MUSICAL impressario Andrew Lloyd Webber has made an astonishing offer to buy historic Highclere Castle to house his valuable art collection.

The multi-millionaire king of stage musicals has stepped into the controversy about the future of the Victorian mansion, which is next to his own 5,000-acre Sydmonton Court estate, near Kingsclere.

Lord Lloyd Webber - the co-creator of Cats, Evita and Phantom of the Opera - has written to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, offering to buy their historic family seat rather than see houses built on the Highclere Estate to pay for badly-needed repairs to the 11-bedroom castle.

Highclere has been in the Carnarvon family since the 1670s, and was the home of the fifth Earl who opened the tomb of ancient Egyptian king Tutankhamun.

The undisclosed offer comes as the Carnarvons seek to sell pockets of land on the fringes of their 1,000-acre estate for development to fund a £11million restoration project.

Lord Lloyd Webber's approach came to light as a committee of Basingstoke and Deane borough councillors resolved to push forward with a policy which, if passed by the council and its Cabinet, would pave the way for the Earl's housing development plans.

In his letter, seen by The Gazette, Lord Lloyd Webber - last seen on our television screens in the Saturday night talent show Over The Rainbow - said of the housing plan: "I could provide a secure future for the castle without any development of this kind.

"If there is another way to preserve the castle, and at the same time prevent development in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, I do believe it is at least worth discussing.

"I am longing to provide a permanent home for my art collection. The combination of Sydmonton and Highclere would provide exactly that.

"If the Earl of Carnarvon were to sell the estate, he would obviously want an open market price but this has not been tested."

Lord Lloyd Webber also referred to recommendations made by David Brock, from watchdogs English Heritage, who said anyone offering to buy the Highclere estate and offer "comparable benefits" to the development plan, would be "contributing to the debate" about its future.

The eighth Earl attended the meeting of the planning and infrastructure committee to promote his development plan, which would normally be against the borough's planning policy.

He was backed by a letter to the borough council from Mr Brock, who said that an English Heritage Advisory Committee favoured the "enabling development".

Mr Brock said: "The committee was clear that the objective behind the policy was a good one - and that it should therefore be encouraged."

After the meeting, the Earl told The Gazette he thought it was "highly unlikely" the castle would ever go up for sale.

He said: "There is no need for me to put it on the market. I have not invited anyone to make any offers. But let's say if it was, it would not be open to one person - it would be open to the world."

The Earl said it is difficult to put a price tag on the estate. "The whole of it has an absolutely incalculable value," he added.

According to The Sunday Times Rich List, Lord Lloyd Webber is worth £700million, making him Britain's third richest music millionaire.

He has been an avid collector of Pre-Raphaelite art since the early 1960s. His extensive personal collection includes some of the finest works of art from the Victorian era.

The Earl and Countess and the borough council received the letter, expressing his interest in buying the estate, on June 21.

Simon Banks, chairman of The North Wessex Downs Preservation Society, which opposes the Earl's plan to develop areas around the edge of the estate near Burghclere and Kingsclere, welcomed Lord Lloyd Webber's offer. He claimed the Earl's scheme could not go ahead under English Heritage rules.

Mr Banks said: "The last resort has to be reached before the enabling development could go ahead. As long as interest is expressed by someone, this last resort cannot be reached."

Patrick Hedgeland, chairman of local preservation group, the Highclere Society, has also welcomed the music legend's offer. He said: "In my view, it would solve all our problems because it would prevent development."

Mr Hedgeland earlier told the planning and infrastructure committee that a better solution would be to build inside the estate in areas not visible to the public, rather on the fringes where it would be.

The committee agreed to go ahead with a policy framework, under which future planning applications connected with the scheme would be considered. They also backed the setting up of a consultation panel involving all parties.

Summing up fellow councillors' comments, committee chairman Councillor Stephen Reid said there should be no private gain as a result of the development, and neighbours' interests should be protected throughout. The council should attempt to be objective, he said.