HL Deb 11 July 1979 vol 401 cc879-82

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they will bring forward proposals to safeguard our national heritage of historic buildings and artistic treasures, and whether they will take full account of the equal importance of the need to conserve the countryside, in its widest sense.


My Lords, the Government are now considering proposals for the establishment of a National Heritage Fund under an independent body of Trustees, as recommended by the Expenditure Committee in July 1978, and intend to make a full announcement soon; I can assure the noble Lord that these proposals will take full account of the interests of the countryside.


My Lords, I am very grateful indeed for that reply, which has certainly relieved a good many anxieties arising from the failure to mention the countryside in the Queen's Speech. But can my noble friend go a little further and tell the House when legislation is likely to be presented, and whether it is the Government's intention to get it on to the statute book during this Session? Secondly, can my noble friend give an assurance that there will be very wide consultation, not only with the statutory bodies but with voluntary bodies concerned with the scenic beauty and the scientific importance of the countryside?


My Lords, I think I can give my noble friend the assurance that he wants. An announcement will be made soon. Discussions are going on at the moment between my right honourable friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and I can say that legislation will be introduced this Session and also that full consultations with the countryside bodies will be held.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, in view of the cut in the money given to the Arts Council by the present Government, which was certainly not one of the promises in the Manifesto, and also in view of the high increase in VAT, can the noble Lord give us any more information as to what lines the National Heritage Fund will take and whether in fact there will be more money diverted from it than has yet unfortunately been expected? Since the amount of money needed is much greater than I think any of us had hitherto thought, concerning what we in the last Government were all trying to accomplish in the White Paper which was published, how does that tie up both with regard to the cuts in public expenditure which could affect such bodies as the Historic Buildings Council, and also the expenditure for the National Heritage Fund?


My Lords, as I have said, an announcement will be made soon and reference to the National Heritage Fund will be made in that announcement. However, I cannot anticipate the announcement. I apologise that, if I am asked many more questions, I may have to give the same stonewall answer because I cannot anticipate what my right honourable friends will be saying. The Arts Council cut is regrettable but every department had to take its share of the cuts. The Arts Council had a budget of just over £61 million and they have had a cut of just over £1 million. I agree that it is regrettable, but when there is an across the board cut these reductions cannot be helped.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for his encouraging answers may I ask him to urge Her Majesty's Government to recollect that the costs of reclaiming the countryside when once it is lost are immeasurably greater than those of preserving it initially? Will he further bear in mind that the countryside is a resource which is already in desperately short supply and for which, in the present era of increasing leisure, there is an ever increasing demand?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, has raised an important point which I am sure Her Majesty's Government will view with every sympathy.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that, however large the National Heritage Fund may be and however generous the Countryside Commission may be in a number of cases, the safeguarding of our historic buildings and their contents and certain tracts of land will depend much more upon the ability of the owners who show these to the public to be enabled to he assessed under Case 1 of Schedule D or some special case which Her Majesty's Government will have to define? Without proper appreciation of the taxation problems the heritage is lost.


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are also studying the tax structure, and we have already ameliorated the position with regard to the tax structure on higher incomes. All this may help private owners to do more than they have been able to do so far.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the introduction of legislation will mean the bringing about of more Quangos?


I certainly hope not, my Lords.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, while the noble Lord cannot anticipate what is going to be in the Bill, can he make an educated guess as to whether it is likely to include, in the widest sense of the countryside, some of the recommendations of the Sandford Report, the Porchester Report and the Cripps Report?


My Lords, even for such an attractive person as the noble Baroness I am unable to anticipate, but I should think that in the widest sense the answer is "Yes".


My Lords, the noble Lord has mentioned the cuts to the Arts Council of £1 million. Does he think it proper for any Government to claw back £1 million which has already been announced to an organisation such as the Arts Council, has been committed by them to their clients, who are trading companies, and which companies in turn have entered into legal and moral obligations with other persons on the strength of that commitment?


My Lords, nobody likes having to announce cuts. When we do these things we do them with the utmost regret. We did not find a very full cupboard, as the noble Lord will be aware.