HC Deb 26 April 1951 vol 487 cc86-9W
Mr. Wallace

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he can yet announce the Government's intentions as regards the recommendations of the Gowers Committee on Historic Houses.

Mr. Gaitskell

Yes. I should like, first, to repeat my predecessor's thanks to Sir Ernest Gowers and his colleagues on the Committee for their able study of the problem. His Majesty's Government agree that many of the country houses of Great Britain are important national assets of substantial aesthetic, historic and educational value. The Government also agree that unless special steps are taken, the decay and destruction of these houses will continue because the owners cannot any longer maintain them; and they agree, therefore, if this part of our national heritage is not to be lost for ever, the State must accept some further responsibility in this field.

Much is now being done under the powers given by the Town and Country Planning Acts to my right hon. Friends the Minister of Local Government and Planning and the Secretary of State for Scotland. Buildings which ought to be preserved are identified, and their demolition or disfigurement is prevented where this is threatened. A great debt is owed in this respect to the work of the Committee under the Chairmanship of Sir Eric Maclagan which advises my right hon. Friend the Minister of Local Government and Planning.

However, these powers are all negative: they prevent harm being done, but they do not provide for positive action to be taken where the owners or occupiers of houses of value cannot maintain them.

The chief measure proposed by the Committee to deal with the situation was a series of exemptions from taxation for the private owners and occupiers of specified houses. The Government are unable to accept this proposal, which would amount to a subsidy to a special class of persons—namely, those who owned and occupied such houses—over which Parliament would have no direct control. Moreover this would run counter to a general taxation principle which we have always tried to maintain—that a man's liability to tax should not be measured by his particular choice of commitments. This does not imply any opposition to the private occupation of these houses, on which the Committee set store; but special relief from taxation would not, in the view of the Government, be an appropriate method of dealing with the problem.

The Government prefer, instead, that any action taken by the State should be positive in character and under full Parliamentary control. They therefore propose to introduce Legislation next Session to empower my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works to assist in the preservation of outstanding houses. My right hon. Friend is the most appropriate Minister for this purpose, since he already has comparable responsibilities in relation to Royal Palaces and to ancient monuments, and employs an expert staff for this purpose. A separate Bill will be required for Scotland, where the responsibility will be shared with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Details of these proposals will be announced at a later date. At this stage I will only say that my right hon. Friend will be empowered, provided certain conditions are fulfilled by the occupier, to do work themselves or make loans or grants in order to preserve the structure of these houses. They will work in close collaboration with local authorities, and with the National Trusts, which are already doing such admirable work in this field.

Among the conditions would be undertakings by the owner to maintain the house properly and to make it accessible to the public as may be prescribed.

The burden of defence and the existing financial situation makes it impossible for us to contemplate spending more than a very small sum on this work for the present, and therefore the number of houses in respect of which work can be done will be equally limited. But the machinery will be set up and, as conditions allow, it will be possible for more to be done later.

I think it would be appropriate that the National Land Fund set up by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Local Government and Planning, when he held my Office, under the Finance Act, 1946, should be used to meet the cost of any houses and their contents that are to be acquired.

I also propose that the present provisions for taking over land and houses in payment of Estate Duty and for reimbursing the Commissioners of Inland Revenue out of the National Land Fund should be expanded so as to enable chattels to be taken over in the same way, when they are ordinarily kept in houses so taken over or already in the possession of the Crown or the National Trusts. This facility will, I hope, make it easier for houses to be preserved with their contents intact.

His Majesty's Government have carefully considered the Committee's further proposal that Historic Buildings Councils should be created with executive powers, but are unable to accept it. It is their view that normal Ministerial responsibility and Parliamentary control of expenditure must be maintained in this field. There is, however, a strong case for Advisory Councils to assist the Ministers in this work and the legislation which my right hon. Friends propose to introduce will provide for the setting up of such councils with wide terms of reference.

Since it is intended that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works should exercise these new responsibilities, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Local Government and Planning has agreed that the Bill should transfer to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works the powers at present exercised by him in relation to buildings of special historic or architectural interest under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. It is plainly convenient that the two sets of powers, for negative preservation and for positive assistance, should be exercised together; and that the powers relating to historic buildings should be brought together with those relating to ancient monuments. Corresponding, but rather different, powers will be required for Scotland, where the responsibility will be shared with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The provisions which I have mentioned so far will have to await future legislation. But I propose to take the opportunity of the Finance Bill which I am about to introduce to make certain changes in regard to Estate Duty which bear upon this question. Their intention is to make it easier for noteworthy houses and their contents to be transferred or bequeathed to the Government, the National Trusts or other public bodies. Such transfer is one of the best ways of securing their preservation and, as the experience of the National Trusts shows, is wholly compatible with private occupation where this seems desirable. I propose to provide for the exemption from Estate Duty of the contents of houses given or bequeathed to the Government, the National Trusts or other public bodies; and the exemption of gifts or bequests to public bodies of houses and land and of endowment funds accompanying them (an exemption which already applies to similar gifts and bequests in favour of the National Trusts).

I hope that these proposals, taken as a whole, will help us to preserve for the benefit of future generations this valuable part of our national heritage.

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