HL Deb 01 July 1991 vol 530 cc772-5

3 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the present owner of Heveningham Hall, Suffolk, has yet been discovered; and what action is being taken to prevent further deterioration of the buildings.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the position is as it has been since 1981: Heveningham Hall is owned by ID Investment Development AG, a company registered in Switzerland. The buildings are not deteriorating: though much remains to be done, good progress has been made recently, particularly with restoration work to the fire-damaged east wing and the lodges. English Heritage is monitoring the situation regularly.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. But is it not a fact that as this is a Grade 1 listed building, the owners are responsible for keeping it in good order? Is she serious in saying that they are doing so?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very important point. The owners are indeed responsible for keeping it in good order. English Heritage is monitoring the situation. Indeed, it is working alongside the people who are responsible for the restoration. To date, all our information is that it is proceeding satisfactorily. We have recently heard that some local people, including the Georgian Group, are unhappy about what is happening there. I have asked for an investigation to be made straight away by English Heritage to make sure that I am brought up to date with any falling down on the standards of restoration work.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Suffolk there is growing concern about the future of Heveningham Hall? There are two reasons why that concern has been increasing recently. First, an authoritative report has come into the hands of the Suffolk Preservation Society (of which I am a member) which reveals that many details of the restoration work have been carried out in an incomplete and incorrect way. Secondly, there have been rumours and reports in local newspapers that the property is up for sale. If that is the case, will the Government do everything possible to ensure that the conditions and covenants which they inserted into their original deed of sale 10 years ago are carried forward to the next proprietor so that the conditions and stipulations can in future be properly enforced? I regret to say that I do not think that they have been observed up to now.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am certainly aware that there is concern about the future of Heveningham Hall. I understand that there has been a report on the work. I have to say that it is an anonymous report. Nevertheless my department takes it very seriously. I have asked English Heritage to respond in detail to it.

We have no knowledge of the house being up for sale. The Government have pre-emptive rights for 21 years after its acquisition. Therefore if it were up for sale, we should have to consider the possibility of repurchase.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, in view of the long-running and very sad story of this marvellous historic house, will the Government ensure that more care is taken in future over our historic houses and that they are not sold to offshore companies of a speculative kind?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my department has been diligent in making sure that the restoration work on this fine Grade 1 listed building is kept up to standard. That is my response to my noble friend. As recently as May 1991 an article in the Architects' Journal—which is not necessarily known for supporting government policies—stated: Now, to the great surprise of many sceptics, the repair of the two ground-floor rooms [at Heveningham] is not only nearing completion but promises to be a model restoration". It goes on to say that there is: a group of craftsmen whose works prove that they are capable of dealing with the most difficult of tasks. It is now clear that the Wyatt interior will live again in all its glory".

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I visited Heveningham on 2nd June and perhaps my noble friend will take it from me that the house—indeed the whole property—is in a deplorable state. The garden is a wilderness. Does she agree that the Government have shown a most disappointing record of stewardship over the past decade? Will she encourage the Secretary of State to exercise the opportunity to reacquire this property, which was sold for a very low price on the basis that it would be cherished and made available to the public? It was sold for £726,000 in 1981, which is equivalent to £1.25 million now. Will my noble friend try to obtain more backing for public ownership and transfer into safer hands?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the only way that the Government could even consider repurchase would be if the house were up for sale. They have no power simply to make a compulsory purchase with no good reason for it. With regard to my noble friend's first point, English Heritage has been the agent of government in terms of overseeing the standards of work. All the information that I have indicates that the work is being done to a satisfactory standard. However, it has recently been brought to my notice that that is not the case. I immediately instigated a detailed report from English Heritage. Indeed, I understand that the Secretary of State for the Environment has been down to Heveningham to see the work for himself.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that English Heritage is doing the best that it can? It said in a report that people there want the work done in-house and it says that they have the necessary expertise. In fact, the curator of arts for English Heritage was very unhappy about it. Is the Minister aware that in a press notice of November 1981, it was reported that the then Secretary of State for the Environment (who is now again Secretary of State for the Environment) in his announcement talked only about completing the sale with Mr. Al-Ghazzi? There was no mention at all of the house going to a Swiss bank. Is she further aware that the transaction was carried out by issue of bearer shares and that therefore there is no way of knowing who owns the house? Is it not quite wrong that parts of our heritage should be allowed to be sold in that way?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there was nothing at all improper in the sale. As for the standards, I made quite clear in a number of responses that I am asking English Heritage for a detailed report on the standards of the work that has been done so far.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, all good things must come to an end.

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