A place in the country may be the dream for urbanites who slog, nose-to-armpit, through the London commute every day. But the reality is, the trend for city types buying up country properties is wreaking havoc on rural life. Some towns, such as St Ives in Cornwall, have voted to ban second homes altogether.
So, can city dwellers have the best of both worlds? Step forward, developer Dominic Richards, whose new venture Retreat East aims to provide a new way for Londoners to own property in the country.
Retreat East is made up of 12 immaculately converted barns on a 35 acre farm just outside Ipswich in Suffolk, as well as a luxury members’ club and spa. Richards, a former vice chairman of the Prince of Wales’ Princes Foundation for Building Community, says he wanted to find a way to combat the blight of second homes in Suffolk, where in some villages as many as 40 per cent of properties are not primary residences.
Rather than simply flogging the barns, he came up with the idea of a debenture offering: a downpayment of £10,000 for a studio or £20,000 for a two-bed, plus an annual maintenance fee, gets you a lifetime membership with 10 nights’ stay each year, and an asset-backed security against the whole of the property. The debenture can be sold on and can even be passed down the generations.
“I didn’t want to sell each barn to a multimillionaire Londoner and have them being empty most of the year,” he says.
The debenture offering, the ownership model used by the likes of Wimbledon and the Albert Hall to sell their boxes, means members can book nights in any of the farm’s barns, rather than being tied down to just one.
“I wanted something that people owned forever, that they have a real sense of ownership of and commitment to,” says Richards.
“But it means that you can stay in any of the barns, rather than in one of them, and what that means is you can have much more flexibility.”
Decor in the barns is cosy farmhouse luxury: neutral tones, free-standing bathtubs, wood-burning stoves and Miele kitchen fittings. They are centred around the Great Barn, which acts as a members’ club, restaurant and spa, with a bar and billiards room, a screening room, a gym, a sauna and steam room and, outside, a hot tub.
And although there is a focus on food, with a kitchen garden lovingly curated by Peter Wrapson, Jamie Oliver’s food grower, Richards says the idea is for people to do as they please. Retreat East’s chefs can fill your barn’s fridge with home-cooked meals, or just some locally-sourced produce and booze – or they will leave you to it.
“If you want privacy, you’ll have it. But if you want to dip in and dip out of events or meet the other members, you’ve got the Great Barn. I can imagine people making new friends and saying, ‘Hey, why don’t we all just go up at this time each year and hang out together’?”
Richards has planning permission for nine more barns (“but I’m not adding them until I know what the members want”), and wants to extend his idea to further locations.
“In an ideal world I would have one in Australia, one in the Hamptons near New York, one in Italy and a few in England; one by the coast, one in the mountains and one on the farm.” For now, he has launched Farm Shop at Spitalfields, which will sell produce from Retreat East, as well as debentures.
And though Richards insists his debentures should be regarded as a “lifestyle investment, rather than a financial investment”, he hints it may be worth it in the future. “I’d be very surprised if the value of the debenture did not go up,” he says.
Visit suffolk.farm to find out more