HC Deb 06 December 1983 vol 50 cc292-302

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now Adjourn.—[Mr. John Hunt.]

1 am

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I speak as a constituency Member on a matter of national importance. I shall briefly outline the history of Calke abbey in my constituency, why it is so special, what we should like to see happen to it, and what the effects are of the Government's failure to act. I remind the House that there were 29 signatories to the early-day motion on this matter.

Calke abbey stands on the site of a 12th century priory, which was destroyed at the dissolution. The land came into the Harpur family, later the Harpur-Crewes, in the 1620s, and the family has therefore had an unbroken 300-year link with this part of Derbyshire. The estate consists of some 14,000 acres in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire, and the family could still be called, as it was in the 18th century, the best landed family of any commoners in this or any neighbouring county. The house was built between 1701 and 1703 and is a splendid baroque mansion set in a lovely deer park—with two herds of deer—leading down to a small lake, with the National Trust land at Staunton Harold nearby. It is an isolated but lovely part of south Derbyshire, and within a few miles of Derby, Nottingham and other midland cities.

It was the family who gave the house its unique character. From about 200 years ago, its members adopted a reclusive way of life. Although they served as high sheriffs, and even, in three cases, as my predecessors as Members of Parliament for Derbyshire, South, they were retiring types and more than a little odd. I quote from Lady Harpur on her brother in the later 18th century: he never would be persuaded to mix in society and marry suitably … he has no vices, and many good qualities, but will not be a man of the world. This could as easily be true of the present family.

The previous owners this century, Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe and his nephew Charles, could only be described, with the best will in the world, as eccentric. Motorised vehicles were banned from the estate until 1949, electricity was not installed until 1960, and, most important of all, no visitors were allowed. This is what makes Calke so special and so unknown. Its contents have remained untouched and unchanged for the past century. It is a perfect, undisturbed time capsule, the totality of a Victorian landed gentleman's life.

The House is astonishing in the sheer volume of its items, with hobbies such as collecting stuffed birds, gemmology, hunting and horse breeding, represented. Everything is intact. The family never threw anything away. When a room was full, its members simply shut the door and moved on to another room. As one opens these doors today, one simply steps back in time.

The furnishings are exactly as they were. Strict use of Victorian loose covers means that their colours are as beautiful today as when the furniture was delivered 100 years ago. There are still the silk hangings of a four-poster bed—which were delivered in their box 200 years ago, taken out, looked at, and put back again — still as glorious in their colours as they were. Everything is still in the same place. The entire estate is preserved just as it was, from the fire engine, to the carriages to the lamp lighters' room.

Ticknall, the village next door, is a conservation area. Everyone who visits Calke now begs for it to be saved. The house and its unique contents are a microcosm of the past, which would provide not only much information for scholars, but is a fascinating and absorbing sight for many visitors with a more general interest. It is not a great collection of Italian works of art, or a magnificent piece of architecture, but it is so quintessentially English, so unusual, so complete, that one wonders whether Government advisers are right to make any comparison with any other house; there is nothing quite like it.

The matter is now urgent, and I welcome the debate. Some years ago, a discretionary trust was created that was intended to prevent the commercialisation of Calke and to keep the estate together. The family were badly advised, although, knowing it, I doubt whether it would have listened to good advice. When Charles Harpur-Crewe died in 1981, capital transfer tax of £8 million became payable. The entire estate was entered for probate of £15 million.

The new owner, Mr. Henry Harpur-Crewe, who is technically a life tenant, had a choice. He could have sold up, paid up and pocketed the difference. He would have remained a wealthy man and the treasures of Calke would have stayed a secret, known only to a handful. Instead, he offered this extraordinary house and its contents, with a substantial acreage for its upkeep, to the Government in lieu of tax, to be handed over to the National Trust in perpetuity. The house was eventually to be opened to the public.

The house and its parkland have been recognised as being of heritage value. The National Trust is keen to have it, and it must have professional management. The council, which is Labour-controlled and not normally in agreement with me, is actively supportive. While accepting the house, its contents and heritage land, and offering substantial repairs grants — I acknowledge the offer made by my hon. Friend the Minister, and I know that he has been sympathetic—the Government have been refusing non-heritage land which would provide the essential endowment, and this refusal has wrecked the scheme.

Someone in the Department believes that it is possible for the estate to provide the endowment by itself and is no doubt asking why Government money should be provided for that purpose. But the estate sales would not provide enough money. The tax debt is now £10 million and it is rising by £1,300 a day. The extra tax that is payable through the in-lieu procedure, plus the various charges and fees, means that the total amount payable from the estate is £12.75 million out of a probate of £15 million. By anyone's arithmetic what would be left would not be enough for the National Trust to contemplate acceptance, and I understand its view. The possibility of handing over the house and selling the land would turn my constituent, Mr. Harpur-Crewe, into a pauper. It is sad that the Government appear to be saying, "Sell all thou hast and give the proceeds to the Government." This must be regarded as punitive taxation with a vengeance.

We are not talking about Government money, in any event. The tax income was a one-off benefit that was provided by a fluke. No more estates are likely to come up in this way, especially as the Finance Act 1975 changed the rules. There is no precedent. This is a sheer windfall and it could possibly be treated as such. The Department of the Environment blames the Treasury and the Treasury says that it is an environmental responsibility. I find it so difficult to accept that a Conservative Government should so happily contemplate the break-up of a great estate and the loss of a national asset in this way. Surely to swap a tax debt for this marvellous house is a fair and reasonable exchange. We as a nation would have a priceless possession in perpetuity. It would be enjoyed by our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.

As the tax debt is mounting daily, the trustees have had to come to a decision. The entire estate is on the market except Calke Abbey, the heritage land, the village of Tickwell and the home farms, which will remain in private hands. I have hundreds of worried constituents. These tenants live in property that is being sold over their heads and I am very troubled about them. An effort will be made by the trustees to create an endowment fund to keep up the property in the lifetime of Mr. Henry Harpur-Crewe and his sister, but it will not be sufficient to maintain the house properly and it will certainly not be enough to enable the house to be open to the public. These generous and paternal landlords, who are much loved locally, will be forced to leave the rest of the estate to its own devices. The problem will recur on the death of the present incumbent, and probably on the death of his sister. That will mean that the whole business will start all over again. If nothing is done, the house will crumble, the deer will be shot and all the marvellous contents will be lost for ever. The future is indeed bleak.

I call on the Government to take this opportunity to create a major tourist attraction in an area which has very few such amenities and to create a centre of new employment in an area which has no new industries. I ask them to acknowledge the public spirit of the Harpur-Crewe family, to acquire a major public asset for the nation and to reassure all my constituents that a unique way of life will be preserved.

Mr. Esmond Bulmer (Wyre Forest)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I must repeat the view expressed by Mr. Speaker that hon. Members should not intervene in Adjournment debates except with the consent of the hon. Member who has initiated the debate and the Minister who is to reply. I gather from the nods of assent from both the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and the Minister that they agree that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Bulmer) may intervene.

1.8 am

Mr. Esmond Bulmer (Wyre Forest)

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) has eloquently described a remarkable property that I believe none of us wishes to see destroyed. The threat to it comes from the size of the capital tax bill. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister recalls the debates on capital transfer tax when it was first introduced. We recognised that it was formulated to break up any significant family property and we pledged ourselves to draw its teeth. We have not yet succeeded but we have made progress; rates are less onerous and inflation has been reduced.

The Government have constructed a maintenance fund route to secure heritage houses in return for public access, but we cannot guarantee that it will always be taken. When it is not, the Government have surely to protect themselves from the consequences of their own actions. In this instance the means is at hand, which is to accept the non-heritage land that is offered to provide the endowment. This was done with Hardwick hall, and I fail to see why it cannot be done now. The precedent is established and I do not think that there is any evidence that the flood gates will be opened.

Failure to take this route has put my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and the chairman of the national heritage memorial fund, Lord Charteris of Amisfield, in very difficult positions. My right hon. Friend can save Calke only if he cuts his already hard-pressed budget elsewhere, and the chairman has had to choose between Belton and Calke. The National Trust, in which I declare an interest as a member of its executive committee, would like to help. If it accepts Calke, it must be with a proper endowment. The trust is not acquisitive. It accepts a heavy responsibility when it guarantees a house in perpetuity, and it has learnt the hard way that no endowment, if inflation is running above a certain level, is theoretically adequate.

The trust's estimates of the costs of saving this house and putting it into proper order have not been questioned. Following the refusal of the Treasury to accept non-heritage land as an endowment, other means of saving Calke abbey have been exhaustively explored for more than two years, including finding tenants for part of the house and stables, endowment for the park only, transfer to another charitable trust, setting up a family maintenance trust, obtaining a part endowment from the family, and altering the family trust through court order. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that, after seeking expert advice, all these alternatives have proved to be ineffective or impractical. In particular, it is a misconception that, after paying the outstanding tax, the family trustees would have adequate funds to set up a maintenance trust. They have conclusively demonstrated that they could not do so.

The chairman of the national heritage memorial fund, in a letter to The Times, a copy of which he sent to me, said: To date, the National Heritage Memorial Fund has been invited to consider contributing to one solution only for Calke Abbey. Are there no other ways to save Calke? Is this not a case when a wider partnership of interests, including Government, National Trust, Historic Buildings Council, local authorities, the Harpur-Crewe Trustees as well as ourselves, could achieve the objective which all your correspondents are seeking? For our part, and within our available resources, we are ready to consider any possibilities. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will wish to explore this and other possible ways forward. He should bear in mind the fact that many people would be saved much trouble, which may in the end not bear fruit, if he persuaded his colleagues in the Treasury to accept the Hardwick route. It is what every good solution to a problem should be—quick, clean and certain.

1.12 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) on bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The issues are complex, and I am grateful for the opportunity to put the Government's position on the record. In recent weeks, some random arguments have been put forward, which I do not believe are entirely accurate.

Since her election to represent Derbyshire, South my hon. Friend has taken considerable interest in this case, and rightly so, since, as she has pointed out, it affects many of her constituents who are tenants of the Harpur-Crewe estate, as well as the future of Calke abbey.

The Government do not dissent from the view that Calke abbey is an important building and one of considerable historical and architecural interest. It is listed grade 1 and it is set in attractive parkland. Its unique character is due very much to the survival of contents and furnishings, that have remained untouched and undisturbed for generations. Those qualities undoubtedly are of significant interest, but one may question some of the more extravagant claims that have recently been made for Calke.

It has been said that Calke abbey has tremendous potential as a tourist attraction, but the house has never been open to the general public. It has been said that the attractions of Calke are equal to those of the best houses currently open to the public, but to some that seems excessive. It is the "time capsule" quality that has attracted many of those who have written about Calke, but Mat is a fragile commodity. There must be questions about the ease with which the interiors of the house could be presented to any large numbers of visitors.

This is a case which, at the end of the day, must be judged by reference to priorities and the availability of resources. Those are considerations that often seem to get overlooked by some in the heritage world who believe that somehow there can be some sort of absolute priority for each and every case.

In this case, it has been represented that the proposals made by the Harpur-Crewe trustees represent the only method by which Calke can be saved for the future. Furthermore, it is said that the onus is on the Government to act and that they must act now to save Calke otherwise it will be lost for ever. We do not accept either of those premises and it is, in our view, open to the trustees, if they are willing, to develop viable alternative approaches that could, with some more limited public assistance secure the future preservation of Calke. That is certainly what we want to see.

Nor can we accept that, because the trustees are the victims of some sort of so-called "technicality", we should put things right retrospectively with the stroke of a pen. I do not like to think where that line of argument would lead. Bending the law to fit difficult cases is not, and never has been an acceptable way for any Government to proceed. We are where we are. The trustees' proposals call for the allocation of large sums of public money and they must be considered in that light.

Before I develop some of the arguments further, it may be helpful to review briefly the background to the present situation. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South has touched on it. The late Mr. Harpur-Crewe, who had been the life tenant of the estate and resident at Calke abbey since 1949, died in March 1981. Since the trustees had not made any provision otherwise. Mr. Harpur-Crewe's death gave rise to a very large capital transfer tax bill which became due just over two years ago, in October 1981. It was not until the end of April 1982 that the trustees submitted to the Inland Revenue their formal proposal to settle the tax bill by an offer of property in lieu of tax. In view of the size and complexity of the estate, the need to come to terms with changed circumstances and to make assessments and appraisals, it is perhaps understandable that it should have taken the trustees some 13 months to make their offer. Until that time, however, the trustees had not consulted my Department or the Inland Revenue about their proposals; although it seems that they had already sought the views and advice of the National Trust.

The estate's holdings are very large indeed; apart from Calke abbey and the thousand or so acres of parkland immediately adjoining it, they have some 9,000 acres of land in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, for the most part let to agricultural tenants,and also about 3,000 acres of moorland in the Staffordshire Peak District.

The proposals made by the trustees in April 1982 were that the Inland Revenue should accept in lieu of tax the heritage property — Calke abbey together with its contents and adjoining parkland and also the moorland in Staffordshire. In addition, the trustees proposed that as much of the other property—that is the agricultural land — should be accepted as was needed to settle the remainder of the tax bill and that this property could then be used to provide an endowment and a source of capital for the future preservation of Calke abbey.

On the basis of the trustees' provisional assessments at that time, the tax was likely to be million to £8 million and they would need to offer the greater part of the agricultural estate in addition to the heritage property to settle the bill for tax and accumulated interest.

The trustees clearly had it in mind that, once accepted, Calke abbey would be given by the Government to the National Trust, although they did not make that a condition of the offer. From the point of view of the trustees and the National Trust the offer of the agricultural property no doubt seemed a simple mechanism for paying the tax bill and at the same time providing the trust with an endowment to secure the future of Calke.

My Department and the Inland Revenue made it clear to the trustees' solicitor at an early stage that the proposition was anything but straightforward. Indeed, at the Department's suggestion, it was proposed to the trustees and accepted by them that it would be sensible to proceed with the offer of the Staffordshire moorland separately from the offer of Calke and the endowment land since the issues involved were more straightforward and it should therefore be possible to process more quickly.

In April this year the trustees were informed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had agreed in principle that he would recommend to the Inland Revenue that Calke abbey, its contents and parkland, be accepted in lieu of tax subject to suitable arrangements being made for its future maintenance and preservation. The trustees were also informed that the Secretary of State could not agree to recommend acceptance of the non-heritage land offered by the trustees and therefore that if Calke abbey were to be transferred to the National Trust some other means would have to be found to raise the endowment they would require. At the same time the National Trust was also informed of these decisions.

It is important that we should all be clear about what is meant in this context by the expression "non-heritage land". We are talking here about 7,000 or 8,000 acres of land, much of it not even contiguous with Calke but made up of various holdings in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire. The majority of this land is let to agricultural tenants but also included were various tenanted houses, cottages, pubs, small holdings and so on.

The trustees made no claims for the scenic or amenity values of the property and offered it only as a convenient means of providing an endowment. The Government were really being asked to acquire thousands of acres of agricultural land and hundreds of separately tenanted dwellings and then to hand it all to the National Trust to deal with as it saw fit in the interests of providing income and capital for the preservation of Calke abbey.

It certainly took some time to reach the decision that I have referred to—just under 12 months, rather than 18 months as some have stated. However, that is a reflection of the unusual and complex nature and also the magnitude of what the trustees had proposed.

During the months from May 1982 to April 1983 a considerable amount of detailed appraisal was necessary. We had to proceed from a position where virtually nothing was known about Calke and the estate's land holdings. Naturally, we sought the recommendation of the Historic Buildings Council, our advisers in these matters. There were consultations with the National Trust about the offer and its endowment requirements should Calke be transferred to it. My Department was also in regular contact with the trustees' solicitors.

The recommendation of the Historic Buildings Council was that Calke abbey together with its contents and essential adjoining land was of a quality to merit acceptance, and the Secretary of State did not dissent from that recommendation. It also agreed that it would be appropriate to transfer Calke to the ownership of the National Trust for future preservation in the interests of the public.

The National Trust stated that its requirements were for an endowment of some £4.1 million and a capital fund of £3.6 million to finance repairs and other works connected with opening the property to the public. As I said earlier, it was the hope of both the trustees and the National Trust that those sums could be provided if the Government accepted the trustees' offer of other property in lieu of tax that would then be given to the National Trust to use as a source of capital and income.

Our position has remained absolutely clear over the past eight months — we are not prepared to use the "acceptance in lieu" mechanism as a means of providing endowment funds for the National Trust or any other body. This is not a matter of empty dogma; there are in fact perfectly sensible reasons for taking the view that we do, which I will come to in a few moments. The point that I wish to make is that the trustees—and the National Trust — have been fully aware of the Government's decision on that point since April this year, and our position has not altered.

The National Trust approached the national heritage memorial fund, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Bulmer) referred, to see if the fund could provide it with financial assistance for Calke. The trustees of the fund did not feel able to afford the scale of assistance required for the sort of scheme envisaged by the National Trust. They had, in fact, been approached by the National Trust at about the same time for assistance to enable the trust to acquire Belton house in Lincolnshire and the trustees of the funds agreed to provide some £8 million for that purpose.

In the ensuing months from April until the present time discussions have continued between the solicitors acting for the trustees and officials of my Department and of the Inland Revenue in an attempt to find an alternative solution acceptable to all sides. We have made it clear all along that we would look at any proposal from the trustees that was significantly different from their original scheme.

At the end of October this year the solicitors wrote to my Department informing us that sales of estate property would soon have to proceed and that, to quote the letter if no alternative solution can be achieved by the anticipated auction date, it is inevitable that Calke will be lost forever to the Nation". Dramatic words indeed. However, as I said earlier and as I hope I made clear in the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South on 24 November, we do not accept that full Government funding of the entire cost of preserving Calke represents the only option.

It may assist if I now explain in a little more detail why we decided that the acceptance in lieu mechanism should not be used to accept endowment property in the way suggested by the trustees.

First, I think that there has been some suggestion that somehow there is no real cost to the Government in accepting property in lieu of tax. While it is no doubt true that the occurrence of deaths and other events giving rise to capital transfer tax charges cannot be predicted, it would be wrong to regard each cm- bill as a windfall to the Government. Taking one year with another, the total CTT take will not vary greatly. Therefore, when the Government choose to forgo tax by instead accepting property that they then give to another body, they are incurring a real resource cost just as if they were spending cash on the same activity; furthermore, accepting property in lieu of tax hypothecates revenue to particular causes, and that, too, is a decision about priorities in the use of resources.

Second, there are only limited resources available for accepting property in lieu of tax. The cost of all acceptances is met jointly from the Votes of my Department and the Office of Arts and Libraries. The Vote provision is currently £2 million per year, and that has so far proved sufficient to meet the offers of heritage property that we have wished to accept. To the extent that it is not adequate, it would of course be possible to increase the provision by some reallocation of resources from other programmes. While we might be willing to do that to facilitate the acceptance of some exceptionally important item of heritage property, there is no case for doing so now, even if the funds were available, to enable the non-heritage land offered by the Harpur-Crewe trustees to be accepted.

The arrangements for heritage funding were significantly improved and modified by the National Heritage Act 1980. The Act abolished the national land fund, the residual assets of which were used to provide an initial endowment for the national heritage memorial fund created as an independent trustee body by the Act. In addition, the legislation provided for the Secretary of State and the Minister with responsibility for the arts to make grants to the national heritage memorial fund and, separately, to provide the resources for accepting property in lieu of tax.

The heritage fund was given unique powers to hold capital and earn interest on balances. Thus it was the national heritage memorial fund that was created with the powers and capability to act as a contingency reserve for heritage causes; the acceptance-in-lieu machinery was intended simply for the acceptance of heritage quality property. Decisions about priorities are never easy. In the case of Calke abbey, the trustees of the fund did not then feel that they could afford the sums requested by the National Trust, given the other demands then before them, including the trust's request for support with the acquisition of Belton.

The introduction of those new and much improved arrangements in 1980—particularly the creation of the national heritage memorial fund which has rightly won much praise for its work— is the answer to those who tell us that there is a precedent for what is proposed for Calke in the arrangements adopted for Hardwick hall some 25 years ago to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest referred.

The 1980 National Heritage Act is only one of a number of measures that demonstrate the importance that the Government attach to the heritage. We have also made significant improvements in the system of capital tax exemptions for heritage property, and introduced tax incentives to encourage owners to establish maintenance funds for the preservation of historic houses. It is a harsh fact, however, that no Government, however well-disposed, can offer an open-ended commitment to provide resources for the heritage. The total cost to the Government of the Harpur-Crewe trustees' proposal could be of the order of £9 or £10 million.

The Government are willing to contribute significantly. We have indicated that Calke itself could in principle he accepted in lieu of tax at a cost of the order of £2 million, and that significant grant aid could be available through the usual channels to assist with the cost of repairs and other works to enable the house to be shown to the public. We continue to believe that the trustees themselves could make a contribution to securing the future of Calke.

The trustees have cast doubt on whether the residue of the estate, after the payment of tax, would be sufficient to establish a maintenance fund to secure the future of Calke in perpetuity. That must depend on the size of fund that would be needed, the price they will get for sales to meet the tax bill, and so on. It is not something that can be known with certainty. The trustees' original offer undoubtedly represented considerable advantages for them. Not only would they achieve the laudable aim of securing the future of Calke, but they would also be settling the whole of the tax bill in one single huge transaction which would be much more straightforward, as well as being financially more beneficial to the estate, than a multitude of separate sales.

The solicitor for the trustees has produced the ingenious argument that their proposals do no more than to achieve what could have been done through the conditional exemption and maintenance fund route, had they acted before the death of the late Mr. Harpur-Crewe. But the fact is that—for whatever reason—the estate did not make any proper plans or provision for financing the future maintenance and preservation of Calke and at Mr. Harpur-Crewe's death they found themselves confronting a huge tax bill. Other considerations apart, there are many owners who have taken considerable trouble to secure the future of their houses and we are anxious to persuade others of the importance of doing so. It would be inconsistent and even unfair if we were now to "correct" the situation at Calke by providing for its future maintenance and preservation entirely at public expense.

The Government are willing to consider any alternative proposals that the trustees can put forward. I have already explained why the original proposals are unacceptable. If, however, the trustees, the national heritage memorial fund or some consortium of interested bodies could between them develop a significantly different approach within the parameters that I have set out, we shall consider it constructively. It might be helpful if the various interested parties could get together to consider what real alternatives there might be. The Government are prepared and willing to listen and to consider positive suggestions from the various parties concerned. I hope that such suggestions will be made as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past One o'clock.