What do you do if you own a large property with extensive grounds in a prime area of Surrey and want to dispose of it, yet the planning environment is all against you? The problem: – The building is historic, it currently houses a long-standing and well-loved cultural and educational institution, many of the mature trees are protected and much of the land is Metropolitan Open Land. Also, beyond the trees looms the Twickenham Rugby Stadium and all the implications of traffic and other disruption when tournaments are in progress.
This is the question that the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Borough of Richmond upon Thames have to resolve between them, ever since the MOD indicated in 2016 that Kneller Hall in Whitton/Twickenham would be disposed of as part of an estate rationalisation, along with many other properties across the UK, which would both provide efficiencies for the armed services and assist the Government’s housing targets. Shock, horror, the last thing the good citizens of Whitton want is more housing in an area which is already congested with traffic!
In 1707, the court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller purchased the property in Whitton, demolished the existing house and built a new one, reputedly designed by Sir Christopher Wren whose portrait Kneller had painted. No doubt Kneller was attracted to the proximity to Hampton Court Palace in which many of his paintings hung, including the famous Hampton Court Beauties painted for Queen Mary II.
After his death, his widow renamed the house Kneller Hall in his memory, though she only lived a few years afterwards. Thereafter the house went through several owners who altered and extended it, including two wings by Philip Hardwick, which still survive, though now attached to a new central building built around 1850 after the Government purchased the property for a teacher training college. The college itself only lasted a few years and then the Ministry of Defence bought Kneller Hall for what became the Royal Military School of Music, at the instigation of the Duke of Cambridge after the embarrassment of a British military musical disaster in 1854 (compared to the superiority of the French).
For over 150 years, Kneller Hall has been home to bandsmen and bandmasters in training – soldiers first and musicians second and, in its heyday, its summer concerts were much sought after. I remember attending one when I was younger and it was a great experience.
Today there is now a fascinating museum, which tells the history of Kneller Hall, of military music from the days when bagpipes and bugles set the alarm calls for the day’s activities, the Royal Military School of Music, of changing developments in musical instruments – some of which have disappeared for ever –, and of many of the musicians and their achievements, both musically and militarily.
You can see the MOD’s problem. With progressive reductions in military music over the past few decades, maintaining Kneller Hall for the current number of students is expensive. The strategy seems to be the wrong way round, however, driven by property and not by strategy. While MOD has declared the site will be vacated in 2020, no-one seems to know where the Royal Military School of Music will relocate to, and it seems quite likely that any value achieved from sale of the site may not fund the building works needed elsewhere. We have been here before with previous proposals to dispose of the site.
Latest news is that funding of £130.000 has been agreed to the development of Strategic Planning Guidance for the future development of the site. Let’s hope that all options are considered and that imagination is used. After all, the land is public land and the estimated value, in the great scheme of things. Is not that large to a government who spends billions of pounds on Brexit or the NHS at the stroke of a pen. The important thing it not to lose the opportunity of the debate and discussion to find the best long term solution for the site as a new heart for Whitton which is overshadowed by the Twickenham Rugby Stadium. Who know, it may even include the Royal Military School of Music in some new way?