British writer Ed Caesar, published in The New Yorker, we know that Highgate’s disruptive new resident is a 55-year-old Russian billionaire called Andrei Guriev, who made his fortune out of phosphate mining and fertilisers. He is worth an estimated £3.9bn, putting him at only 497th in the world league of billionaires and at only 28th among the richest people in Russia. But that’s quite rich enough to be a nuisance. And unless they sell up like Tom Conti, the people of Highgate are stuck with him.

Tabloid money: Judy Finnigan’s patio envy

• Looking at brochures “advertising high-end garden furniture” fills me with “patio envy”, writes Judy Finnigan in the Daily Express. And this year’s most popular outdoor accessory seems to be “enormously expensive” barbecues. One “Japanese-inspired ceramic charcoal burner called The Big Green Egg” costs just under £2,000.

That said, “if I do get a Big Green Egg and luxury sofas, they’ll just be left out in the rain” and will “sit there all winter and gently rot”. And “this time next year, I’ll be looking at brochures again and be back to square one with patio envy”.

• “We will never hear the last of Johnny Depp and his bl**dy dogs, will we?” says Rod Liddle in The Sun. Apparently, Depp and his partner “smuggled their terriers into Australia illegally”. The dogs were then confiscated, and the Australian government “threatened to put them to sleep”.

So Depp put the dogs “on a private plane back to the States”. Now he’s “been told he might face ten years in prison for breaking Australia’s strict rules on pet smuggling”. That seems “a bit excessive… imagine how many years he’d get for [his] performance in The Lone Ranger”.

• The Tories’ right to buy plans to allow housing association tenants to buy the houses they live in should be called “Right to Steal”, says Kevin Maguire in the Daily Mirror. These “homes are not the Conservatives’ to give away on the cheap”, and it’ll just mean that even fewer social housing places get built.

And if David Cameron was being consistent, he’d “let nine million private renters purchase cut-price from their landlords”. Instead, ex-housing association houses “will end up in the pockets of private landlords who bump up rents”.

Merryn

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