HL Deb 05 July 1956 vol 198 cc546-57

3.20 p.m.

THE DUKE op SUTHERLAND rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is the composition of the Historic Buildings Council; on what grounds they were appointed, and whether the chairman and other members have any experience or knowledge regarding houses of historic and architectural interest; and to move for Papers. The noble Duke said: In raising this question to-day, I am reminded of part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget speech in another place, in which Mr. Harold Macmillan said: Before the war there was a Committee presided over by a distinguished clansman of mine—a most learned lawyer and a most charming personality—Lord Macmillan. His committee was about monetary policy. I do not think that he world have claimed any personal knowledge of this matter; indeed he had none, but in our country that is the way we run committers best. I hope this statement does not apply to the Historic Buildings Council, but I want to be absolutely sure that it does not.

The Government's decision to assist owners of ancient monuments and houses of historic interest became law in August, 1953, and the Historic Buildings Council was constituted in November of that year. I know that there is at least one great expert on this Council. I refer to Mr. Christopher Hussey—and I have no doubt that there are many others. We have all read Mr. Hussey's delightful articles on old houses in Country Life and other papers.

I do not bring this question before your Lordships to-day because any of us who own these historical buildings wants to extract money from the Government, but simply because we do not want to see any of these famous old manor houses and castles crumbling away into ruin because the owners, impoverished by taxation and death duties, are just not able to keep them in repair. Many owners, in fact, unless they are able to obtain a grant for urgent repairs, may be forced to demolish part, or even the whole, of these historic houses. It is saddening to think that something that is an essential part of the history of England or Scotland may crumble away in the next fifty years.

What is more, it is something that will certainly affect the tourist trade of this country, and, even more vitally important, the dollar-earning tourist trade of this country. Who is coming to look at England or Scotland without its famous castles and old manor houses? They come, surely, to see the living remains of the great history of this country. It is probably true that they will last out this generation but who is going to keep these old historic castles and houses up in the next generation, after death duties have been paid, perhaps, twice or thrice? As I see it the Government will either have to increase the amount they allocate for grants or, perforce, become the owners of these famous places, and maintain them properly out of public revenue.

Let us observe what the French Government have done for their chateaux on the Loire and elsewhere. They are beautifully kept up but, I think, rather for sightseers and tourists than for proprietors or inhabitants. In their case, a Government department has taken over. It maintains the historical places in good order, and often floodlights them at night. They have also acted historical tableaux of the days of Louis XIV and earlier, and altogether do everything possible to retain these chateaux as a living symbol of the history of the country.

Few countries can muster such a rich heritage of historic buildings as ours. None, certainly, can equal us for the severity of taxation which puts an incomparable possession so perilously in the path of the demolition squad. Some measure of strain put on the private maintenance of our architectural treasures is provided by the striking increase in the number of applications for grants—some 500 in all—made to the Historic Buildings Council for England last year. As grants are approved only for the repair and maintenance of buildings of "outstanding historic or architectural interest," the distinctions that have to be made between properties within this field must appear to many to be invidious. Before the Historic Buildings Council make a recommendation that a grant be given, I understand they have to be satisfied that the house or property is worthy of it from an architectural or historical point of view; that the repairs are essential, and that the financial position of the applicant justifies a grant. To my mind, the acid test, surely, should be whether the building should be preserved for posterity or whether it should fall into ruin purely because the owner is quite unable to afford the cost of the necessary urgent repairs.

The amounts allocated for grants by the Government have been as follows. In the year ended March 31, 1954, they gave £10,000; in the year ended March 31, 1955, £250,000, and in the year ended March 31, 1956, £350,000. Surely, this is an infinitesimal sum when one realises how many of these historical old houses require urgent repairs which the owners cannot possibly afford. This is borne out by the Report of the Historic Buildings Council, which stated that the number of grants made in three years amounted to a sum of only £635,000, given to 203 successful applicants, while the number of applications rejected was 514. We are surely agreed that it is in the national interest that these grants should be available to preserve these old manor houses and ancient castles—monuments of our history. Clearly, then, if we can believe that all the applications are necessary for urgent repairs to be carried out, the sum allocated by the Government is woefully inadequate.

It is often erroneously thought that owners of ancient manor houses or houses of historical interest make a great deal of money by opening their houses to the public. Many, indeed, have very small returns from opening, and this fact is made clear by the Annual Report for 1955 of the Historic Buildings Council. That Report states that Although the increasing facilities for visiting many of the finest buildings in the country are of great advantage to the public, the financial advantage which owners obtain from opening their houses are sometimes over-estimated. Only the relatively small number of buildings which attract an exceptionally large number of visitors produce any significant profit for the owner. I will not mention any houses, but your Lordships know as well as I do which houses are visited by large crowds of people, and which houses are visited by very small numbers. The Report goes on: Most houses attract fewer than 10,000 visitors each year and the receipts may not even meet the additional expenditure on guides, advertisement, and cleaning. Costly urgent repairs cannot, therefore, be met from income from this source.

Owners can, of course, offer these old historical places to the National Trust, but we must remember that in order to give an historical property away to the National Trust one has to endow it with a sum which will provide an annual income equal to the amount of the average annual cost of repairs. It is, therefore, too expensive, and in most cases, financially impossible, to give an historic building away. I cannot help thinking that the Government should do something to back the National Trust, who I know are very short of money, instead of individuals being expected to pay over for endowment large sums of money that they may not possess, in order that their old historic manor houses should be kept up and available to posterity. I should think it highly probable that the annual cost would be infinitesimal compared with other items in our annual Budget. If the National Trust could be helped we should not have to pay—especially the poorest ones amongst us—large sums for endowment.

Apart from all these considerations, what about the feelings of Britain itself as regards its old houses of beauty and history? I have been brought up in two very old houses—one in England and one in Scotland. One of them saw the daughter of Robert the Bruce, and the other King Henry VIII. I believe that the history of Britain is in our souls, and I do not believe that the people of Britain would ever wish these historical places to pass away completely. I ask the question: what is to happen to these historical places when this generation has passed away, and death duties, as I have said, may well have been paid once, twice or even thrice? In many cases they are not suitable for schools, hospitals or public institutions. Surely they should be suitably preserved for the public to see, enjoy and study the past history of our ancient civilisation. I do not expect a detailed answer to my Motion to-day. Who could give it here? I only want Her Majesty's Government to realise the position that must arise in the not very distant future and, eventually, to act as required. In the opinion of many of us, this is absolutely a non-Party question. I have a large number of letters from Peers, some in Edinburgh and some elsewhere, who unfortunately cannot be with us to-day, but who agree that a debate on this question is urgently needed and very much overdue. I beg to move for Papers.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, the House has listened with great interest and considerable sympathy to the speech of the noble Duke. We all treasure our historic buildings, which are rich in history and are of the substance of Great Britain. People come to Great Britain and visit these Islands. They think in terms of many other things, but also of these beautiful old buildings in which so much of our history has been written and so much has taken place. We all recognise that their preservation creates a problem. The question is, what is the right thing to do? Her Majesty's Government have temporarily provided a sum of money which is capable of dealing with the most urgent cases, and I imagine that that is as much as can be expected at the present time, in view of the financial position. It is quite certain, however, that these historic houses, in so far as it is necessary to preserve them, cannot be saved merely by the making of the grant that is available: it is, in the nature of things, a purely stopgap measure.

Although it is not raised in the terms of the noble Duke's Motion, the question is, what of the future? How are these houses to be preserved? It is interesting to note that the noble, Duke tells us that it is impossible even to give them away. In that respect the owners find themselves in good company. We have just passed another measure to-day, the Slum Clearance (Compensation) Bill. If the noble Duke had been present in the discussions, he would have heard that a great many owners of houses of that kind have found themselves in the same situation: they have offered them to local authorities for nothing but have been unable to get rid of them because of the liabilities involved. So that we have the two extremes. We have the owners of these great historic castles and the owners of slum properties both anxious to disembarrass themselves of their properties and finding it impossible to do so.

It seems to me that it is for the nation to make up its mind whether it wants to preserve the historic buildings and, if so, whether it is prepared to pay the cost of doing so. I have never teen satisfied that the method of making grants and enabling the owners to go on living in these houses was altogether satisfactory. It is not a method which would appeal to the majority of people in this country: it savours too much of Public Assistance. The purpose is, of course, to preserve not the owners of the historic buildings but the historic buildings themselves. And the only way to do this, it seems to me, is eventually to hand them over to the National Trust and to provide the National Trust with the means of maintaining them in the way they should be maintained and of enabling the public to enjoy the opportunity of visiting these houses, and seeing them in conditions in which they will be seen at their best.

That idea, of course, involves a good deal of money. I personally take the view that, while no Government could be expected to take over all of the historic houses, they could take over a reasonable number, or at any rate maintain them by means of grants to the National Trust. I should hope that, while, obviously, the noble Earl who is to reply will not be able to commit himself in that respect to-day, he will be able to hold out some hope that at some time, when financial conditions are less stringent, it may be possible for Her Majesty's Government to consider favourably the idea of giving support to the National Trust in order that it may take over the most historic of these old buildings. I do not know whether that policy would commend itself to the noble Duke, but he rather indicated that there were many people who were anxious to give their buildings away, if they could find responsible bodies to take them, and it seems to me that it would meet his problem.

But however the problem is met, we have to accept the fact that there is a problem here to be faced. We do not want to allow our historic buildings to crumble and just be demolished, either because they are falling down or because some builder has come in and is prepared to take away the best of the materials. We want to preserve them; we want to maintain the character of our country so far as we possibly can. Some method will have to be found of dealing with this serious problem.

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add a word or two to what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has just been saying. These great historic houses are one of our finest heritages. Although the contribution which the Historic Buildings Commission has so far been able to make has not been a very ambitious one, those of us who have had much contact with it feel that it has already done very good work. The amount of finance placed at its disposal has not, of course, enabled it to launch out in an ambitious way, but perhaps in some ways it is a good thing that it should have started in this rather tentative and empirical way. So far as my experience of it goes—and that has been derived mainly through service on various committees of the National Trust—I think I can say that the administration of this Historic Buildings Commission has been carried through by men who obviously have a great sympathy for the work that they are doing and a good deal of the sort of expert knowledge which enables them to do their work well.

I have been impressed by the sympathetic way in which they handle requests for assistance from an important body like the National Trust, and perhaps I may say, on behalf of the Trust, that we are very grateful indeed to the Historic Buildings Commission for much helpful assistance which has enabled us at the National Trust to take over the ownership of a number of valuable historic houses, which, without that assistance, we should not have been able to do. My hope is that, as time goes on, and as the economic situation eases, Her Majesty's Government will be able to place substantially more finance at the disposal of the Historic Buildings Commission, and that it will be able to build up a fine instrument for protecting these wonderful historic houses.

As Lord Silkin has said, the problem is exceedingly difficult and complicated. I think he is right in saying that in some cases it is a mistake for the owner to try to go on living in a house; but in other cases, and particularly those of the smaller houses, many of which, in their own way, are even more wonderful than the larger ones and certainly deserve preservation, it is still possible for the owner to live reasonably comfortably and to show the building, possibly, once or twice a week. The Historic Buildings Commission is alive to the importance of allowing the public to see these buildings. There is a great deal to be said for the old historic families who have built up not only the bricks and mortar but the atmosphere and tradition to which these houses owe so much, and which I myself, having visited a considerable number of them (not officially, on behalf of the National Trust, but as an ordinary member of the public), and the members of the public appreciate enormously. I think that if Lord Silkin were to discuss this matter with some of the people who will be visiting a number of these houses throughout the summer he would find that they much prefer those houses in which the families are still living, to the larger, uninhabited houses, superb as they may be—such as "Montacute" and other houses of that type.


If my noble friend will allow me to say so, I have always found that where the families are in occupation they are most careful to keep out of the way when visitors come.


Naturally, on the whole, the families do. But even so, quite often in the smaller ones, when I have been visiting with just one or two people, members of the family have kindly shown me round. This adds a great deal to the pleasure of seeing a small manor house in such counties as Devonshire. In this way one gets some idea of the historic associations and things of that sort. However, I feel sure that we shall not quarrel on a point like that. All I want to say is that I think the Historic Buildings Commission has made a good start; that the people who are running it are well up to the job that they are doing; and that they are handling their work with sympathy and ability. I greatly hope that they will go from strength to strength.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, I think the House will agree, in view of the terms of the Motion which the noble Duke has seen fit to move this afternoon, that in my reply I should endeavour to give the House and the Mover of the Motion a fairly full explanation of the activities of the Historical Buildings Council as it was constituted by the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act of 1953. Noble Lords who are acquainted with this subject will well recollect that that Act provided for the appointment of three Councils, one for England, one for Scotland and one for Wales, and not, as the Motion of my noble friend implies, a single Council for the whole country. These three bodies in their respective areas have the duty of advising my right honourable friend the Minister of Works on the exercise of his powers. The Act gives him authority to make grants for the repair of buildings of outstanding architectural or historical interest, their contents and adjoining land, and further, to acquire or to assist the National Trust and local authorities to acquire historical buildings. But before making any grant or acquiring property my right honourable friend must consult the appropriate Council. That is a broad outline of what the Act contains.

Now may I refer for a few moments to the composition of the Councils for England, Scotland and Wales. The Chairmen are: Sir Alan Lascelles, my noble friend Lord Dundee and Sir Grismond Philipps respectively. There are a number of other individuals who serve on these Councils; the name of one was mentioned by the noble Duke in introducing his Motion. But if my noble friend will examine the list of the members of these Councils he will quickly observe their especial qualifications. Five have great architectural knowledge, seven are members of the Society of Antiquaries, two are art historians whose published works are well known and several others are professional or amateur historians. When these appointments were made it was never the intention of my right honourable friend or the Minister before him that these bodies should be packed merely with experts on architecture and history. I quite agree that knowledge of the subject is indispensable to the Councils, but detailed advice on buildings, together with the nature and cost of the repairs, is made available to the Council by the expert staff of the Minister of Works. I am sure the House will agree with what has been said this afternoon, that these Councils are in fact admirable, bodies and advise the Minister in a most conscientious and efficient manner. Indeed, they have his full support, and my right honourable friend had no hesitation in inviting all the members to serve for the further period of time when their appointments expired last year.

Since the passing of the Act, 1,362 applications for assistance have been received by the Councils, and grants have been offered in 429 cases, amounting in value to £937,000, of which £380,000 has already been spent. In 828 cases no grants were offered or the applications were ultimately withdrawn. The remaining 105 cases are now under consideration. From the date when the Act came into operation my right honourable friend and his predecessor and the Historic Buildings Councils have endeavoured to administer the Act in a manner which will assist in the preservation of as many outstanding historical buildings as possible. As your Lordships know, the funds available are limited, and therefore it is necessary that any owner applying for a grant must satisfy my right honourable friend that financial help is really required to preserve the property. When a grant is made, the Minister as a rule attaches the condition that the building must be opened to the public; but when an application for a grant is considered it is quite immaterial whether the building is already open or not.

I cannot help feeling that your Lordships now, as indeed you did in 1953 when I presented this Bill to your Lordships for approval, will agree with me that it would be wrong for public funds to be used in cases where the cost of the work done is not out of proportion to the owner's means. The House, I think, would agree that where a large sum of money is required in order to restore an historic house but the owner cannot afford to meet the whole cost, then some proportion might indeed be met from these funds; but it has never been the intention to subsidise owners of historic houses to the extent of relieving them of all their financial responsibility. I should like to remind the noble Duke who moved this Motion that the Act gave my right honourable friend powers to assist owners only in the case of buildings of outstanding interest, and so far the limited funds available have in fact been sufficient for that purpose. I have been advised that no grants have yet been refused to any owner whose house was sufficiently outstanding and who could not himself afford to meet the full cost of repairs.

The noble Duke suggested that, due to the high level of taxation in all its various forms, owners of historic houses willing to transfer them to the National Trusts are unable to do so, as in most cases they cannot afford to endow them. That may be so, but it has never been the intention of Her Majesty's Government to enable owners to transfer their houses to the National Trusts and then to rely on the funds available under the 1953 Act to be used for endowment purposes. It has, however, always been their policy to make grants to the National Trusts for repairs to properties already in their ownership, and at the present time Her Majesty's Government could not possibly extend their commitments in the way in which the noble Duke suggests.

There may be a few cases where the National Trusts are anxious to accept the offer of a building of great historic interest but where the owner is unable to make a large enough endowment for their requirements. In these instances the National Trusts can apply to the Councils, and, subject to the final approval of my right honourable friend the Minister, can receive a maintenance grant for a certain number of years. My noble friend need therefore have no fear whatever that buildings of really outstanding and historical interest and importance might be lost forever because their owners cannot provide sufficient endowments. In exceptional cases, however, my right honourable friend has power under the Act to purchase properties of outstanding importance with monies available from the National Land Fund, and, after repairs have been done to the property, to hand it over to the National Trusts or to local authorities and, if necessary, to make grants thereafter from funds provided for maintenance purposes, but not, under any consideration, from the monies available in the National Land Fund.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and indeed the noble Duke himself, raised questions of far greater importance. What about the future? Has the time yet come when Her Majesty's Government should take over all the historic houses in the land? I could not give the House any assurance of what the position might be ten or even five years hence, but I can tell the House that the 1953 Act has worked extremely well and so far we are satisfied with the results which have been achieved from it. At the beginning of my remarks I told your Lordships that the funds available under this Act were limited, but up till now there has been sufficient money to meet all the requirements which have faced the Historic Buildings Councils. It is, however, becoming clear that the progressive need for grants for outstanding houses will be greater than can be met at present from an average annual provision of about £250,000. My right honourable friend the Minister of Works is now in course of discussion with his colleagues on the question of whether additional monies might be made available; but, as the House knows full well, any decision on this point must finally depend on the economic and financial situation of the country.

I hope I have replied to the many questions which were addressed to me by the noble Duke and by the other two noble Lords who spoke in this debate, but I am perfectly certain that Members on all sides of the House will agree that the Historic Buildings Councils for England, Scotland and Wales have done a really good job of work during the short time of their existence and have done a great deal to preserve some of the most valuable and outstanding buildings in the land.


My Lords, I was not quite clear whether the National Trusts would in time be empowered to take over houses without private endowments, and whether, if so, Her Majesty's Government would provide endowments.


My Lords, as I told the noble Duke, Her Majesty's Government could not in any circumstances endow houses.


Not at present, though I think that is bound to come; that must happen eventually, otherwise these houses are bound to fall into ruin. Although the noble Earl said he is merely responsible for the next few years, I was asking about the future, and I was glad to hear him say that limited funds, sufficient for the moment, were available. That is not an answer, however, for those funds will not be sufficient for very long, and that is the point I want to impress upon your Lordships. I thank the noble Earl for his answer and beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.