HL Deb 25 April 1934 vol 91 cc713-23

LORD CONWAY OF ALLINGTON had given Notice that lie would call attention to the lack of provisions in the Ancient Monuments Acts for the maintenance of houses of historical or artistic importance; and move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not think I need apologise for calling your Lordships' attention to a matter which is really of the greatest importance to this country. England, as the centre of the English-speaking world and as a country full of the interest and importance and history of Europe, preserves a marvellous collection of old buildings, ecclesiastical, civil, domestic, unrivalled by any other country in the world. That is our great heritage. The heritage of this people is in what its forefathers have left behind on the surface of the earth—not merely the cathedrals and churches they built, but still more the houses in which they lived and in which they took so much pride. Those houses are now in a very perilous condition. They are actually in danger from year to year of going backwards, and even of falling down. Many of our ancient houses, houses of first-class historical importance, have already suffered. Some have been pulled down; many are no longer inhabited and no longer taken any good care of, and they are in a condition of peril. Our heritage of the past is imperilled by the way in which we are treating its monuments.

This is not a matter which I raise as a single individual. The condition of our ancient monuments is a matter which has attracted the attention of Parliament more than once, and which receives great attention from the public. There have been from time to time important attempts at legislation. The Ancient Monuments Protection Act, 1882, the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act, 1913, and the Ancient Monuments Act, 1931, show how considerable has been the attention which even Parliament has been able to devote to this question. In addition to those Acts, in 1921, when the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, was First Commissioner of Works, he appointed an Advisory Committee to consider the whole question of the position of ancient houses. That Committee reported, but its Report naturally did not receive much attention, and it has been forgotten. So far has it been forgotten that I believe I possess the only copy of the Report which survives; and I should be glad if that Report could be reprinted and laid on the Table of the House.

That Committee, dealing with the Acts, and especially with the Act of 1913, considered the whole question. They began by deciding what an ancient monument was, and they defined it as any monument specified in the schedule to the Act of 1882, and any other monuments or things which in the opinion of the Commissioners of Works are of a like character, and any monument or part or remains of a monument the preservation of which is a matter of public interest by reason of the "historic, architectural, traditional, artistic, or archaeological importance" attaching thereto. That definition would seem to be wide enough to embrace any ancient monument, even a house, but the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act, 1913, in Section 12, subsection (3), provides: This section shall not apply to any structure which is occupied as a dwelling house by any person other than a person employed as the caretaker thereof or his family. The Finance Act, 1930, further dealt directly with this question by enacting in Section 40, subsection (2), that: … such pictures, prints, books, manuscripts, works of art, scientific collections or other things not yielding income as on a claim being made to the Treasury under this section appear to them to be of national, scientific, historic or artistic interest should be exempted from Death Duties. It would appear that the wording of that section is wide enough to include houses, but as a matter of fact it does not include them. Houses, however wonderful as works of art, however treasured as historical monuments, are excluded from any protection under any of the Ancient Monuments Acts.

Let me for a moment direct your Lordships' attention to the French law dealing with ancient monuments. By that law the owner of a national monument, or of a house scheduled as of national importance, is forbidden to interfere with its artistic qualities, but he receives from the State in return the undertaking of certain parts of the upkeep. In fact, in France, the State does maintain the structure of ancient houses of sufficient importance to be included in the schedule of ancient monuments. Many of your Lordships will be familiar with the chateaux on the Loire. They are all marvellously well preserved; and they are preserved at the expense of the State, but they remain inhabited, habitable by and useful to their owners. I have not the figures and I do not know how much that action costs the French Government, but at all events, in return for giving up a portion of his rights, and for allowing his property to be visited at certain hours by the public, the owner gets his structure or his building kept in order by the State.

I would call your Lordships' attention to the fact that a great many of the great houses in England are in a parlous state. The owners cannot afford to spend upon them the money which the upkeep requires. I will not name any particular house; your Lordships know them well. There is, for instance, one house with many acres of roof, and that roof is in a condition needing very considerable expenditure, which the owner cannot meet. Unless it is taken over by the Government in some shape or form, that house is doomed; the roof will fall in and then it will be a ruin. The remarkable fact is that while it is still roofed and still inhabited it must bear Death Duties, it must pay taxes—Income Tax and so forth—on a valuation. It has to bear all that, and the owner gets no assistance from the British public, which possesses so vast an interest in that building and in others like it. If it were to become a ruin, if the roof were allowed to fall in, then it would be possible for it to be scheduled as a public monument and for the Office of Works to take it over, to repair or replace the roof, and bring it again into a habitable condition; but it would not be inhabited while it was an ancient monument. While it is an ancient monument and is inhabited it can get no assistance whatever from the State.

It is not enough to buy one of these houses and make a kind of museum of it. That has been done in several cases. Old houses in some of the great towns have been bought, or received as gifts, and have become the property of the city in question, but what do you get? You get a sort of museum piece. What we really want is to have houses lived in—houses that have been lived in by generations of one family, houses which contain the accumulation of family portraits, and one thing and another which give life and vitality to a building, not a mere museum. We have museums enough perhaps; I sometimes think that we have too many. We do not want to have a number of houses treated as museums; we want them to be lived in. We want our kinsmen beyond the seas, when they come in great numbers to visit the Mother Country and to see her treasures, to see places that are alive and not dead museums, which might be copied and rebuilt anywhere else in the world. We want a living thing preserved, and that is one of the difficulties with which we are faced in this connection.

It is a commonplace to say that this failure to maintain our great houses is due to the Death Duties. The Death Duties on these houses are not heavy. These houses are treated, so far as I know, with considerable liberality by the Government, and indeed I think you will find that most of these great houses which are tending to come into a parlous condition are lightly treated when it comes to Death Duties. It is not the Death Duties on the houses which really cause the trouble but the Death Duties on the estates. A man inherits a great national house. He inherits not an asset but a very heavy liability, and one that his estate is very likely unable to bear. It is with these houses as it has been with some of our English cathedrals. Take Westminster Abbey for example. It was richly endowed by pious donors in the past, and it was a very rich corporation. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners, when they were founded and brought into operation, took away the bulk of the estates of these very rich old establishments and left them with incomes sufficient for carrying on their daily work as places of worship, but they left nothing for the maintenance of the fabric. The result was that when, a few years ago, there was a great cry that Westminster Abbey was in danger, they had not the money for doing the necessary repairs. A subscription was opened and largely subscribed to, and they were thus enabled, by the generosity of living people, to save the Abbey for posterity. That ought not to have been necessary. There was an estate sufficient ten times over for all purposes, but it had been confiscated.

The same thing is happening in regard to our great national houses. The owners of them have not had very large demands made upon them for Death Duties on the houses, but the demands for Death Duties on the estates have been such as to eat up all the financial resources that would have enabled the owners to maintain their houses. That has happened generation after generation, and each generation comes nearer to the point when the inherited property is almost insufficient for maintaining the family house, and no considerable help is obtained from outside. Take the valuation for Income Tax and so forth. I need not mention the name of any great place, but your Lordships will easily be able to dot my "i's" and cross my "t's," if I take an imaginary case. A question arises as to the valuation of an estate for Income Tax and Death Duties and rates and taxes. The proper valuation is small, but the authorities come down on the owner and say: "No, it is true you have got a large house and it is historic and costs you money to maintain it. You may have two such houses, or a park or two such parks, all valued for rates and taxes and so forth, and if you were to pull down your great houses and eat up your parks into building land you would not only receive a much bigger income but also save the great expense of living in your ancestral home."

There is a direct urging from the Government side to destroy and not to preserve our national heritage. It is absolutely impossible to look forward one hundred years and see surviving, with any certainty, any considerable number of our great houses, and not merely our great houses, because some of the most important architectural monuments which remain are small houses, and those are falling under the scythe of taxation from year to year in increasing numbers. It is this impoverishment of the propertied classes, in so far as it applies to houses, that is the cause of our unfortunate position. We are using up our national heritage and allowing it to disappear. We are allowing one of the great assets of our civilised country to pass out of our hands. We are allowing a great treasure to be destroyed, and it is not merely a sentimental treasure but it is a great practical treasure.

The tourist industry, as we all know, is very badly run in this country. I am told that if we ran the tourist industry with the same ability as the Italians do we might reckon on a profit of £10,000,000 a year, which we are far from getting now; but the tourist industry, if it is to yield a return, must include the great houses. People come from the ends of the earth to see England, but they want to see the houses, the names of which are on the tips of our tongues. They are allowed to see them. The owners are very generous in this matter and they open their doors to the public, two or three times a week it may he, freely, and in return for that they get nothing. In France if a man throws open his house for public enjoyment he gets a return. The Government step in and save his house from destruction, and schedule it as a national monument. We are threatened on all sides in this country. It has happened to be my duty to investigate the condition of these old houses in England, and I can assure your Lordships that the condition of many of them is terrible.

I beg your Lordships to consider the importance of this question. I am not making any demand for money, I am not putting forward any proposal as to how the trouble should be met. I merely desire to raise the question in order to obtain support from the public in a movement to maintain and preserve, and repair if necessary, the great heritage we possess in our fine and beautiful ancient buildings. You have a schedule drawn up of ancient monuments and houses that are not inhabited, but it is the inhabited house that we want to preserve. Once an old house becomes empty and abandoned it has lost three-quarters of its charm, and much of its value. We want to preserve the important houses that people live in, and we want a schedule of them and some contribution from the State towards their maintenance in a useful state.

I do not believe there exists one member of this House who does not substantially agree with what I am saying. Everybody who realises the condition to which our ancient and important houses are gradually being reduced must see that it is time that something was done to arrest this destruction and decay. What that should be it is not for me to say. It is a question in the first instance of finance., with which we have nothing to do. It is a question for the Government to take up as opportunity arises and as soon as possible, so that we may retain the possession of these buildings of great value and hand them on to posterity not wrecked, ruined and destroyed, but repaired, kept beautiful and in a condition of utility. I lay this question before your Lordships with confidence that I shall obtain public-spirited support from all classes of the community in this agitation in which I am taking part. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Conway of Allington, asked me whether I would support his proposal as representing the smaller manor houses, as he has been speaking rather of the great houses of England, so many of which belong to members of your Lordships' House. I do indeed gladly support his proposal, and I would make one or two specific suggestions about it. It so happens that I live in a house which is universally acclaimed by artistic people as a house of beauty. Mottistone Manor, to which by great good fortune I succeeded some years ago, is a very beautiful manor house. Its roof is in good repair, and I believe it will remain so during my lifetime and my son's. But I tell you this because of an interesting experience I had, which reinforces the argument which the noble Lord has addressed to your Lordships' House and the Government.

I was asked not long ago if somebody could come down—I think from Country Life—to draw pictures of the house and write an account of it. A most interesting man came, and I said to him when he had done his work: "How sad it must be for you to think that your very interesting task must now be coming to an end, for I think you told me that for seven years you have been going round England seeing these beautiful old Elizabethan and Tudor houses, big and small." He replied to me: "Oh, no, that is not the point at all. There are enough of them in England for me to continue going round seeing houses of historic and artistic interest for another twenty years, but I have got to hurry up, because so many of them are falling down." This was a man who really knew what he was talking about. The thing is urgent. England, I believe, from what this man and others have told me, has more beautiful buildings of this kind than any other land on earth. I think Sir Edwin Lutyens would agree with me in that, indeed I am sure he would, because he told me. Yet we are taking less care of these buildings than any other country.

The noble Lord, Lord Conway, instanced the castles on the Loire, and in almost every country special arrangements are made whereby beautiful buildings of historic or artistic interest, whether big or small, are relieved of taxation and relieved of rates and other burdens in order to induce owners to continue to live there and maintain them intact as beautiful buildings. Now I would suggest to His Majesty's Government, with deep respect, that they really ought to act before it is too late. Lord Conway told us of one historic house the roof of which is falling in. There are many others. Why should not the Government revive Lord Crawford's Committee? Why should they not then decide to treat historic houses as we already treat great pictures and say that if the owner will give facilities on a reasonable scale, as is done in France, those buildings should be exempt from Death Duties, and that other things shall be done to help the owners to keep them in good repair, and so maintain them for the advantage of all concerned? I respectfully beg the Government to take this matter into their immediate consideration. It is not one of those things that can afford to wait. I hope they will take some action forthwith which will preserve, let us hope for all time, these glories of England.


My Lords, the object of the Motion which stands in the name of my noble friend is to recommend the inclusion in the Ancient Monuments Act of provisions for the maintenance of houses of historical or artistic importance. But in reality I believe that the wishes of the noble Lord go somewhat beyond that, for his speech was devoted to the possibility of relieving the landlord or the owner of these historic houses of the crushing burden of Death Duties, which, of course, do—and I think that is generally recognised—on the succession of a new life seriously prejudice any appreciable chance there may be of carrying out the necessary repairs and maintenance. The Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee, of which my noble friend is a member, gave a full report on this point, under the heading of "Secular buildings in use," and I will endeavour to explain to my noble friend why these recommendations were not accepted by His Majesty's Government.

In the first place any attempt by the State to exercise a reasonable degree of control over inhabited houses was likely to raise considerable opposition on the part of the owner, or if the Commissioner accepted responsibility for repairs and maintenance he must of necessity be given large statutory powers. Secondly, the expense involved in any large scheme of taking over responsibility for maintenance in whole or in part of any of these historical or artistic buildings must represent a figure which, although it is not possible to estimate it, would certainly be one of considerable size. The additional questions of rating, taxation and Death Duties would all have to be taken into account. Under the existing Ancient Monuments Acts, 1913 and 1931, the Commissioner of Works has power to schedule, or with the owner's consent to assume guardianship of, any ancient monument which is not an ecclesiastical building in use or a dwelling-house inhabited by anyone except the caretaker. On the other hand, buildings of an artistic nature and importance can now be scheduled as having special architectural or historical interest under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1932, and cannot be demolished without the consent of the local planning authority. That, as the noble Lord will see, does guard to some extent against the destruction of these ancient buildings.

The noble Lord raised one or two points which I shall endeavour to answer. I fully realise that the noble Lord has a particularly strong case, but I cannot let pass his remark that it appeared to him that His Majesty's Government were destroying our national heritage. I believe that the policy which His Majesty's Government have pursued arid which has resulted in a reduction of taxation has considerably alleviated the distress of the owners of these properties. On the other hand, the noble Lord will recollect that if the Opposition one day assume the powers of Government and proceed upon a policy of taxation of land values, a very different story may be told. The noble Lord based his claim for the exemption of these properties on the ground that, under existing law, pictures and works of art which are adjudged to be of national, historical, artistic, or scientific interest are exempt from Death Duties until they are sold.

The claim that land and buildings of national importance should also be exempted from Death Duties has been put forward from time to time and was last considered by the National Parks Committee in 1931. This Committee in effect rejected the claim for exemption from Death Duties of lands and buildings of national importance so long as they remained in private ownership. They did, however, recommend the exemption of land and buildings which are given or bequeathed by will to the National Trust or some similar institution. This decision was accepted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a clause was inserted dealing with that point in the Finance Act of 1931, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer of that date was not prepared to give effect to the suggestion that relief should be extended to lands and buildings remaining in private ownership. I am afraid that His Majesty's Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to-day do not feel inclined to alter the decision on that point. The object of exempting works of art from the payment of Death Duties was to induce the owner not to sell these works abroad. It was hoped it would give him some inducement to keep them and value them, and for that reason they were excluded from the payment of Duty.

I fully agree with my noble friend and with the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, that these historical buildings entail a very heavy expense to the owner and may be, as they sometimes are, largely kept up for the benefit of an interested and admiring public who have rights of access to the property. These, I am advised, are not considerations which can lead to their exemption from Death Duties, but they are factors which are taken into consideration in determining the value of property on which Duty is chargeable. A large house of historical or artistic importance is not really valued at any very large sum of money for Death Duty purposes. On the contrary, it is valued at an exceptionally small sum. If the owner of the house is also the owner of large property round about it then the graduation of his Death Duties will be due entirely to the value of the land which he owns.

The noble Lord addressed one or two questions to me, and he asked if the document from which he quoted about the situation of the chateaux in France—namely, the Report of the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee of 1921—could be reprinted. I understand there are a certain number still at the Stationery Office, but if the noble Lord could give me some indication of the number he requires I should be happy to arrange for the publication of further copies of this Report.

I am sorry I cannot accept the Motion of the noble Lord. I hope he will realise that His Majesty's Government fully appreciate that Death Duties are a heavy burden upon the owners of land and the owners of these historical houses, but it would be quite contrary to the decisions of successive Chancellors of the Exchequer if a policy were instituted allowing the owner of an ancient house of historical interest to reside in that house for the remainder of his life and for his heirs and successors to do likewise, and for the maintenance and upkeep of that house to be chargeable to the public purse. I wish sincerely that I could accept the noble Lord's suggestion. Indeed, if he suggested to me that he wished the complete abolition of Death Duties I should be with him, but unfortunately the public purse requires money, and at the present time His Majesty's Government cannot give any indication of relief in the way my noble friend suggests. I would therefore ask him to withdraw his Motion.


My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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