HL Deb 14 May 1953 vol 182 cc546-69

My Lord before the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, rises, and with the indulgence of the House, may I say this about the matter which is to be immediately discussed? It is right that the House should know that in another place a short time ago the following Question and Answer were given: MR. COLEGATE: To ask the Minister of Works whether the Government has decided on the method to be adopted for the preservation of historic buildings. MR. ECCLES: Yes, sir. The Government are preparing a Bill which will authorise the Minister of Works to pay grants for the repair and maintenance of buildings of outstanding historic or architectural merit. The grants could be either on an annual basis or for an agreed period of years. Historic Buildings Councils will he set up for England, for Wales and for Scotland to advise the Minister in the exercise of these powers. I am glad to say that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed to make £500,000 available from the National Land Fund over a period of five years, for the purchase of outstanding buildings which would otherwise be lost. This is additional to the £250,000 a year which will be available for repair and maintenance grants. It is hoped that the National Trusts will be willing to participate in the administration of this work. I thought it was only courteous to the House that they should know that this Question had been put and this Answer given, before the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, moves his Motion. I can only regret that I was not able to tell him at an earlier date.


Can the noble and learned Lord say when that measure is likely to be introduced?


I can only say, "at the earliest possible moment which Parliamentary time allows"; but if I get any previous information I will let the noble Lord know.


Can the noble and learned Lord say when that Question and Answer were given?


About half an hour ago.

4.21 p.m.

LORD METHUEN rose to call attention to the demolition of Historic Houses; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think we have all been very glad to hear the announcement made by the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor. I, for my own part, feel very satisfied that one of the questions, at least, which is embodied in my Motion has been answered. If I put it again it will be by accident, because in the confusion of the moment I have had to revise what I was about to say. That cannot be helped. The great thing is that we have made progress. Nevertheless, I am afraid your Lordships will have to have my speech. And I make no excuse for giving it, because, excellent as the announcement has been in some ways, I consider that the sum of money to be made available is wholly inadequate. Therefore, I feel I have an excuse for going ahead.

Those who heard the debate on February 6 in another place on the preservation of our architectural heritage must have been impressed by the unanimity of opinion on both sides of the House. In fact, in political terms one would say that the Conservatives had the Socialist wind in their sails—which is all right for people like myself, who need not be interested in politics (I am speaking as a Liberal) and who see it purely from the point of view of interest in archæology and architecture. The existing laws in this matter date back to the time when the owners of historic buildings were able to maintain them: that is, prior to 1914. There was no necessity then for the State to interfere except in the case of ancient ruins, such as the old abbeys or prehistoric earthworks, et cetera, which would hardly be habitable. For many centuries the Ministry, or the Office of Works as it was then, had in addition to maintain the Royal Palaces—


I wonder whether the noble Lord would mind coming a little nearer a microphone. We are missing some of these joyous things.


It is their proud boast that at one time Sir Christopher Wren was Controller of the Works, Sir John Vanbrugh was Surveyor of the Works, Grinling Gibbons was the King's Carver, and Sir Godfrey Kneller was the King's Limner. Two major wars and consequent taxation and the present military build-up has changed all that, but our laws with regard to maintenance are virtually unaltered and are completely inapplicable to present circumstances. The Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, is not concerned with maintenance but with lists, and does not affect the argument; and in any case the listing is not keeping pace with the demolitions. Hence the spate of demolitions; and unknown and unpredictable deterioration must be going on in the case of existing historic buildings, the vast majority of which cannot be receiving the care and maintenance they urgently require, particularly after six war years, when virtually no attention could be given to them, and the subsequent years when it was difficult to get a licence, or to foot the bill if you could.

In the debate on February 6 it was impressive to observe the way in which speakers on both sides supported the implementation of the Gowers Report. The Minister's reply appeared profoundly disappointing. A. sum of £250,000, he said, was to be set aside for the purpose of maintenance. This sum seems trivial and short-sighted, especially when it is considered what the National Exchequer draws annually by way of estate or death duties, an average sum for the last three years of about £184,000,000. Should not some of this money be ploughed back in order to preserve at least the most important parts of our national heritage of fine buildings, just as the French do? And they, after all, have their historic churches and cathedrals to maintain as well. The Government cannot plead that great expense.

This £250,000 mentioned by the Minister of Works will have, in all probability, to be spent in giving first aid to historic houses that have been abandoned, or to some of the redundant churches, few of which will stand up for long unaided. It is understood that none of the £4 million fund which is now being launched for the maintenance of the churches will be available for redundant ones, of which there, are two or three hundred which are worth preserving. At this stage I should like to ask a question: Have the Government any intention of spending any of the money I have mentioned on historic country houses which are inhabited and which are in urgent need of repair, in cases where the owner is unable to do so? At present, as the law stands, they cannot touch inhabited houses.

Your Lordships will, I hope, forgive me if I recall that, as long ago as 1945, when I returned to this country after a spell of twelve months as Monuments Officer in France and Belgium, I said that our laws relating to historic buildings were complicated and out of date, in so far as they made no provision for their maintenance or repair. Previously the late Lord Lothian, in 1934, had warned the country, while addressing the National Trust at its Annual Meeting, that our historic country houses would gradually disappear under the then existing conditions. The formation of the Historic Country House Committee of the National Trust came into being as a result of this warning and was the first step towards a policy of conservation.

The next step was the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944—which, however, made no provision at all for maintenance, but concerned itself only with listing buildings of importance and merit, including churches, bridges, et cetera. This work was confirmed by the 1947 Act. Questions have often been asked, in both Houses, as to when these lists will be completed and published. As late as January 16 last the noble Marquess the Leader of the House informed me in a written reply that 984 out of 1,480 local authority areas had been listed, but that it was not proposed to publish the lists. This is much to be regretted, as they would be of great value from an educational point of view and to the tourist trade. The completed lists may be available for inspection at the local authorities' offices, as the noble Marquess pointed out, but most people will want a pocket edition that they can buy and take on their journey. I hope that this matter will be taken a little more seriously and the lists published—as I previously suggested to Mr. Dalton when he was Minister—as soon as possible.

It was not until the Report on Historic Country Houses, by the able Committee presided over by Sir Ernest Gowers, was published in 1950, that definite recommendations were made for the maintenance of these houses, whether they were occupied or not, the negative nature of our legislation being pointed to with considerable emphasis. In addition, the disadvantages of having two Ministries dealing with virtually the same thing but with differing regulations, was criticised. Since then questions have been asked in both Houses as to if and when the recommendations of this Committee were going to be implemented. In fact, about two years ago in this House I myself initiated a debate which led to an interesting discussion in which the noble Marquess, the present Leader of the House, made an important and very helpful contribution. But it was clear at the time that the Government had not then given the matter full consideration. Later, however, a Bill was in course of preparation by the late Government, and it is surprising that no announcement has been made which follows on that Bill. Instead what has happened? The maintenance of historic buildings remains as it was, non-existent, except for those cared for by the Ministry of Works—namely, the Royal Palaces, the ruins of some of our ancient abbeys and castles, some early bridges and barns, and a mass of prehistoric remains of archæological importance, plus a few houses taken over by local authorities, such as Charlton House in Kent, or a recent addition, Rufford Abbey in the Dukeries, of which more anon.

A tremendous fuss is made when a bronze age burial ground is bull-dozed in my county of Wiltshire, but precious little notice is taken when one of the most interesting of our historic country houses is gutted by fire, as in the recent case of Coleshill. What is disturbing, but not wholly unexpected, and what came to light in the debate on February 6, was the demolition of historic country houses that had taken place since the war and appears to be continuing with unabated fury. I have here a list of some 60 houses of great historic interest which have been pulled down and another 100 which are being threatened. These were the known casualties up to about seven or eight months ago. We have had recently a list of demolished and threatened houses in East Anglia, published by the noble Lord, Lord Euston; and probably there are many others which have not come to the notice of institutions interested in compiling lists of historic houses: for your Lordships will realise that it is at present perfectly legal to demolish historic houses, however exciting they are historically, archæologically, or scenically, if they are not scheduled by the Ministry of Works or listed under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. I do not think that is generally realised. And a preservation order may come too late, when deterioration over a long period has been such that the expense of reconstruction has become prohibitive and a demolition order hard to refuse, especially when the estimate for reconstruction is, in the opinion of many people, rather higher than it need be.

There is another side to the picture which is also a bit grim. Local authorities and Ministries have been given such wide powers that, unless called upon to do so, they are not bound to submit plans to the proper Planning Ministry, as they certainly should, in cases where houses of an architectural or historical character are threatened. The case of Fitzharris Manor Estate at Abingdon, which dated from the thirteenth century, is an example. This site was an oasis in Abingdon: and your Lordships may remember that the Ministry of Supply bought it for housing the staff of the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment. They gave an undertaking, as I understand, to preserve the house, which was partly Elizabethan and partly Georgian, as well as the trees. After taking possession, the trees were cut down and the space thus cleared built over. The house, which was built by Thomas Teesdale who founded Pembroke College, Oxford, was left unprotected and open to hooligans. And, in course of time, it naturally fell into decay. A successful application was subsequently made for its demolition, a huge sum being named as necessary to reinstate it.

Cases of local authorities demolishing or allowing buildings of interest to be neglected are not difficult to find. At Bristol, for instance, Mr. John Betjeman, Mr. Maxwell, the then Director of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and myself, made a report for the Georgian Group on the so-called Roman Bath at Arno's Castle, which you pass on the main road in Brislington just before you enter Bristol from the East. It belonged, as it does still, to the Bristol Tramways, who use Arno Castle, a black and white stone building, as a rest centre for their employees. But the Roman Bath has long been abandoned. The object of our report was to try to persuade the local authority to get the building maintained by the owners. During the war, the Roman Bath suffered a little from blast and some of the fine plaster work by Stocking—an eminent Bristol craftsman who did much fine work during the latter half of the 18th century in the West Country—suffered.

Since the war, efforts have been made from time to time by the Bristol Preservation Trust, the Ministry of Works, and others to get the buildings cared for; but without success. In 1949, it was described by an eminent authority as a gem of its kind and distinctly a building which should be preserved for its own sake, not one which should be put to another use in order to save it. A suggestion has been made that it should be converted into a public convenience, but that suggestion did not come to much; it is now derelict, with bushes sprouting out of it, and I presume that in due course an application will be made for its demolition.

I will quote one more instance to illustrate my point about local authorities, that of a building occupying a site in St. Mary's Street and Square in Gloucester. From what I know of Gloucester, it cannot have a large number of interesting old buildings left, apart of course from the Georgian ones, and others in the precincts of the Cathedral; and that is all the more reason for preserving what remains. In the autumn of 1950 I happened to be lecturing at Cheltenham, and I spent the night at Gloucester. Next morning my attention was drawn to some demolitions that were going on at the back of the Deanery: and here I saw, to my sorrow, what remained, as a corner site, of some exciting late fifteenth century buildings, in half-timber, with high gables and overhanging stories, carved corbels and figures, characteristics typical of the choicer buildings of that date. On making inquiries, I was told that the Corporation had acquired the site, which was pretty extensive and covered by this interesting building which they were demolishing, in order to erect flats under their town planning scheme. Shocked at such vandalism, as it seemed, I got on to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning at once, only to be informed that they, too, were upset but that it was too late to do anything

It appears that this building, which, by the way, had been listed, was probably at one time of some importance, and may have been connected with the monastic establishment at Gloucester, possibly as an extra-mural guest house. What I saw was in a remarkably good state of preservation. Notwithstanding this, it was being demolished. I am not ashamed to give my personal reaction. I do not think any public authority or any private individual has any moral right to demolish a building of outstanding character without reference to the proper authority in the first place. It should be done in the early stages, instead of when it is too late. These buildings represent part of our national patrimony. If we persist in taking this course we shall get the reputation of being a lot of vandals and iconoclasts; and, what is worse, overseas visitors will fight shy of visiting this country. We have recently heard a good deal about Wrencote, an early eighteenth century town house of great distinction in High Street, Croydon. It is understood that this house is shortly to be demolished to make way for a block of offices and shops.

I do not want to bore your Lordships, but we have recently had discussions on what we should preserve. May I say that however interesting these discussions may be, they are beside the point and academic. There are those who chide us for looking back into the past as if our present were a matter of spontaneous combustion and owed no debt to the past. It must, however, be obvious that we can get nowhere if we do not study and learn from the past, which is the foundation on which the future is built. What we are asking now is that the value of the past in our architectural heritage be recognised and admitted; that steps be taken for its preservation and maintenance as a whole; and that a start be made now, without delaying and quibbling as to where and how the start is made. The councils which we understand are to be set up by the Ministry of Works can decide with the Minister of Works what is to be preserved and what is not. Obviously, a modest beginning will have to be made, and the scope increased gradually as the money becomes available. That is precisely what the French did over a hundred years ago. The four cases I have instanced just now may not be of great importance in themselves, but an important principle is involved. What we are now witnessing in the way of demolitions is, I fear, but a foretaste of what is to come, possibly on a much bigger scale, though I hope that the half a million pounds may cover the situation.

Let us now turn to the main theme of the Gowers Report, the historic country houses, the maintenance of which admittedly presents difficulties. Last year, as a delegate of the National Trust, I attended an international conference on historic castles, which was held in Dinant, in Belgium. There were delegates from all parts of Europe, including Yugoslavia; from Israel, a charming and enlightened professor from Jerusalem, who might have stepped straight out of the Old Testament; and a very keen delegate from Tunisia. Amongst the other delegates was a French Beaux-Arts architect, who owned a château in the Dordogne, which I subsequently visited. During the many conversations we had he said, rather unexpectedly coming from a Frenchman, "Of course, no other Frenchman would admit it, and you English are unaware of it, but you have finer châteaux in your country than we have in France." I thanked him, naturally, for the compliment, but he assured me that he meant it. Whether his statement is true or not, it makes one wonder whether we do value our historic country houses, and our manor houses and so forth, sufficiently to allow us to make a real effort and some sacrifices to maintain and retain them.

We should realise that there is an important section of the community, those members of the learned societies, and of the various local preservation trusts, who are frankly alarmed at the present scale of demolition and at the delay by Parliament in coming to a decision about the Gowers Committees recommendations. I do not regard what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said as a final answer to that problem. We should also consider the countless tourists who during the summer throng the grounds of those country houses that are open to the public—and there are many, for to-day this is the Englishman's popular sport, a development since the war. I believe that probably a great many more people visit historic country houses than visit our public museums, and you cannot blame them: one is uninhabited and the other, quite obviously, is not.

Further, to judge by the number of requests for advertising matter from periodicals in respect of these houses that are open to the public, I should imagine that they must be known to be a great draw and to be looked upon with a certain amount of affection by a very large number of people of all callings, as well as by an important contingent of overseas visitors who help to fill our tourist coffers. Was it not the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, who said in the debate on the tourist industry last October (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 178, col. 817): this question of historic houses is one of great importance, particularly to this industry."? In that debate the tourist industry was described by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, as the biggest dollar-earning industry of all. I am told that it earns, roughly, £100 million a year. I feel sure that the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, who is President of the British Travel and Holidays Association, shares these sentiments.

Your Lordships may have seen in the Library an exhibition of photographs, arranged by the National Buildings Record of England and Scotland, of a few of the houses that have been pulled down since the war, as well as some others which, to the best of our information, are in danger, chiefly through neglect, many of them having been abandoned. I have no intention of wearying your Lordships with a list of demolitions and of those hundred or more that we believe to be in danger. Some of your Lordships may have read in the Daily Telegraph this morning some account of these, particularly in East Anglia. There is not a house shown in those photographs in the Library that has not some merit; and one picture is worth a hundred words. Take, for instance, Layer Marney, one of the great English country houses, included in the first 300 or so, for many years uninhabited, of great period interest (it is Tudor) and, I believe, in tolerably good condition. It is just the sort of house, one would have thought, that the Ministry of Works would wish to take over. Or take another house, Mapledurham, in Oxfordshire, with its interesting literary associations, including those with Pope, but now empty and deteriorating, and, I am told, being allowed to go down under its own inertia—although, from the Answer he gave to Question, I gather that the Minister does not agree with this, for he gave a reassuring account of its state of preservation.

Perhaps the most pathetic is the case of Tyneham, in Dorset, a manor house erected by the Bond family, of Creek Grange, who built Bond Street. The site formed part of a tank training area and had to be abandoned to the military authorities and evacuated by the owner who, about nine months ago, died of a broken heart. Behind this Elizabethan house, built in about 1590, lies the fourteenth-century hall. One could mention Ashdown in Berkshire, a swagger house built by Webb for the then Lord Craven, who wished to get away, in 1666, from the effects of the Great Plague; or Fawley Court, near Henley-on-Thames, a Wren building. Both these, I believe, are threatened—or were until recently. Rufford Abbey, in the Dukeries, epitomises, perhaps, the sort of confusion we have got into by neglecting these houses too long. This house is mainly a Georgian reconstruction of a Jacobean dwelling, and contains a most interesting twelfth-century crypt, which the Ministry of Works are prepared to schedule. The house changed hands in 1938. After the war, the new owner wished to demolish it, but the Nottingham County Council stopped him by making a preservation order, only to find that by so doing they had to buy the house. Now, I am told, they can find no use for it, in spite of the big interests of the Coal Board in that vicinity, and of the Forestry Commission that have a centre nearby. It would be a pity to let this house deteriorate and qualify in due course for demolition. The Ministry of Works wish to schedule and preserve the crypt, and the present house would seem to provide as good a weather-resisting covering as any other structure; and in time, if a little patience is exercised, a new user will in all probability be found. It is well to note, in this case, that if the house itself becomes occupied the crypt cannot be scheduled; but if it is inhabited by a caretaker or demolished, the crypt can be scheduled if anything is left of it. What a state of affairs for a Welfare State!

Before putting down this Motion, I asked the Government some specific questions relating to country houses of historic interest that appeared to be in some danger, chiefly through neglect. One of the questions related to Beaupre Hall, in Norfolk, which I suggested should be scheduled and maintained. The Answer, given by the noble Earl, Lord Munster, stated that this structure was included in the List of Ancient Monu- ments—what I call scheduled—but that the Government had no money for its maintenance and therefore could not accept guardianship. The cost for initial repairs was estimated at £25,000. This is, I believe, the only good Tudor house left in Marshland. It is uninhabited and it is naturally deteriorating, and it looks as if we shall have to write it off unless some kind benefactor rescues it, before the customary demolition party comes on the scene.

This is the grim side of the picture. And it is invigorating and hopeful to turn to the help which the Government and that most valuable of all institutions, the Pilgrim Trust, are giving towards some of the houses that are in real need of help. One of the latest is, of course, Staunton Harold and its church, one of the few structures built during the Commonwealth and saved from the threat of open-cast coal-mining some three years ago. Let us hope that, with the promise of funds for its restoration, Staunton Harold will find a suitable new user, and so be preserved for many years to come.

We have heard a good deal about preservation orders which, by the way, are comparatively "rare birds" and are used with reluctance, for, as we have seen, they may prove costly. This preservation order is not what the term would suggest. It is really an anti-demolition order, and nothing more. Neither the Minister nor the local authority can insist that a building on which a preservation order has been issued shall be kept in repair. The modern technique seems to be, if you want to dispose of a redundant historic building, to demolish it before it is listed; or, if it has been listed, to let it rot until the application of a demolition order is a more or less foregone conclusion. In this way we have been, and still are, losing many fine buildings. A preservation order is, I believe, usually issued to prevent demolition. It can also be issued if a building has been neglected. But what value this can have it is hard to see, if the owner himself cannot be made to maintain it. Acquisition or guardianship by the Minister or local authority is, therefore, the only real safeguard. It is precisely this fundamental weakness in our law, which has not been put right by the few chosen words which the Lord Chancellor has just spoken, that should be amended, so that the State and the owner share in the maintenance of structures which are considered of national importance.

May I turn now to another matter. From the General Development Order made by the Minister in 1950, in order to simplify the operation of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, some unfortunate results have ensued. This Order permitted buildings, including listed buildings, to be altered in any way, subject to the height remaining the same as before and to the increase in cubic space not being more than 10 per cent., and subject, further, to the two months' notice under Section 30. As a result, there have been instances of squares, terraces, and so on being damaged by the removal of certain architectural ornaments, such as cornices and ironwork. Particularly in regard to Georgian buildings, there is no control over paint, with most astounding results, as we all know. In one case, a single house, one of many in a block of stucco buildings, has been painted bright red. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would ask the Minister to look into this—and particularly into the question of Georgian buildings.

No doubt many people have their own personal ideas as to how best to preserve buildings of historic interest. We have had a glimpse of what the Minister of Works has thought suitable. Mr. Osbert Lancaster has made several suggestions, amongst them that a historic country house in its landscape setting should be left at least as a picturesque ruin—afacade. This is rather harping back to the eighteenth century notion, when ruins were so much in favour that in France, you may remember, there was the well-known case of the Désert de Retz at Chambourcy, which was built as the truncated end of a Doric column of enormous proportions, the interior being arranged as a normal dwelling with skylights and windows placed in the flutings. I should not care to have that as a studio. Mr. Lancaster, quite rightly, has warned us against misplaced enthusiasm for the archaic as such, apart from its merits. I have not asked him why he thought that.

There is the Continental method of preservation, as for instance in France where for over one hundred years, as I have said, the Beaux-Arts, under the Minister of Education, have taken under their wing all the artistic activities of the country—the museums, the historic monuments, the scheduled sites, archives, et cetera, and have subsidised the owners of scheduled buildings with a 50 per cent. grant towards their upkeep. It would be interesting to know what France has spent on that work at the present moment. Apart altogether from the practical results achieved—and these have been immense—this action has given to a scheduled building a certain cachet which adds to the structure an importance it might not always have, particularly in the sight of amateurs and sightseers.

I have often noticed in France that local inhabitants tend to take a kindly interest in their monuments, which from a historical and educational point of view alone is surely all to the good. On arriving at a town for the first time, I have never found the slightest difficulty in finding someone who is prepared to show me the local scheduled structures, almost as a matter of courtesy due to a stranger. I think we are about the only European nation which makes no provision for the maintenance of our inhabited historic houses. As I have said, in France the Beaux-Arts come under the Minister of Education, I think, as a precaution that historic buildings and sights are not sacrificed to the passing and often pressing needs and interests of other Ministries, such as the Ponts et Chaussés, which I believe corresponds to our Ministry of Works.

These varied views and methods of conservation have, of course, a direct bearing on what we are discussing. I feel very strongly that the recommendations of the Gowers Report have not been faced up to, and that the country is getting restive and feels that this long delay since the publication of this Report in 1950 is leading—as we have already been told by the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack—to untold damage, both visible and invisible: visible, to judge by demolitions which apparently are continuing without restraint; invisible, in that many historic buildings, both inhabited and abandoned ones, are being neglected. The Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works knows better than anyone how, after a time, a building decays and must be given assistance if it is to survive. Therefore I am convinced that we must get back to this Report, in spite of all that has been said about the difficulty in financing its recommendations.

I hope the Government will abandon the idea of retaining what is left of the investigators under the Minister of Local Government and Planning and transfer them to the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works, where they rightly belong. That is another recommendation of the Gowers Report. The listing ought to be an extension of the Ancient Monuments Act. May I ask at this juncture, how many investigators are left of the original twenty-five? Are there any historic structures, like the fine bridges at, for instance, Maidenhead, Henley or Huntington and elsewhere, which have by now been listed, and which will be subsequently scheduled by the Ministry of Works?


I can answer the first question—eleven. I have that information in my head.


That is a very poor number. I hope that it will rapidly rise to thirty at least. I thank the noble and learned Lord for that answer. I would suggest that the appropriate Minister should create a bureau—it reed not have a large staff—to deal specifically with redundant historic country houses, with the object of finding buyers or users, even new uses, for such houses; to explore, for instance, the possibility of accommodating religious institutions from the Continent who may be wishing to find asylum in this country, and of converting some of these historic houses for the use of the aged and infirm, for which there is still a crying need, on the lines of what has been achieved by the various housing societies. Perhaps the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, who was here a moment ago, and who is President of the National Federation of Housing Societies, could tell us something of the possibilities of converting these houses to such excellent use. I feel that it should be incumbent upon local authorities and Government Departments to confer with the appropriate Ministry before any alterations or demolitions of any historic structures are contemplated, and not at the last moment when it is too late, or even not at all.

As regards the vexed question of how the recommendations of the Gowers Report can be financed, there is, obviously, little that we in this House can do. But I should like to remind the Government that the Gowers Committee, after taking a great deal of evidence, made their recommendations after careful and mature thought. Both the last and the present Governments have stated that to accept the suggestions made by the Committee to help owners in the maintenance of their historic houses would be tantamount to creating a privileged class. What were the recommendations? That owner-occupiers of designated houses should be allowed an increased maintenance claim on the ascertained cost of the upkeep of the house. May I just quote a small pant of paragraph 130 which I think puts the matter very well? It appears on page 32 of the Report and is as follows: The straightforward remedy, therefore, is to exempt from income tax and surtax so much of his income as is reasonably necessary to maintain the house. Later, in paragraph 131, we find this: The law ought to recognise expressly the special position of houses of outstanding historic or architectural interest as a national asset, just as it has recognised in certain respects that of ancient monuments and works of art. The preservation of these houses is a matter of public concern. Those who undertake it are doing what is not the less a public service because it may happen to coincide with their private interests. We think that relief should he direct and express. We recommend that all owner-occupiers of designated houses should be allowed an enlarged maintenance claim of the sort we are about to describe, provided that they show their houses to the public in accordance with arrangements approved by the Historic Buildings Council. The point, I think, that has been missed by both the last and the present Governments is that in cases where property and money has been assigned to trustees for the express purpose of maintaining a designated house out of income, relief from death duties should be given on the house and endowment, together with its amenity land and historic contents, so long as they remain unsold. Your Lordships will find that detailed in paragraph 141 of the Report. I have never heard this matter raised. I wonder whether it has been considered. If the house and the grounds are subsequently sold, duty that would have to be remitted would be payable by the trustees. This has, of course, applied to historic chattels since 1910, thanks to the Liberal Government of the day, and it would be a small extension to apply this principle to a designated house which itself is a work of art.

I see nothing here that smacks of class privilege, as the property would be taken out of the hands of the owner-occupier, and placed in those of trustees, very much as obtains with the National Trust, when they become the new owners, the former owner usually continuing as occupier or tenant. The chief difference would be that, in the case of trustee-owned property, the trustees would be free to sell, and would then pay the death duties due, as is now the case with historic chattels: in the case of the National Trust they become absolute owners. I hope that, in the light of this explanation, the Government will give the matter their reconsideration, especially as there is already so much general agreement. May I add that I am sure there is general satisfaction at the Chancellor of the Exchequer's decision to accept historic chattels belonging to an historic house in part payment of death duties. Under existing conditions this is the only way they can be saved for the nation.

There is one more point on this important subject, and it concerns the provisions of the 1949 Housing Act and subsequent Orders. In this Act, which many of us thought would greatly stimulate the retention and conversion of Georgian town houses in particular, the private owner seeking a grant is limited to £800 per house for conversion only: expenditure on maintenance is not taken into account for a grant. Thus, in the case of a house, or rather a unit, which may cost £400 for putting the roof in order and £400 for conversion, the grant is only £200, though the structure has to be in perfectly good order; whereas if the two expenditures were taken together—that is to say, if a total of £800 was spent and a grant of 50 per cent., or £400, were allowed—it might be worth a man's while to go ahead. Now it is not. He may get a loan from the local authority for 90 per cent. of its value; but it is uneconomic for him to buy and convert with such a small grant, and the restricted rent in the Act is not an encouragement. Grants, in my opinion, should be equalised, and I suggest that an Amendment should be made to Section 16 of the Housing Act, 1949, so as to provide for increased grants to private individuals, and the payment of Exchequer contributions in respect of the provision of dwellings by local authorities and housing associations by means of the conversion of other buildings, similar to those paid in respect of newly-constructed houses.

Is it not better to provide ways and means of assisting local authorities to acquire and convert large town houses, such as in the Circus, Bath, rather than allow them to lie fallow and deteriorate, at a time when there is such an acute shortage of houses? Bath, for instance, has over 3,000 buildings listed under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. They are suitable for conversion for all members of the community. Temporary bungalows have been given a life of ten years. Under the section of the 1949 Act quoted, converted buildings would have to have a life of another thirty years, though the standard of fitness prescribed has to be equivalent to a new house. The period of grant is, however, for only twenty years, while that for new dwellings is for sixty years. The whole framework of this Act seems illogical, and I suggest that if a converted building has to be structurally as sound as a new building—which to-day, by the way, is not asking for the impossible—then why not put the grant for the new building and the converted one on a parity? This, I am aware, was considered by the Minister last year: I would ask the Government again most earnestly to reconsider it in relation to the preservation of our architectural heritage as a whole, though I am fully aware that this was not the main purpose of the Act but was only incidental.

If I have wearied your Lordships over much, my apology is that these structures can never be replaced. Taken as a whole, they are an irreplaceable assemblage of the creations of architects and craftsmen over the greatest period of our history. To fritter away these things would be to damn our generation in the eyes of all those who see in these structures a living expression of our history and something of immense educational value, not to be lost without a fight. I trust that this debate will do something towards strengthening the recent Motion of the honourable Member for Burton, Mr. Colegate, in the House of Commons, which was agreed to without a Division. I hope that we can hold on to the great artistic achievements of the past and, at the same time, put all our zest into the efforts of the present, remembering that it is the individual character of the English scene, whether mansion, manor house, village or townscape, that gives to this country of ours its most prized and, at the same time, its most threatened quality. However great the difficulties, do not let us sacrifice principle for political expediency. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I desire to offer wholehearted support in general to the pleas that have been put forward by the noble Lord who has just sat down in a speech that has disclosed a much more detailed knowledge of the subject than I can claim to possess. I think that at the outset I should declare an interest, though perhaps not in the strictly technical sense. My wife was a member of the Gowers Committee, the Committee appointed by the late Sir Stafford Cripps to go into the whole question of the possibility of finding ways of preserving these historic houses, an important national asset. Also, I became concerned with a cognate subject when I was appointed Chairman of a Committee entrusted with the consideration of problems arising from the export in increasing quantities of important works of art. The recommendations of that Committee were accepted by the Government almost immediately and I believe the system of control which we recommended is now in full operation.

In these circumstances it is naturally a matter of some concern to me that the recommendations made in the much more important Report, of which my wife was a signatory, should have been before the Government for three years without apparently any practical steps having been even considered, far less decided upon. I have been delighted to learn from the statement just made by the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, that the Government have been giving consideration to the recommendations of the Gowers Report and have decided on certain action. I have not had an opportunity, naturally, any more than other noble Lords, of appreciating the full implications of the statement made by the noble aid learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, but without appearing to be grudging in any way—and I warmly welcome the statement that has been made—I confess that I shall be surprised to find, on closer examination, that the action decided upon by Her Majesty's Government goes all the way that those who support the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, would wish.

I hope that most of your Lordships have read the Report of the Gowers Committee. Those who have done so must have been impressed by the remarkable lucidity of that Report and its quite outstanding literary quality. It seems to me that the Report might be an object lesson, indeed a challenge, to any of us who might have occasion in the future to contribute to the formulation of recommendations on important matters of Government policy. The Report deserves to be read as a whole. There is just one passage from it which I should like to quote, as it seems to me to form the logical and sound basis of all the recommendations in the Report. That passage will be found in the second paragraph, and runs: It is not too much to say that these houses represent an association of beauty, of art and of nature—the achievement often of centuries of effort—which is irreplaceable, and has seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of civilisation. Certainly nowhere else are such richness and variety to be found within so narrow a compass. In the words of another witness, 'the English country house is the greatest contribution made by England to the visual arts'. That is a very striking statement, but I believe it is amply justified, and I believe that those who read the Report as a whole will concur in that view.

The very serious progressive loss of this precious national asset—the historic houses and works of art, many of which have found for a long period a place in these historic houses—is due almost, if not entirely, to the burden of taxation, as the Report points out. In this country we have long had the most scientific and the best managed system of direct taxation to be found anywhere in the world. That is a matter in which we may justly take pride, though it must be a pride not unmixed with pain. But the system developed—and this is what we must always keep in mind when we are considering problems connected with direct taxation—when conditions in this country were very different from what they are to-day. It developed at a time when the problem was only to devise the best method of collecting a modest amount of revenue. The economic consequences of taxation under those conditions could, for the most part, be ignored. Now, when the level of taxation is much higher, and when taxation is avowedly an instrument of economic policy, the position has radically changed. Measures have had to be taken in a number of directions to mitigate the economic consequences of taxation, and what I might fairly describe as the beautiful simplicity and symmetry of the system has inevitably been lost in some measure. I think that has to be kept clearly in mind in considering the main recommendations of the Gowers Report.

Since the situation with which we are confronted is a direct result of an excessive tax burden, it was natural that the Gowers Committee should first seek a remedy in measures of tax relief. It appears from the Report that the Board of Inland Revenue did not think it right to offer evidence before the Committee. That I can quite understand. Therefore, the recommendations of the Committee in regard to relief from taxation were necessarily tentative. But the Chairman of the Committee was a former Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, and therefore I suggest that the recommendations of the Committee to which he set his hand are not lightly to be set aside on the ground that, as I have seen suggested, the recommendations on this matter of relief from taxation are inconsistent with sound tax principles. I do not want to go too much into detail, but I could cite many examples where special provisions have had to be incorporated in successive Finance Acts in recognition of the economic pressure and the consequences of economic pressure in various spheres of our national life.

I could refer to the special treatment given to forestry and to the special treatment given to agriculture, where losses are allowed to be set against, for example, other income. I could refer to capital expenditure on research, which is allowed to be treated as if it were revenue expen- diture, because of the national importance of developing research to the fullest possible extent. Even the initial allowances, introduced, I think, in the Budget of 1945, doubled by Sir Stafford Cripps when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, abolished by Mr. Gaitskell, and now restored on their original level by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, might fairly be regarded as cutting into the fundamental principles of income tax as formerly established. Similarly, in the sphere of death duties you find special treatment of agricultural estates, and special treatment of what, for convenience, I might call heirlooms. I say, without hesitation, having myself, as it happens, once been Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, and having been for a short time Chancellor of the Exchequer, that there is nothing in this part of the recommendations of the Gowers Committee which could properly be rejected on purely technical grounds. I do not hesitate to make that statement, for what it may be worth, on the basis of such experience as I have had in that particular sphere.

The further question must inevitably arise of whether the nation can afford the cost of whatever relief, from taxation or by direct grant, may be thought to be necessary in this matter. That is a problem which must be squarely faced. I recognise that it would ill become a former Chancellor of the Exchequer light-heartedly to advocate the acceptance of fresh burdens; but we must keep a sense of proportion in this matter. I have recently returned from an inspection of plants that have been established in the north of England in connection with the development or the exploitation of nuclear energy plants costing astronomical sums, which it has been thought fit to establish, not only to improve our national security—a matter of first priority—but to keep us, as a nation, in the van of progress in the matter of industrial development. I venture to submit, with all humility, that if we can afford expenditure on such a scale in such a direction as I have just mentioned, we should surely make the effort to spare the relatively modest sums that would be required to give effect to the main objects and purposes of the Gowers Committee Report.

May I, in conclusion—because I must conclude now—say this? As I admitted at the outset, I have not been in a position to appreciate the full implications of the very welcome statement which was made on behalf of Her Majesty's Government by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. We shall return to this subject later, as has been announced, when we shall all be in a much better position to judge how far the Government have gone. I earnestly trust that, if it should appear—as I think quite possible—that, in the view of many of your Lordships, the action decided upon by the Government does not go as far as the circumstances warrant, Her Majesty's Government will feel able to build upon the beginnings that have just been announced and give the people of this country some real assurance that this most precious asset, the national heritage with which the Report of the Gowers Committee was concerned, will be preserved to us.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.