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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Riches on the slate

MASTER  OF ALL HE SURVEYS: Lord Cavendish owns large areas of the county, but offshore trusts make it hard to assess just how much his family holdings are really worth

THE business interests of one of the country’s richest men range from slate quarrying to nursing homes; from the sale of posh nosh to a grass drying business.

Hugh Cavendish, Lord Cavendish of Furness, lives in the 17th century mansion he inherited, Holker Hall in Cartmel.

It comes complete with a motor museum, a 15,000 acre estate, its own Garden Festival and grounds packed with exotic plants. Cartmel racecourse, another asset, is close by.

In nearby Cark, most of the cottages, farms and outbuildings in the village are painted blue to signify their feudal ownership.

Holker Estates, in fact, owns more than 15,000 acres in South Cumbria, used for anything from tourism to farming to commercial caravan sites.

The estate controls the gates to the foreshore of Morecambe Bay, and has jurisdiction over fishing and cockling rights there.

But his lordship, Eton-educated and friend of royalty and the famous, now makes more money from selling slate and building homes in Barrow than anything else.

Holbeck Homes Ltd, of which he is a director, and which is building 106 homes over the next five years in Holbeck Park Avenue — land historically owned by the Holker Estate — made a £175,820 profit in 2005, the last year for which accounts are available.

Meanwhile, Holker Estates, which employs 85 people, posted a £90,000 loss and paid just £17,000 in taxes.

This didn’t stop Lord Cavendish and his seven fellow directors — including Lady Cavendish and son and heir Freddy — pocketing a total of £300,000 in salaries. According to the company’s accounts, the highest paid director received £106,000, an increase of £12,000 from 2004.

His Lordship has his fingers in many pies. According to Companies House, he is a director of 16 companies, although not all pay him a salary.

And, like Holker Estates, not all of them showed a profit for 2005.

Cartmel Steeplechase Ltd, which manages the newly built grandstand at the picturesque racecourse, posted losses of £164,000. Roose and Walney Sand Gravel Company, which manages the operation of gravel and sand pits, lost £43,721.

By way of contrast, grass dryer Vitagrass Farms Ltd, showed profits of £32,634 in 2005, while the quarrying, production and sale of slate undertaken by Burlington Slate of Kirkby reported a four per increase in profits, after selling more than £3m-worth of slate in 2005.

Burlington posted a net profit of £219,000, with the highest-paid director — probably Lord Cavendish — netting £318,875, a £56,081 increase on 2004.

Most of these facts are freely available, but it is almost impossible to calculate Lord Cavendish’s true worth, or how much land he might actually own.

One of his companies, for example, has a main shareholder based in Jersey, while his assets are held in a family trust called the Holker Estate Trust, limiting what information is available. Family trusts are not obliged to supply any public information.

When we telephoned Holker Hall to ask to see the accounts for Holker Estate Trust they declined and would comment only on the companies’ various profits, or losses, for 2004/2005. Holker Estates Ltd director Dickon Knight told us in his carefully modulated tones that, in any case, all figures should be looked at in context. He said losses could be put down to various projects undertaken by the company during 2005.

He said: “It is probably because we had various projects on that year. There were also certain areas where trading was down. It is an amalgamation of different factors. It (the estate) has got high costs and we do quite a lot of projects to keep the year moving forward.”

Not surprisingly, His Lordship’s vast wealth, and the suggestion that much of it is an accident of birth, hasn’t found favour in every quarter.

In 2004, the left-leaning New Statesman magazine pointed out that Lord Cavendish was one of the 0.6 per cent of people who own 69 per cent of Britain.

The wider Cavendish family — which includes the Devonshires of Chatsworth Hall fame — had acquired, said NS, large tracts of land through marrying into the aristocracy and followed the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century.

“Why should this one family, and others like them, own so much land when so many young people cannot even afford to buy even a one bedroom flat?” the magazine demanded.

To which Dickon Knight of Holker Estates responded that the great landowners of Britain were simply the “stewards” of the countryside.

Mr Knight said: “The estate takes a very paternalistic view of the local community. Through farming, forestry, tourism and conservation, we contribute significantly to the vitality of the local economy.

“The countryside is very well preserved.”

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