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National Trust sues building firm after fire ravaged Grade I mansion featured in The Duchess

Telegraph reporters
The property featured in Keira Knightley film The Duchess in 2008 - PA

The National Trust is suing a construction company and a firm of building surveyors for £115m in damages over a defective lift shaft blamed for a disastrous fire that gutted one of the charity’s most prestigious properties.

Grade I listed Clandon Park, near Guildford in Surrey, was the ancestral home of the Onslow family until it was given to the National Trust in 1956.

The stately home featured in the 2008 film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, and attracted more than 50,000 visitors a year.

But the 18th century Palladian mansion suffered a catastrophic fire in April 2015, caused by a faulty electrical board in the basement.

Surrey Fire and Rescue Service's report into the fire stated: “It is believed that the rapid fire spread observed at this incident occurred when the fire quickly reached the lift shaft allowing the smoke and fire to rapidly spread to each floor of the building and into the roof space.”

A Picture frame is removed from Clandon Park following the fire - National Trust

The stately home was left in ruins with most of its contents, including hundreds of works of art, destroyed.

Five years on, the National Trust has lodged a claim in the High Court against building firm Cuffe plc and property consultancy Tuffin Ferraby Taylor (TFT). "Owing to the unique nature of the property, and the highly sensitive nature of the restoration work that will be required, its losses have not yet been fully quantified, but the Claimant estimates that they will exceed £115 million,” according to the claim.

It contends that the construction company built a defective lift shaft which did not offer any protection against fire - allowing the blaze to swiftly spread throughout the building with devastating effects.

The National Trust had decided to replace the lift at Clandon Park in 2003, with a larger lift. However, the new lift shaft, built in 2005, was not built in accordance with building regulations and fire safety standards, the claim states.

The works cost around £180,000.

Clandon Park was used as a backdrop in the 2008 film The Duchess - Peter Mountain

“The Fire started as a result of an electrical fault on the electricity distribution board. For the avoidance of doubt, it is not the Trust's case that the Defendants were responsible for the occurrence of this fault, but they were and are responsible for the fact that the Fire was able to spread to affect the whole of the House,” the claim says.

The damage from the fire “would have been minimal and/or very significantly reduced” if the lift shaft had been properly built and able to resist fire for at least one hour, in line with regulations.

This would have provided time to contain the fire before it spread through the house, it states. Instead, the lift shaft contained “timber, plywood or other combustible elements which could aid in the spread of fire.”

The trust claims that TFT was the lead designer, as well as overseeing the contract the charity had given to Cuffe to build the lift shaft.

However, TFT failed to produce a specification or drawings “which included sufficiently detailed information and instructions for fire-resisting and/or fire-stopping measures.”

Cuffe used plasterboard in the shaft - instead of fire resistant materials that had been specified as necessary to achieve one hour's fire resistance - and there was no evidence of any adequate fire prevention features, according to the particulars of claim.

The property was left in ruins with most of its contents destroyed - Andrew Crowley

The construction company “did not comply with the instruction in the TFT Specification and/or on the TFT Drawings that the installation, when complete, should have 1 hour fire resistance and/or would be Safe” it states.

Simon Cook, director, Cuffe plc, said: “Cuffe has recently served its Defence to the allegations made by NT and denies any liability in relation to the losses claimed by NT.”

A spokesperson for TFT commented: “The legal action is focused on seeking to recover a contribution to the insurance losses, where previous attempts to recover from the parties responsible for the root cause of the fire appear to have failed.”

They said: “Our role was not as the architect or lead designer. We were building surveyors appointed on a limited scope to administer the contract for the works, having produced a specification and general orientation drawings.”

The spokesperson added: “TFT Consultants denies the unfounded allegations that have been made in this legal claim, and will defend it vigorously and in its entirety.

"The vulnerability of this building in the event of a fire, and the potential for rapid fire spread through the building, was documented to National Trust some years prior to the fire.

"The cause of the fire is known to be a defective electrical distribution board in a basement cupboard (next to a stair well), which had no connection to any work by TFT and a building contractor.”

A National Trust spokesperson said: "Our insurers Zurich Municipal are pursuing legal action against third parties for the losses suffered at Clandon Park during the fire on 29 April 2015.

"The National Trust is providing support in that litigation and we cannot comment on any questions relating to the case.”

A date has not yet been set for a hearing and the legal battle is set to delay further the National Trust’s plans to rebuild Clandon Park, with construction already a year behind schedule and yet to start.