HL Deb 26 November 1991 vol 532 cc1267-9

Baroness Birk asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether they intend to purchase Heveningham Hall for the nation.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the terms on which Heveningham Hall was sold in 1981 gave the Secretary of State a right of pre-emption. My right honourable friend has until 11 th December to decide whether to exercise that right; he will announce his decision shortly.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but I cannot say that it was a very helpful one. Does she appreciate that unless the Government exercise their option to buy back Heveningham Hall by 11 th December—which, after all, is only about two weeks from now; and this matter has been going on for many months or even years—the receiver will be obliged to sell it to the highest bidder regardless of whether the new use will be compatible with an historic house of such outstanding quality? Surely there will be no obligation to reimpose the convenants which provided for public access and maintenance and no guarantee as to how long the sale will take.

As the Minister's right honourable friend is reported as expressing regret that he sold Heveningham Hall in 1981, will she tell him that he now has the opportunity to buy it back so that access can he maintained and the furniture which is currently in his care (is it not?) can be restored to the house?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, first, it is not for me to comment on speculation in the press. To my knowledge, my right honourable friend has not said that he regrets that decision. Secondly, we are in the middle of very serious considerations about all the various options which are available to us before 11th December. We have until that time to make the decision. Thirdly, I should say that whoever becomes the owner of Heveningham Hall will be subject to all the restrictions of owning a Grade 1 listed building.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while Heveningham Hall is of the greatest possible heritage value to this country, it is almost certainly a commercial liability to whoever owns it? Therefore, it is very questionable as to whether it really ha s a commercial value. Will my noble friend be very careful before she jumps in prior to 11 th December and makes an offer which I understand, under the terms of the original deal, might be subject to arbitration? It would be much better to wait until it is subject to commercial forces when, it is to be hoped, the Government will be able to buy the house extremely cheaply and use the money that is available to endow the National Trust so that it can look after the house properly for ever.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend has raised an important point. First, as regards the significance of Heveningham Hall as a Grade 1 listed house, I point out that that is not in question. Secondly, he pointed to at least one of the considerations which we have to take into account; namely, that it is not possible for this house to have a commercial future. Therefore, any ownership of the house will clearly represent a considerable liability. We shall have to think very seriously about endowment. There is the notion, which I am afraid is not true, that acquiring it and handing it over to the National Trust will somehow or other be at little cost to the Crown. It will be a very expensive option and one which should not be rushed in to.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is it true that when the Government sold the house in 1981 they retained 12 acres of land near Walpole village and that the Department of the Environment subsequently gave planning permission for new houses to be built? Further, is it true that they have since been sold? If so, what were the proceeds and what has happened to the money?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord has me at a disadvantage as regards land owned at Walpole. I know that the Vanneck family sold a great deal of land prior to the sale of Heveningham Hall, but I am not aware of the Walpole connection. However, I shall inquire into the matter and write to the noble Lord.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, can the noble Baroness give some assurance that, in this case in particular, it is not possible to assess commercial considerations as against what is part of a priceless heritage and one of the finest Palladian buildings with beautifully landscaped gardens? Surely those considerations should predominate.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. It is not a matter of considering whether we—or, indeed, anyone—have a commercial future. The point that I believe my noble friend was making was that it is doubtful whether Heveningham Hall has a commercial future at all. Therefore, ownership of the house, whether private or public, will be an expensive option.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what consultations the Government have had with the National Heritage Memorial Fund whose experience and expertise regarding the problems of large country houses must be unrivalled in our country? Further, can she say what advice they received from the fund?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the National Heritage Memorial Fund is of course aware of the problems over the future of Heveningham. We know its views. We are not talking specifically to English Heritage, the National Trust or the National Heritage Memorial Fund; after all, they are mostly an extension of our department. We are very aware of all the options, of which, of course, involvement by the National Heritage Memorial Fund is one.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, despite several press reports, the English Heritage Report of last August, although no whitewash, not only found the restoration generally satisfactory, but found that the structural condition of the house was as sound as it has been since 1980? Does she also agree that the restoration of the east wing and the orangery is widely acknowledged, even by SAVE, as being of high quality?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is unfortunate that there has been a great deal of misinformed comment and criticism about the quality of the restoration work. Legitimate criticism can be levelled at the state of the gardens, but we all know that restoring gardens is infinitely less difficult than restoring the structure of the building. The structure of the building is sound and much of the restoration work is of high quality.

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