§ 11.25 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Colegate (Burton)
I beg to move,That this House urges the Government to introduce legislation at the earliest practicable date to give effect to the objectives of the Gowers Report.I make no apology for raising this matter in the very difficult times in which we live. In its own sphere the matter is extremely urgent and if, as I understand, the Government have a Bill on the stocks, they should be grateful to me and to other hon. Members who may express their opinions for being able to sense the feeling of the House on these matters before they actually introduce the legislation in question.
I would remind the House that we have not had a full-dress debate on the Gowers Report. The Committee was appointed by Sir Stafford Cripps in 1948 and it reported early in 1950. Shortly afterwards I took the opportunity of raising the matter on the Report stage of the Finance Bill, but in those circum- 2187 stances it was not possible to have more than a very short discussion. Then I was fortunate in having the opportunity, at the beginning of August, to initiate a short debate on this subject on the Adjournment. It lasted for just under one hour.
On these and other occasions when other hon. Members and myself have raised this matter in the form of Questions we have had very sympathetic replies from the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day. No one could have been more sympathetic in this matter than Sir Stafford Cripps. He expressed his sympathy in the answers he gave the House, he saw me privately, and he asked me to see the then Solicitor-General—and nothing could have been kinder than the reception I received. The same has been true of this Government; but nothing whatever has been done, although everyone connected with the subject realises its very great urgency if we are to save what at the moment could be saved.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
As the hon. Member says that nothing whatever has been done I would remind him that the previous Government did make some taxation changes affecting death duties in the Finance Bill of 1951. I know it was only partial, but it was some action.
§ Mr. Colegate
If I recollect it rightly it was on an Amendment relating to Section 40 of the 1930 Act. I think it dealt only with works of art and not with buildings, although I may be wrong about that. Perhaps I have put it too strongly in saying that nothing was done, because the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), in a written reply to a Question, did outline a scheme; but I am afraid that to the majority of those interested—and I consulted many people on this subject—it was a scheme that did not appeal very strongly. However, I shall deal with that a little later.
Finally, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his speech in the debate on the Address in November last, announced that the Government had decided to proceed with legislation on this subject, time permitting. One of my objects today is to persuade the House to pass this Motion 2188 and so to press the Government to implement that promise as soon as possible in view of the urgency of the situation.
But before I go any further I should like to say a word about the terms of my Motion. It is not to be expected, with a report like the Gowers Report, containing some 21 detailed recommendations, that everybody will agree with all of them. I therefore had to draft my Motion in such a way that hon. Members of all parties could support it if they were in favour of the general objects which induced Sir Stafford Cripps to set up the Gowers Committee. I hope that no one will feel that by voting for this Motion, if a vote is necessary, they are in any way committed to each specific recommendation of the Gowers Report.
I emphasise this in particular because, since I put the Motion on the Order Paper, I have received a great deal of sympathetic consideration and advice from hon. Members of both sides of the House. It is a great personal pleasure to me that the Motion is to be seconded by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher). That in itself will emphasise the purely non-party character of the Motion.
I may say that I have also discovered what I did not know before—that the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) is himself an owner of an historic house. He was good enough to send me an attractive brochure which he has prepared and which enables visitors to his house to have the benefit of a short résumé of its history and its charm. I am sorry that he is not here today, but perhaps he felt that his personal interest precluded him from taking part in the debate.
There is, however, one point upon which everybody who has studied the subject can agree, and that is its extreme urgency. In that connection, I should like to quote from one or two documents by experts which will emphasise the point. In the first place, I want to quote from the latest report of the National Trust. After all, they are great experts in this matter. They put the case very strongly:The Council wish to emphasise more earnestly than ever before the urgency of the problem. Each year sees the decay or disappearance of more great houses. Those that remain in private ownership are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Only some action by the State—whether by relief of taxation or in some other way—can save them. 2189 It is not practicable to wait until suitable uses are devised … action is required immediately, and the most important of them should, if necessary, be maintained inexpensively by a skeleton staff. … No other course is possible if our generation is to avoid the lasting censure of posterity.Let us next take the Report of the Georgian Society. With both these Societies hon. Members from both sides of the House are officially connected. I believe that the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) is on the Council of the Georgian Society and that several hon. Members belong to and support the Society. The Society put the matter extremely well in their latest report which, with the permission of the House I will read:There are already too many notices in the Press of Georgian mansions which have been bought 'for demolition,' and if such notices are not more numerous it is because some owners are still holding on in the hope that help will come before it is too late. 'Hope deferred maketh the heart sick' and each month a few more are given up and sold.Moreover, as time goes on, the actual task of preserving the houses becomes more difficult, In many cases repairs are not being carried out at all—and this leads to progressive dilapidation; in others, essential works only are executed and on an economical scale; only a minority of the houses are properly repaired and maintained. Yet all these houses represent an architectural heritage which, although it be in private hands, is none the less a national asset and should be a matter for national pride.I should like to give a quotation from the "Manchester Guardian," which can always be relied upon to give support to good causes and which says, in a leading article this morning:In years to come we may regret our parsimony. Every year a dozen or a score more houses are demolished or decayed and they are a quite irreplaceable part of our national heritage.I think it may be said, therefore, that all informed opinion realises the extreme urgency of taking action at once and of pressing upon the Government the urgency of the problem.
In addition, I have a list, as have other hon. Members, of many houses which have been demolished and, what is still more important—although it is regrettable that some have been demolished—a list of those which are in jeopardy. I want to give one or two examples. There is Coleshill, Berkshire, one of the loveliest houses of its period—mid-seventeenth century—which suffered from a fire last 2190 year, although the main structure is still standing. I understand that it is to be demolished.
§ Mr. Colegate
My hon. Friend informs me that it has been demolished, and that is a great pity. There is Halnaby Hall—and new names are being added every month. To bring the matter right up to date, only 10 days ago "Country Life" said this about Kings Weston, Gloucestershire, one of Vanbrugh's most lovely houses:The Georgian completion of Kings Weston, Gloucestershire, which Vanbrugh designed about 1710, is here identified as due to Robert Mylne, the notable Scottish architect and engineer, in 1763–72. The house is now becoming derelict.It is an extremely sad story and I hope that I and other hon. Members will succeed in pressing upon the Government that action must be taken as quickly as possible if more of these artistic tragedies are not to take place.
I want to turn now to the Gowers Report itself and to examine the Committee's remedies for this state of affairs. Very briefly, their recommendations are two-fold. First, they recommend that a statutory body should be created called the Historic Buildings Council. It should have the duty of selecting houses and the co-ordination of all the agencies existing at the present time. There are a considerable number of agencies, starting with the Ministry of Works, and the various societies who are concerned in this work, but at the moment the action of all these bodies is not co-ordinated in any way, although no doubt they are in friendly consultation. Secondly, the Gowers Report recommends that owner-occupiers of designated houses. if they agree to show their houses to the public and to certain other stringent conditions, should be entitled to certain tax relief.
I cannot go into all the details of the work and duties which it is proposed that the Historic Buildings Council should undertake. Two points require discussion, however. First, it may be asked. why not leave all these matters to the National Trust, which has a country house scheme? It has done most excellent work, and some people may suggest that that is the answer. But many people seem to think that that will be 2191 quite a simple matter. I must point out that although the National Trust has an excellent country house scheme which now covers some 50 or 60 houses, it is not in the least suitable for the majority of the cases which we are considering.
The National Trust will not consent to taking over a house of the type about which we are speaking unless an endowment fund is provided for its maintenance, and in most of the cases we are considering that is out of the question because the owner has not the funds to maintain the house as it should be maintained. Only a minority of persons today are in a position to put up such a fund. No doubt the National Trust will continue to do good work in that as in many other fields, and I want to make it clear that if an Historic Buildings Council is established, as I hope it will be, it must maintain the closest relations with the National Trust, the Georgian Society and all the other bodies concerned with this matter.
Secondly it may be asked, why should a new Historic Buildings Council be set up when we have the Ministry of Works which already has in its care so many ancient monuments? Although I have great admiration for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works, I must say frankly that I think the Ministry of Works is a body which is not at all suited to undertake this work. The work it does is admirable, as I know very well from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire and other abbeys which it maintains. They are delightful and the work has been well done, but this is a totally different problem. One of the main points made by the Gowers Report is that these houses should remain, as far as possible, family residences and not be treated as ancient monuments.
Moreover, the new council suggested by the Gowers Report could co-ordinate in a way that the Office of Works cannot do and there is a great deal of co-ordination to be done. For example, only recently the Home Office communicated with the societies concerned with these houses and asked if they were taking adequate precautions to protect them against fire. That is a useful thing for the Home Office to do, but I suggest that if we have an Historic Buildings Council, responsible to the Treasury, it would not be necessary for the other Government Departments to 2192 take up points of that kind and its establishment would lead to a considerable lessening of overlapping which is taking place now. There are many other reasons why the general opinion of those interested is against the Ministry of Works and in favour of such a council.
I now turn to the more controversial part of the Gowers Report—their proposals in regard to relief from taxation. First, I shall deal with the proposal that relief from death duties should be given to a designated house and its contents and amenity land so long as it is not sold and so long as the conditions include public access, etc. I am dealing with this question first because it was one which was set by the Labour Government in 1930.
In his Budget of that year the late Philip Snowden made a considerable advance with regard to the preservation of works of art. Whereas before the 1930 Finance Act objects given to public bodies were protected, Section 40 (3) provided that suchpictures, prints, books, manuscripts, works of art, scientific collections or other things not yielding income as on a claim being made to the Treasury … appear to them to be of national, scientific, historic or artistic interestshall, while enjoyed in kind, be exempt from death duties, and the value of those objects should not be taken into account for the purpose of estimating the principal value of the estate.
This was a considerable advance but, as I think almost by mischance, the term "works of art" was held not to cover houses. The present Lord Selborne, who was then sitting in this House as Lord Wolmer, moved an Amendment to the Finance Bill and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) spoke in the short debate that followed. In effect, the Amendment sought to extend the Clause to cover houses. I tried the same thing on myself later but the late Stafford Cripps was too quick for me and pointed out that the ejusdem generis rule excluded houses from works of art and that, therefore, separate action would have to be taken.
Let us look at the anomaly created. A house, in itself a beautiful work of art, has so far been refused exemption from death duties whilst its contents which today, if they are of any artistic value, will be of far more value than the house, 2193 are protected from them. Yet the house enshrines the works of art. And on the question of values, I would point out that the value of such houses today is very small indeed. For a small villa in a pleasant part of Surrey one can get more today than for a great mansion stripped of most of its land and with only a few acres of gardens around it. Indeed, there are one or two great houses with 18, 25 or 30 bedrooms, advertised in "Country Life" at present, for sale at £7,000 or £8,000.
It is obvious that they are not intended to be lived in. They are being sold to demolition contractors mainly for the lead on the roof. All the lead made before 1800 contained a high percentage of silver and is, therefore, much more valuable than is commercial lead today. The contractor hopes to recoup himself by pulling the house down, selling the lead, the mahogany doors and the building stone or brick for what these things will fetch. It seems to be an extraordinary anomaly and deserves the reproach made about us that of all the arts architecture in this country is the Cinderella.
In response to a Question of mine as to what would be the loss of revenue from taxation if the proposals of the Gowers Report were adopted, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave me what I still think was the astonishing figure of £10 million per annum. I do not know how that was worked out, although I have tried to discover. I do not know how much of that sum was attributed to loss of death duties and how much was attributed to loss of Income Tax and Surtax. I was simply told 2,000 houses and a loss of £10 million a year. It seems to me that a bright young man in the Treasury said to himself, "This is simple. Take 2,000 houses at £5,000 a year, multiply £5,000 by 2,000 and you get £10 million." But the matter should not be dealt with in that way. I admit that I speak very much in the dark, but I doubt if the loss on death duties would amount to more than £600,000 a year and I have worked it out in considerable detail. I do not think that is a very big price to pay for the preservation of 2,000 of the most beautiful houses in the world.
I come to the question of Income Tax and Surtax. The Report recommended the exemption from such Income Tax 2194 and Surtax as was reasonably necessary to maintain the house. The right hon. Member for Leeds, South, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that he would not accept this proposal:which would amount to a subsidy.‖ over which Parliament would have no direct control."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th April. 1951; Vol. 487, c. 87.]But, if the Historic Buildings Council were set up and was directly responsible to the Treasury, this House and the Treasury would have direct control over the expenditure of the Historic Buildings Council and over the conditions which that council imposed on the owners of any houses which might benefit by the provisions made by the Treasury under this head.
There is another grave anomaly here. If the house is managed on a commercial basis the owner gets all that I am asking for. If one manages a house on a commercial basis, shows a profit, and treats it as a commercial undertaking, one gets allowances on Income Tax and Surtax for the whole expenditure concerned. One is then judged simply on the profit one happens to make during the year. I am very glad to see that two or three of the greatest houses in this country are being run on a commercialised basis and would, therefore, not come under the provisions suggested by the Gowers Report.
The anomaly is that a house fortunate enough to be situated near an industrial district—such as Chatsworth, which is seen by millions of people coming from Sheffield and the surrounding countryside—can benefit by this protection, whilst a house which is just as important from an architectural point of view but is in a country district where there is no chance of treating it as a commercial proposition is penalised and cannot get the benefit of these proposals. That alone makes it important that we should honestly face the question of Income Tax and Surtax. It is not a question of giving a benefit to some particular person. Someone suggested to me, "If you did that, all the profiteers would rush in, buy historic houses, and get away with Income Tax and Surtax." Nothing of the kind: the regulations can be—and, of course, would be under the Treasury—drafted in so strict a way that there would be no opportunity for subterfuge of that kind.
§ Mr. Jay
The hon. Member says that there would be complete control by the Treasury but, according to the Gowers Report, would it not be the Historic Buildings Council—not the Treasury or the Ministry of Works—who would decide which houses should get these concessions and there would not be Treasury control?
§ Mr. Colegate
The right hon. Member is right to the extent that the actual designation of the houses would not be under the Treasury. But, after designation, all the actual financial transactions would be strictly controlled by the Treasury. I do not think anyone would object to the Historic Buildings Council, the National Trust, or anyone else designating houses. It is a question of what one does after they have been designated. One knows that, the Treasury being what it is, it would then have strict control. The Gowers Report suggests thatif at any time the Minister disagrees with the advice of the Council, he should be required to record his reasons in writing and lay them before Parliament.The actual machinery is there provided so that control would be complete.
On the question of grants and loans the right hon. Member for Leeds, South, in a Written answer in April, 1951, rejected in toto the Gowers Report proposal. I think it was a great mistake, but the right hon. Member gave reasons for it and I want to quote those reasons because the point should be answered. What he proposed was that the Minister of Works should be empowered to…assist in the preservation of outstanding houses…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th April, 1951; Vol. 487, c.87.]by a system of grants and loans. How can a loan possibly assist in the vast majority of cases? In the case of an owner who has not sufficient net income to maintain his house as he would wish, the Ministry of Works offers him a loan under the scheme we are discussing. But that puts a heavier burden on him. He then has the annual interest to pay out in addition to his already too heavy expenses and he makes the position in regard to death duties far worse for his heirs. By placing mortgages and loans on the building one makes it more difficult for the payment of death duties. A loan of sufficient size might make the property so wonderful that not only 2196 would the loan have to be repaid, but the value of the property would be increased when it was valued for death duties.
A grant would be a very difficult and elaborate operation. Each case would have to be considered on its merits and, presumably, there would have to be some sort of means test as none of us wants to hand out money unnecessarily. I think it will be seen that that scheme will not do. So far as I know it has not been supported by anyone interested in the matter, neither by the National Trust or the Georgian Society, or anyone else.
I have spoken for a long time, but I have this matter very much at heart. I want to press the Government most strongly that when they are considering the Measure which, I am told, is on the stocks, they will give fullest weight to the arugments set out in the Gowers Report and put forward by societies interested in the matter. Their opinion is very nearly unamimous. We all agree about the urgency of the matter and I feel that a Bill should be introduced and that it should be as closely in conformity with the recommendations of the Gowers Report as is possible.
Some people will say, "We are passing through very difficult times. This is not the time for legislation of this kind. The country is struggling and will have to struggle, whichever party is in power, with a mass of post-war difficulties." All that is true, but nevertheless, I urge the Government most strongly to bring in legislation at the earliest moment. That this country has great difficulties with which to contend is agreed, but that does not overwhelm us. Not only are we keeping well in the forefront in engineering and matters of invention—our aeroplanes lead the world—not only are we maintaining the best system of social services in the world, but in almost every branch of the national life we are showing a vigour which has not been damped by the misfortunes of the war and the post-war period.
I therefore say that while we press forward in the paths of progress—and we must press forward—do not let us forget our duty in this matter to the generations which will follow us. No praise of the Government would be finer in after years than if it could be said that 2197 while they resolutely faced the problems to be solved in the more material world they were not unmindful of the task of preserving this heritage of beauty for those who come after us.
§ 12 noon.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
I beg to second the Motion.
The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) has spoken with great eloquence and knowledge upon this important subject, a subject in which he has shown a very great interest for a long time. I am sure that the whole House is indebted to him for having taken the opportunity of choosing this subject for his Motion this Friday morning. I only regret that I have not the same detailed knowledge, but I share with him, as I am sure do my hon. Friends on this side of the House, his zest for the cause and the desire to urge upon the Government the necessity of taking some immediate action.
The problem falls into two parts. First, there is the problem of understanding the seriousness and the urgency of the matter, on which, I think, we are all agreed. The second thing is to devise the most suitable remedy. On this we have divergent views, because we do not all accept the recommendations of the Gowers Report and we not all agree upon the precise remedies that are most desirable. That is why, as the hon. Member said, the Motion has been framed, not to urge the Government to implement the actual recommendations of the Gowers Report, but to take immediate action to carry into effect the objectives with which the Gowers Report deals.
With regard to the problem itself, I was impressed a fortnight ago by an address, widely reported in the Press, given by Mr. Cecil Farthing of the National Buildings Record to the British Archaeological Association, in which he said:The demolition of old buildings is a normal part of the life of a nation, but the present widespread holocaust can be matched only in the sixteenth century when the dissolution of the monasteries resulted in the disappearance, ruin or conversion to other uses of an enormous number of important medieval buildings throughout the country.That is the parallel to the problem with which we are confronted.
Few of us, I imagine, have not at some time or other seen the ruins of some famous medieval abbey or priory in 2198 different parts of the country—Fountains Abbey, or Glastonbury, or Tintern or Castle Acre, or many another—and have regretted the neglect of our forefathers in having failed to preserve those great national monuments to the artistic, cultural, social and economic life of the Middle Ages.
We are faced with a similar problem today. As the hon. Member for Burton has said, these historic houses are the treasure houses of art and architecture, the living representations of the great artistic talent of this country; and we shall be failing in our duty to posterity unless we take some steps urgently to prevent the demolition that is taking place.
The position cannot be better stated than in the opening paragraphs of the Gowers Report:No feature of our country contributes more to its beauty and character than the historic houses of which it has such a profusion … They constitute a national asset whose loss would be irreplaceable.' They are part of our English heritage.' It is not too much to say that these houses represent an association of beauty, of art and of nature—the achievement often of centuries of effort—which is irreplaceable, and has seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of civilisation.I do not think that those words are exaggerated. But, since the Gowers Report was published only three years ago, demolition has gone on apace. Even in the last three years, as the "Manchester Guardian" says in its leading article today, something between a dozen and a score of famous mansions have disappeared each year. The hon. Member for Burton has mentioned one or two of them, and it would not be difficult to add to the list.
In 1950, for example, East Cowes Castle, in the Isle of Wight, a famous mansion built by John Nash, disappeared. In 1951, the tide of destruction mounted with increasing fury. Among the houses destroyed and demolished were Blyth Hall, Nottinghamshire; Grove Hall, Nottinghamshire; Hadlow Castle, Kent; Ewhurst Manor; Butleigh Court, Somerset; Rolls Park, Essex; Marks Hall, Essex; Draycot Cerne, Wiltshire; Buckminster Park, Leicestershire; Alton Towers, and many others. Even in 1952, demolition continued.
Perhaps the greatest intentional destruction which occurred last year, as 2199 opposed to accidental destruction, with which we are not concerned, was the demolition of Halnaby Hall, in Yorkshire, remarkable for its beautiful construction and exquisite interior plaster work, and also famous in history and literature as the home of Lord Byron. And it was only last year that High Sunderland Hall, in Yorkshire, the original "Wuthering Heights," was demolished. That is the problem with which we are confronted. There is no doubt about the urgency of something being done, and being done immediately, to implement the objectives of the Gowers Report.
With regard to remedies, one appreciates that this is bound up with the question of finance. I should like to say to the Minister of Works that, important as this problem is, we have to be careful not to attempt too much. After all, historic buildings vary in the degree of their artistic and architectural importance. If we attempted to preserve them all, we should be going too far and should be sacrificing the cause we have at heart. One of the things, therefore, that should be done as rapidly as possible is to bring up to date the list of these historic buildings.
It was intended a few years ago that the whole country should be covered by an authoritative list of the buildings worthy of preservation. One of the reasons why demolition has been allowed to continue is that there is not yet throughout the whole country a complete record of what should be preserved. This, I think, is partly due to the unfortunate overlapping of administrative provisions between the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
I hope that whatever else will be contained in the legislation which, I gather, is to be announced shortly, the present administrative overlapping will be terminated. After all, all that is possible under existing legislation, either under the Ancient Monuments Acts or under the Town and Country Planning Acts is to permit of delay, in one case two months and in another case three months, before an owner can demolish; but even these provisions do not operate in every case. There are, furthermore, a number of anomalies.
2200 I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member for Burton as to which is the appropriate Ministry. I prefer the suggestion that the Ministry of Works should be wholly responsible for this subject. Incidentally, I do not think it was quite true to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) had entirely ignored all the recommendations of the Gowers Report. He accepted the recommendation that the responsibilities in this matter should be transferred to the Minister of Works. I agree with my right hon. Friend and with what has been said from both Front Benches in earlier debates, that this is not a problem which we can solve by making privileged concessions on Surtax and Income Tax. Those recommendations which the Gowers Report put forward would, I think, be the wrong way to deal with the matter.
I support, as did the hon. Member for Burton, the proposal of the Gowers Report that an historic buildings council should be set up. I think that is essential. I do not think that this can be left to the National Trust. They have duties of an entirely different order which are admirably discharged. Here we want a body—and a nucleus of it exists—charged exclusively with this problem. I would hope that in so far as Ministerial responsibility is concerned, the Government Department chosen to answer in the House for the operations of the historic buildings council would be the Ministry of Works.
This is probably the place to pay a tribute to the admirable work which the Ancient Monuments Division of that Ministry has done over a number of years. I am sure all Members must have seen in one part of the county or another some of the work of the Ancient Monuments Division. I specially call to mind Pevensey, Porchester, and Richborough. I am sure we are all deeply impressed by the great skill with which these ancient monuments are preserved and cared for, and, incidentally, with the enthusiasm with which the guardians of those buildings always place themselves with such readiness at the disposal of visitors, whether from our own land or from abroad. Therefore, the Ministry of Works has a background, tradition and staff for dealing with matters of this kind.
2201 I hope that we shall hear from the Minister that this historic buildings council will be set up, with wide powers, and I hope we shall hear that adequate finance will be made available, either from the Land Fund or some other source, both to enable buildings which have become in danger of demolition to be saved for the nation and to enable provision to be made for their maintenance.
There is one other aspect which I hope will be considered. There must be a number of cases in which local authorities, if given suitable financial encouragement, would be prepared to take over historic buildings which their owners can no longer maintain for their own residence, and use them for some purposes of local administration, whether as a residential school or homes of various kinds. I feel that many local authorities would be willing to act in that way rather than put up new and expensive buildings if they could count upon additional financial assistance both towards the cost of capital acquisition and also towards the additional maintenance which is inevitably involved in maintaining old buildings rather than new ones.
I am not speaking at greater length because a number of my hon. Friends wish to support this Motion, the aims of which, on both sides of the House, we have at heart. We wish to press the Government to introduce, without further delay, legislation to deal, in the cultural interests of the nation, with this most pressing subject.
§ 12.14 p.m.
§ The Minister of Works (Mr. David Eccles)
It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene now and give the Government's view, and then my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary can answer any further questions which hon. Gentlemen put in the course of the debate.
I must confess that if I still enjoyed the freedom of the back benches, I should have put down this Motion or one very like it, and I should have tried, though, I think, not succeeded, to move it in terms as convincing and. charming as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate). I should certainly have been fortunate if I could have found a seconder equal to the hon. 2202 Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), whom I should like to thank for what he said about my Department's handling of ancient monuments.
Therefore, there really could not be any hon. Member here more disappointed than I am that I cannot announce in full detail the terms of the Historic Houses Bill which the Government now have under consideration. The House is entitled to hear the reasons for this disappointment. The first is the purely practical question of Parliamentary time. The Prime Minister, speaking in the debate on the Address last November, said that the Government intended to proceed with a Measure on this subject when time permitted. Alas, it cannot be a surprise to anyone in the House that in the near future the programme is already fully loaded, and even if we—
§ Mr. Eccles
—put the finishing touches to our Bill we could not introduce it before Easter. So we are not really losing anything in time by waiting a little longer.
The Motion asks us to bring in this legislation at the earliest practicable date. We agree, and in the interval we very much want to hear the views of the House on certain remarkably difficult points to which very little reference has been made either in this debate or outside, but which I hope to explain in a few moments. We all realise how extraordinary it must appear that further cogitation is needed on a matter on which all sides of the House are agreed. The deterioration, decay and in a growing number of cases the demolition of these masterpieces of British domestic architecture are assuming the proportions of a tragedy, and there is no one in the House, as both hon. Members have said, who is really indifferent to what is taking place.
It is, however, as well to remind ourselves that we here are responsible for this tragedy. In Budget after Budget we have voted a level of taxation on personal incomes so high that it carried with it a revolutionary change in the style of life of those who occupy or might occupy great mansions as their family homes. The House now wants to make amends for one of the evil results of a taxation policy the general merits of which I cannot discuss today.
2203 I am glad that my hon. Friend paid a tribute to the late Sir Stafford Cripps because Sir Stafford Cripps understood what was happening. He appointed the Gowers Committee and their Report surveyed with a very sympathetic sweep the consequences of this high taxation upon the country houses of Britain, which are recognised in all countries where architecture is appreciated as a unique example of graceful living by men and women who loved, above all, to entertain their friends in beautiful surroundings.
That Report handled the problem in its full dimensions, and as one would expect from so distinguished a Committee its recommendations are on a scale required effectively to deal with the problem. But the Report did not say and could not say how much it would cost to carry out its recommendations. Here is the trouble. Here is the reason why it is so difficult to frame a Bill to the satisfaction of all those interested.
I must ask the House to allow me to speak of finance for a few minutes. During the Adjournment debate before the Summer Recess the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said this:… my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recognised that when a suitable scheme for the carrying out of the work of preservation can be embodied in appropriate legislation it will be necessary for him to give it life by a cash provision and although the sum will have to be limited, he has expressed his readiness so to to."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st August. 1952 Vol. 504, c. 2022.]In these times we are fortunate that the Chancellor can provide anything for a new service, when we are all agreed on the need for cutting expenditure and getting taxation down. It does show the keen interest of my right hon. Friend in the preservation of historic houses that he is willing to provide any new money at all, but I do not think any hon. Member can expect that provision to be very large. I could not begin to frame a Bill until I knew how much money would be available. Obviously, the amount of money conditions the kind of administration we should set up and what we intend to do, and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton is to be congratulated on his success in getting that assurance from the Chancellor last August.
The fact is that the cloth from which I must cut my coat is about £250,000 a 2204 year. That is not a bad start, when one considers the demands for reducing Government expenditure which come from both sides of the House, but I must say that its modesty very severely limits what can be done. I must make it quite clear that this sum means that the general proposals of the Gowers Report cannot be carried out; they must wait for more favourable times. We have, therefore, to devise, not a full scheme for the preservation of the 2,000 best houses envisaged by the Gowers Committee, but a scheme to put in hand first-aid operations very limited in extent.
I wish now to explain to the House what it is likely to cost to maintain 50 or 100 of the finest of our historic houses, and then I wish to turn to the principles on which we ought to select those houses.
Listening to the debate today, I thought it a great pity that we have not had an earlier opportunity to discuss the Gowers Report, because very much of the misapprehension about what we are trying to do derives from a lack of understanding of how expensive preservation is. My hon. Friend challenged the Treasury calculation that to carry out the recommendations of the Gowers Committee in respect of the 2,000 houses in the top category would cost the Revenue £10 million a year. In one respect I am sure that that figure is a serious underestimate.
As it stands, the £10 million is divided equally between the running expenses of maintenance—that is an average of —2,500 a year, £5 million in all—and the loss to the Revenue in the remission of Estate Duty recommended by the Gowers Committee. I admit that the loss of Estate Duty must be only a guess. The assumption is that a death occurs once every 35 years. I make no comment upon it, because it is beyond my comprehension how one calculates these things, but I assume that the Treasury are right.
I want to turn to the running expenses, because there I think there is a considerable under-estimate. We have a test in Chequers, which is not a very large property when judged by the size of 50 or 100 of the most important private houses in this country. Chequers costs, as hon. Gentlemen can see from the Votes, a great deal more than £2,500 a year to maintain. Then we have our experience with the Royal Palaces, with 2205 Apsley House, Lancaster House, Dover House, and other famous houses.
§ Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)
Is that simply the maintenance of the structure of the building? Obviously, there are many other expenses involved, in running Chequers, for example.
§ Mr. Eccles
I should say that the upkeep of Chequers, including the grounds, gardens, and heating which is necessary to preserve the house from dry rot would be something in the neighbourhood of £4,000. The total expenses are £14,000, so even if it is £4,000 I think it modest.
§ Mr. Colegate
Of course, no fees are received from Chequers for showing people over the house. That is the net cost, is it not?
§ Mr. Eccles
That is true; there are no fees from Chequers. Where that is so, as my hon. Friend mentioned in the case of Chatsworth, there would be an appropriation in aid from the Revenue.
There is another factor in the cost which is not allowed for in the Treasury calculation, and that is arrears of repairs. Very often owners come to the Ministry of Works—such is the reputation of our architects in the Ancient Monuments section—to ask advice about the maintenance of historic buildings. Almost invariably our architects find that there is a very long list of arrears of repairs which simply must be done before the current maintenance cost can be worked out. At a very rough estimate, I should say that if a house was to cost £2,500 a year to maintain, there would be double that amount of deferred repairs to be done. I could quote cases, but I have not the permission of the owners, where, in fact, deferred repairs are very much more than double the figure of annual maintenance.
Maintenance, as the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. J. Dugdale) mentioned a moment ago, includes not only the structure, but the heating of the house, which, in many cases, is very expensive to maintain; the taking care of the historic contents of the house—in that connection our experience of the Royal Palaces is very valuable—and gardens and the amenity land. There is one point connected with this which I should like to mention to the House. I have been authorised by the Chancellor to say 2206 that in the next Finance Bill he proposes to take provision to enable chattels to be accepted in lieu of death duty when they are connected with historic buildings, and when it seems right to the Treasury so to do. That is a move in the direction which we want.
One can now see that the sum of £250,000 a year will enable us to look after between 50 and 100 of the finest houses, but the scale is altogether different from that envisaged by the Gowers Committee.
§ Viscount Lambton (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Will my right hon. Friend say whether the Chancellor has also imposed upon him a limit of relief from taxation as well as a limit on actual expenditure?
§ Mr. Eccles
Naturally he has, because it is exactly the same thing to the Budget whether the expenditure is in loss of revenue or in the form of grants. So far as I am concerned, I am bound by the £250,000 a year on either side of the account, and it is exactly that which makes it so difficult to draft a Bill.
§ Mr. Eccles
They are not exempted, I must make that clear. Perhaps I should read the actual words:The Commissioners of Inland Revenue may accept, in satisfaction or part satisfaction of any Estate Duty or settlement Estate Duty, any objects which are or have been ordinarily kept in any building … in any case where it appears to the Treasury desirable for the objects to remain associated with the building.They are not exempted from duty, but duty can be paid with them.
§ Mr. Eccles
It is intended in the Bill we are to bring in that public access shall be a condition of getting financial assistance.
§ Mr. Colegate
I am still not clear on this point. This does not seem to be much more than Section 40 of the Finance Act of 1930, under which books, prints, pictures, manuscripts, and so on, are exempt from duty.
§ Mr. Eccles
But at a certain time they might have to be sold. It would be of great assistance if the hon. Gentleman would care to talk to me about this afterwards.
§ Mr. Eccles
In the case of one or two very large collections, where the owners have recently died, this will be of great assistance. The whole nature of the operation is changed by the limit on finance. We are forced to a first-aid operation where we have to discriminate very carefully among houses which might well be considered to be of equal value.
There are two points I should like to make about the first-aid scheme. The first is that the money must not be eaten up in administration expenses. With a sum of this sort we have no scope for engaging a team of paid experts. They would soon run away with a large slice of £250,000 a year. Therefore, we must find some way in which the administration expenses can be borne by people who are devoted to the subject and who will voluntarily give time or by existing officials.
The second point is that because the money is so small we shall be under very great pressure to spread it too thinly. I went to France last year to see how they were getting on. There I saw the terrible effects of trying to spread grants too thinly. The fact is that the French grant of one milliard francs was given before the war and it has not been increased. Of course, the value of the franc has gone down very much and, for that reason, the grants are quite unequal to the task. Whatever provisions we make we ought to set our faces firmly against taking on any houses when we have not got the money to keep them up to the standard of a tradition that we desire to preserve.
I come now to the question of how we are to select the 50 or 100 houses which can be handled with this sum of money. Here we are in a great difficulty which was extremely well illustrated by the two speeches which we have heard. As both speakers told the House, fine houses are continually coming on to the market for which no tenant or purchaser can be found. When we hear of this, we make every possible effort to find someone to 2208 take on the property for a school or college or some kind of institution. It is not until we are absolutely convinced that we cannot find an institutional tenant that the demolition order goes through.
That was exactly the case with Halnaby Hall. We tried high and low to get a tenant for Halnaby Hall. When, having only power to buy objects of art, I bought a superb mantelpiece from there I was blamed for it by hon. Gentlemen opposite.
§ Mr. Eccles
The hon. Gentleman may be a very close buyer of mantelpieces, but I should be surprised if he could have got this one for much less.
I heard the list which was given of houses which had disappeared over the last two or three years. I could add to that list at least a dozen others; but here is the problem. It is extremely doubtful whether more than one or two of the houses that have been demolished in the last three years would ever find their way on to a list of the 50 or 100 finest specimens of British architecture. It is quite certain that more than half of them would not, and yet when they are demolished there is, naturally, great concern.
It is true that, as the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said on 1st August, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to give me some money from the Land Fund with which to purchase houses, but the Land Fund moneys will not be available for upkeep. If, therefore, we buy fine but second-class houses we shall be mortgaging part of the £250,000 a year and we shall have less for houses of the highest merit. This poses a very awkward problem. I shall be very glad to hear the views of hon. Members on this difficult choice. Do they think that we should spend taxpayers' money on the best, and only on the best, or should we take a shorter view and try to save from demolition, up to the limit set by the finance that I am allowed, any house which comes within the category of the first 2,000?
It is a most difficult question to decide. I should like to give the House my personal view. Buildings express, as no other of man's creations, the spirit and history of a people. There is Versailles, 2209 the Colosseum, the Taj Màhal or the Pyramids. They are the great landmarks through the centuries of events and men who were outstanding in their countries. One forgets the name of the builders. One does not know who were the architects or the stonemasons, but the buildings live on and even increase in value to the succeeding ages.
We can take pride that in our tradition there is such a large number of buildings which were the homes of great families, families who served their country—and I do not mean served the State only: they also served their neighbours. It is these homes that are now in danger. The fact is that the spacious way of life has changed. No one can preserve all the outward manifestations when the life itself has taken on new forms.
Reference has been made to the dissolution of the monasteries. I very much doubt whether, when this country ceased to be Catholic—that is to say, when we had taken on a new religious direction—it would have been possible, in any case, to have maintained all these monasteries. That is an open question; but it is not open to us to choose to live like our grandfathers. If we bent too much of our energies in trying to do so, that would, in my view, be a mark of decline in the nation.
I therefore believe that it is our duty to look after and keep in perfect order that number and variety of houses which will hand on to posterity a fair sample of all styles and all periods, some of them big houses and some small ones, some in the countryside and some in city streets. The tradition must not die. We must see that they are representative gems of each age, as one follows the other, but, for this lovable and pious duty, it is not necessary to maintain at the expense of the taxpayer all the examples of every style and every period. There. I agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite.
I should be sorry to see us turning ourselves into a nation of subsidised museum keepers. We have to strike a balance between the past and the future, between the structures of bygone ages and the creations of our own generation. I myself would like very much to give our living architects the chance, which they have not got now, to design masterpieces, which a future House of Commons, maybe 200 or 300 years' hence. will vote money to preserve.
2210 I think we should be content, for the time being, with the provision which the Chancellor has found it possible to make, and I would ask hon. Gentlemen to accept the limitation which is imposed by our financial circumstances and to help us to find the best way of laying out that sum. I hope I have made it quite clear that we are engaged in producing a Bill, which we hope will be non-contentious and passed at the earliest practical date, but we must say that the state of the national finances does not allow us to contemplate fulfilling all the recommendations of the Gowers Report. We seek to fulfil as fast as we can, within the financial limits available, the general objectives which are referred to in the Motion.
§ Mr. Eccles
I rather inferred that, out of the £250,000 a year, it would be impossible to set up a new organisation without swallowing up a great deal of the money.
What we hope to do is to have a Historic Buildings Council of an advisory nature which will advise the Minister on which houses should qualify for financial aid. Certainly, as the present Minister, I do not wish to have the duty of choosing 50 or 100 houses out of a large number of fine houses, I think that the Gowers Report would have gone still further and suggested a staff of architects and experts, and other people to see that the money was well and truly spent, in this Historic Buildings Council. We really have not enough money to contemplate that sort of thing.
§ Mr. Eccles
No, I really cannot be quite definite about that, but, certainly, I could not contemplate that the Ministry of Works, except in the most exceptional circumstances, should give any financial aid to a house which had not been recommended by an advisory body. I am sure that any future Minister of Works would need a body of that kind to make from time to time the artistic judgment which would be very difficult for Ministers themselves to make.
§ Viscount Lambton
Is there to be any general rule of alleviation for the owners of these houses? Is it to be entirely at the discretion of the Minister whether any alleviation is to be allowed to an individual owner?
§ Mr. Eccles
I cannot answer that in detail, but I am quite sure that there will be no more than £250,000 a year.
§ Viscount Lambton
So it will mean that there will be no general rule, but only exceptional rules at the entire discretion of the Minister.
§ Mr. Eccles
I do not know what my noble Friend means, but, obviously, the number of houses selected for aid would have to be arrived at by calculation of how far the £250,000 a year would go. Therefore, that would determine the principle on which they are selected.
I would conclude by saying that I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to explain our difficulties to the House, and to assure him that the Government agree with his argument that something should be done as soon as possible. We are trying very hard to produce a Bill in time to get it through Parliament during this Session.
§ 12.46 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
I think we all sympathise to some extent with the Minister of Works on the statement which he has just made and which is probably as unsatisfactory to him as I suspect it will be felt to be to hon. Members on both sides of the House. He has shown a very real interest in this matter, and we do not doubt that interest for a moment, although it will be a great disappointment to both sides of the House that a much clearer and much more encouraging statement could not have been made.
May I first take up the question of time? It must be realised that, after all, this matter has been under consideration for a very long time. There was, quite properly and naturally, a great deal of pressure upon the late Administration for a statement of their intentions, and, after a statement was made by my right hon. Friend the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was certainly hoped that a Bill would be available in the forthcoming Session.
We know that a great deal was done to prepare a Bill along the lines of the state- 2212 ment made by my right hon. Friend at that time, and one would have hoped that while the new Administration would have to look at the matter again, yet now, over a year and a half later, it should surely have been possible to have come to some conclusions, and even more so when that long consideration has produced the rather small and fearful mouse that has appeared from the Minister's statement to us this morning. Surely, if this is all that is considered possible, a statement about it could have been made almost a year ago, and legislation could have been introduced into the House. In that case, perhaps, some of these houses. or one or two of them, could possibly have been saved, or at least action could have been taken to try to save them.
The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) whose interest in this matter we all respect and who has done so much to bring it before the House, referred briefly to the case of one house —Coleshill House, in Berkshire. The hon. Member thought that the house was still standing, but, unfortunately, that is not so, and the tragedy is that here was a case of fire, but a fire which did not, in the view of the experts, wholly destroy the building. It would still have been possible to save it, if it was felt that it was one of special value in the view of the experts and could have been done without a wholly unreasonable expenditure of money. The tragedy is that this house, undoubtedly like many others, is being demolished, and that we are losing it and others without any proper and careful examination of the question whether they are properties which we should wish to preserve or not.
I can accept the view expressed both by my hon. Friend and by the Minister that we are, perhaps, in danger of not being able to save some of the most valuable houses of all by attempting to save too many. There would appear to be some logic in that argument, and I think we must be careful in our examination of those houses we wish to preserve. It is perfectly true that in our present circumstances we cannot preserve all that we would wish to preserve.
Our complaint is that so little progress has been made with the examination and selection of individual houses, with the listing and scheduling of properties which we might all agree it is desirable to retain.
§ Mr. Eccles
During the war a very good list was got out in three categories, A, B and C, of the finest houses in the country for the purpose of protection in the case of air raids or anything of that sort. That list could, of course, be revised over and over again, but I think it would be wrong to say and for the Government to rest on the proposition that they did not yet know what were the good houses. I think we do.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to wind up the debate, will give us some more information about preservation orders. In this interim period we should at least have been able, while legislation was being prepared, to go further with regard to the preservation of houses which were likely to come under consideration for future treatment and repair so that there might not have been quite so many cases of houses that may have been included in the final list being destroyed.
I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House regard the figure allotted to the Minister as being woefully inadequate. The right hon. Gentleman said that he had to accept this figure, but I assume that he argued with the Treasury about it. It is a pity we could not have had this debate earlier so that we might have been able to add vigour to any representations he made to the Treasury, and that there is not present a representative of the Treasury which is really the nigger in the woodpile in this matter.
It may be a little unfair to attack the right hon. Gentleman for what he no doubt desires as much as we do, but I think it is obvious that painfully little can be done with a sum of this size when one considers the cost of repair work and the amount of arrears of repairs, and also the question which may well arise in some cases, that of acquisition.
When the right hon. Gentleman said that he and his right hon. Friends had hoped to find some use by local authorities or other public bodies for buildings that might otherwise be disposed of and pulled down, he seemed to forget that under the proposals put forward by my right hon. Friend it might well have been possible to make small grants to local authorities or other public bodies to enable them to take over properties of this kind for very valuable public use.
2214 We are well aware of the problem facing local authorities in matters of this kind. Some of them, in association with the National Trust, have taken over many valuable and delightful properties for educational purposes, but they are confronted all too often with the problem of both upkeep and carrying out the necessary alterations in order to make them suitable for present-day use. I am thinking, for example, of the position of quite a number of local authorities in relation to adult education colleges.
It seems to me that with a comparatively small amount of assistance from the national Exchequer it might have been possible for local authorities to accept buildings which up to now they have had to reject and that here is another example of action which the Government might well have included when considering the new powers to be given to the Ministry in any Measure that might be brought forward.
The sum of £250,000 a year is quite inadequate for the wide variety of purposes that must be considered. It would appear that the Minister has rejected, as my right hon. Friend rejected, the proposal of exemption from tax for reasons which were properly explained at the time by my right hon. Friend the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was clearly understood when the proposals were made that grants, and, possibly, in a limited number of cases, loans might have been made available.
But I think we all felt at the time that where possible the most desirable way of dealing with individual cases was for the property to pass to the National Trust or some other public body and for the necessary State grant to be made to enable that to be done. I quite appreciate that the National Trust have no funds with which to acquire some of the most desirable properties they would wish to acquire because they have no assistance by way of endowment. That is where I think we could have done a great deal more to help.
I hope we shall be told whether or not the Government are proposing to give assistance in this way to the National Trust, the form of assistance they contemplate, and whether they are prepared to consider, as I think they certainly should, the inclusion, in proper cases, of the right of compulsory purchase.
§ Mr. Eccles
I think I should say at once that the Government are not considering any form of compulsion.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
I am sure we all regret to hear that, because there are many cases where compulsory purchase is necessary if the general interest is to be preserved. This would not rule out in suitable cases the possibility of grants and loans to existing owners, but we must appreciate the problem that will certainly be involved where grants and loans are made. It is quite clear that where that is done there must be some form of proper supervision of the use of that money.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
Is there not a form of compulsion in that a scheduled building cannot be demolished or altered without obtaining permission?
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
That is, of course, the field of what we all agree to call "negative protection." While it is no doubt essential to have a preliminary stage of simply throwing some sort of cover to prevent the actual pulling down of a building, we all agree that the real problem is the positive work that has to be done. It is in connection with that positive work that we come up against the difficulty that if the State is to make grants available to existing owners and occupiers of buildings of this character then, clearly, we must ensure the proper use of that money.
That involves very real problems and difficulties. That is one of the reasons why I would feel always that it would be more desirable if the National Trust could be enabled to take over many properties which up to now they have not been able to take over because there has not been the endowment money available. This is a very good example of the valuable work which the Ministry could do if it were given the authority.
Here I might say that I am a little surprised that so little reference has been made to the work done by the National Trust. In recent times there have been attacks upon the Trust in the less responsible quarters of the Press. It should be made clear that we in this House appreciate very much the great work done by the National Trust and are anxious that they should be able to go forward and do more. That 2216 is my own view, knowing some of the many properties which the Trust have taken over and the anxiety of the Trust to obtain and their success very often in obtaining suitable use for the buildings, and in not merely continuing them as rather lifeless museums. I do not think that any of us want that. No doubt there are a limited number of properties which may be preserved as museums, but I hope that the number will be as small as possible.
We hope that these buildings may continue to be used by families and for a public purpose as well. One does not necessarily exclude the other. One of the tributes which I should like to pay to the National Trust is that they have succeeded so admirably in so many cases in doing that, and have succeeded in ensuring that property taken over should not only continue to be living tributes to the past but should also mean so much to the present population and, I hope, to the future.
I am glad to have this opportunity of speaking on this subject because, as one of the younger Members, I should like to express my own gratitude to all those responsible for enabling me and many others like me to have the benefit and to enjoy the atmosphere of these lovely houses in desirable circumstances. We want to see that work continue. We believe that the Government ought to make it possible not only for existing work to be continued but for more to be done. We believe that they should enable the National Trust to play a much fuller part than they have been able to do in the past. I believe that the Ministry of Works have done very well by the nation in that particular field, and I am not at all sure of the necessity for building up a new permanent authorising agency such as is suggested in the Gowers Report.
It is my own view, and I believe it would be the view of many of my hon. Friends, that on the whole the recommendation of the Gowers Report does not seem to simplify the administrative problem but rather to add another element to it. One can well see the necessity for an advisory body to the Ministry in any selection of cases, which must be done—for however many we may hope to save, it is not possible to save all, and there is need for skilled advice 2217 in the task of selection. I see the possibility of an advisory body being set up, but not a body with the wider powers which the Gowers Committee recommend.
I should like to ask whoever replies to this debate to make clear the views of the Government on the remission of taxation, as it is a matter to which my hon. Friends attach a great deal of importance. I feel that this is, above all, a matter which we should be able to discuss and to pass through as rapidly as possible in this House, as soon as we have the legislation, without any unnecessary party dispute. I am sure that it would ease the position of my hon. Friends if the Government spokesman indicates the views of the Government on this matter. I assume that they are much the same as those expressed by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury when he spoke in an adjournment debate, but we would be glad to have them approved today.
We on this side of the House would do our utmost to facilitate any adequate measures which the Government might bring forward. We certainly do not believe that it is impossible to get a Bill through this Session, if the Government have any real will to do it. We regret bitterly the inadequacy of the proposal put forward today. We are all deeply concerned with the condition of these houses and we hope very much that it will not be too late for the House to influence the Minister of Works, and more particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to do something more adequate and to bring forward proposals within a short time which we could all welcome unanimously.
§ 1.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Hamilton Kerr (Cambridge)
I am certain that the House is deeply indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) and the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) for having proposed and seconded this Motion. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Works finds himself in a difficult position. We know that he is sympathetic to our cause. We know that he himself has a keen appreciation of the arts, but he finds himself in this difficulty that, first and foremost, a Bill is in preparation whose outlines he cannot divulge and, secondly, that he has 2218 been handicapped in the preparation of that Bill by the severe hand of the Treasury.
I do not intend, therefore, to nag or worry his Department with questions and to demand an answer. But I find myself critical of the proposals put forward. First and foremost, I feel that the sum of £250,000 is by no means adequate. It cannot be accepted as a final calculation. Secondly, I should like to emphasise that, if I understood it rightly, the Gowers Report found that the diversity of authorities dealing with ancient monuments was part of the causes of the trouble.
The Ministry of Works, admirable as it is, was one authority; and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, or the former Ministry of Town and Country Planning, another. The Report, therefore, advised the formation of the Historic Buildings Council. These were its propositions: first, to take over some of the duties of the Government Departments and other organisations at present concerned; secondly, to exercise general supervision over all houses of special architectural or historic interest and their contents of value. The Historic Buildings Council will now be merely advisory, but the Gowers Report laid down the principle that it should possess an executive function. It thought that only by possessing certain powers could it satisfactorily tackle the problem. We have, in fact, a problem before us which demands instant solution. I should like to emphasise once again the point made by hon. Members—that speed is essential. A priceless national heritage is at stake.
I suppose most hon. Members would agree with me that our national genius has found its three highest forms of expression in three separate spheres of the arts—in poetry, landscape painting and domestic architecture. I expect most hon. Members would agree with me that the instinct of our people throughout the centuries to create a home has left wonderful memorials in terms of timber, brick and stone. I suppose most hon. Members would also agree that we owe the survival of these beautiful houses, both great and small, to the fact that our country has not suffered invasion for close on a thousand years. We have a priceless heritage which belongs not only to one class of people but to England, and there- 2219 fore to us all. That is why I feel that we must make a special effort to try to solve this problem of our ancient houses.
Do we fully realise, when we talk to our friends from abroad, what a tremendous treasure we possess in this country? Do we realise the artistic worth inside our island shores which no other country possesses to the same degree—the monuments of every age, from the Middle Ages to Elizabeth and the 18th Century; the great castles along the coasts and on the borders of Scotland and Wales; the great Elizabethan houses whose windows replaced the thick medieval walls?
We can picture the life in the England of Elizabeth as the statesmen of those days paced up and down the great walking galleries, discussing the policy of Philip of Spain or perhaps the latest art treasures in Italy. Or again the life in the great 18th Century houses inspired by Lord Burlington, that great figure of the 18th Century, of whom Horace Walpole, not always so kind, paid his tribute. "He possessed every attribute of the artist and a genius, except envy."
Are we going to throw all these treasures away? What has occurred up to the present? It is true that the National Trust has been able, by accepting endowments from private owners, to preserve some of these buildings, but I submit that it is only the better-off estates, the wealthier owners, who have been able to endow their historic homes. It does not help the beautiful home of modest size, which is so typical of our country.
It is true, as other hon. Members have said, that certain great owners of famous houses, such as Chatsworth or Longleat, have been able to maintain them by opening them to the public, but those houses are near important industrial areas. Chatsworth is near the great industrial area of the North, and Longleat is near Bristol and the West. That will not help preserve houses of similar interest in remoter parts.
The fact is that in the past two years many great houses have fallen into decay. I will quote one or two examples sent to me by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings: Halnaby Hall, near Darlington, a place where Byron spent his honeymoon; Howsham Hall, 2220 Yorkshire, with a Jacobean and Georgian interior, belongs to a timber merchant who has cut down many of the trees, and the house is empty and deteriorating; Rufford Abbey, Nottingham, one of the greatest houses in the Midlands, Elizabethan, bought by a demolition contractor who failed to get permission to demolish, and it has now been bought by the Nottinghamshire County Council who have no use for it. It is decaying, although it is very much restored inside. It is still one of the great houses of the Midlands; Rushbrooke Hall, Suffolk, Elizabethan and Georgian, a very fine house which belongs to Lord Rothschild, a man reputed of great wealth but unable to maintain it; Mapledurham House, Reading, a very important Elizabethan house, is empty and decayed; Gosfield Hall, Braintree, a very important house, Elizabethan, Queen Anne and Georgian periods.
Those houses are threatened with decay and therefore with complete extinction. Something must be done. These houses, I submit, have four great contributions to make to our national life. First and foremost, they are a national heritage. Secondly, a tremendous revival of interest in English history and the arts, showed by the numbers of people who flock to great houses, indicates what a great educational value they possess in our national life. Thirdly, there is the important reason that our artists and craftsmen can only maintain their standards of craftsmanship and keep their eye in by seeing works of art of the first quality.
I was horrified, when talking to some of the workmen engaged on rebuilding this House of Commons of ours to hear that many of their skilled craftsmen were very old, some over 80. Had the order been given for the rebuilding of this House 10 or 15 years from now, it would not have been possible to obtain the same standards of wood carving and stone masonry.
Lastly, there is the material point of view. We are always desperately in need of foreign exchange, of visitors from abroad. These houses of ours form one of the greatest attractions to bring tourists to this country. They are a natural asset and they must be preserved. I hope this House will express its feeling that they cannot be allowed to go on decaying, and that more must be done to preserve them.
2221 Alas, the days have gone when, I suppose, one could come to this House with a wonderful speech, having paced up and down some great Palladian library, evolving fine phrases recalling the moods of the great orators of antiquity, or spending hours in finding the right words to fit into a mosaic of verbal perfection. This age of the juke box offers neither the time nor the space nor the silence for that. Today all of us, who treasure our national heritage, should come together and express our feeling, that though we perhaps ourselves do not attain the standards of our ancestors, we should be ashamed to leave the finger of accusation pointed against us in coming centuries, for not having done all we could to protect and preserve these architectural masterpieces of the past.
§ 1.17 p.m.
§ Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Hamilton Kerr) has managed to achieve great skill in oratory even if he did not have the benefit of Palladian arcades in which to practise it.
We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) for enabling us to have this discussion which, like some other discussions on a Friday, has the great advantage of being quite outside party politics. This is a subject which we can discuss without having suddenly to look round at our neighbours and think, "Are they on our side or on the other side?", something which we can discuss as a House of Commons regardless of party.
I was very disappointed in the Minister's speech, although not as disappointed as, I think, the Minister was himself. I thought he was a very unhappy man as he spoke. I hope I am wrong, but, so far as I can gather, he told us that a small sum of money will be available and that a few houses may be preserved. He has, as it were, held a pistol at our heads. He has said, "Here is a sum of money. We can have a few houses properly preserved or a lot of houses imperfectly preserved. Take it or leave it. What do you want?" What we want is more money, an adequate sum of money to ensure that sufficient houses are preserved.
I know there is a great need of economy, but let us put the matter in its proper perspective—in the perspective of 2222 the other sums of money that we are spending. We are spending money on such varied matters as defence, health and education. I do not suggest that these sums should be reduced, but when we place them beside the amount available for this purpose, it is quite infinitesimal.
I understand from the Minister that even this small sum must wait on Parliamentary time. Heaven forbid that I should be controversial about Parliamentary time. I could mention one or two Bills which might be dropped, but I do not propose to do so today. But a Bill which is likely to command the assent of the whole House is not likely to take up a very great deal of Parliamentary time, and that is something which is strongly in favour of the introduction of such a Bill at an early date.
"The Times" has some very wise words to say on this subject. It says:It was possible to argue that something quite different should be done to meet the urgent need, but not that nothing should be done at all.Although the proposals which have been mentioned by the Minister cannot be said to be nothing at all; although they are definite proposals and although he can say that they have been brought forward by this Government and not the previous Government, they are still so small that they amount to very little more than nothing. I hope that he will reconsider them and see whether, after having heard this debate and the unanimous views of hon. Members who have taken part in it, he can go fortified by them and approach his right hon. Friend the Chancellor again to see whether he can get some more money.
Let us put the destruction of buildings against the destruction of certain other things which are of great value in our lives. Suppose it were suddenly announced that a number of famous British pictures—let us say, the pictures of Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and Reynolds—were to be placed on a bonfire and destroyed. Imagine the outcry there would be. There would be no difficulty in getting people to produce at once the sum of money necessary to save them. It would be said, "Here is wanton destruction of something which is of value to the nation." But because the destruction of buildings is not so easily visible, because 2223 it happens gradually year by year and is not as spectacular a destruction as a bonfire, nobody bothers about it.
I would say that it is of far greater significance to us if one of our own buildings, created by our own architects, is destroyed than if the National Gallery lose possession of a famous picture painted, perhaps, by an Italian or Dutch artist or, indeed, anyone other than a British artist. We know the outcry there would be if, for example, the National Gallery were suddenly forced to sell a large number of pictures and send them abroad; but how can that be compared with the actual physical destruction of buildings which are just as good as many pictures, which have been created by our own people, and which symbolise our way of life?
It has been said that our way of life has changed. It has been said that it was wrong for these buildings to have been put up and that they deprived a large number of people of money which they should have had to help them lead a better way of life. It may be that a great building, standing as it often does in beautiful surroundings, has sucked the life blood out of the countryside in the past and has removed money which might otherwise have helped many of the poor people living around it.
That is an argument; but there the buildings are, for better or for worse. Whether or not they should have been put there, there they are and, as we all agree, they are a priceless heritage. I hope that in days to come people will be able to visit them and will say of us that we were conscious of their beauty and conscious of what people in other ages have given us.
Perhaps I should have admitted earlier that I have a certain interest in this matter, in so far as I lived in a very beautiful house which was much too big for me to afford to maintain. Fortunately, a very wealthy buyer has been able to purchase and maintain it. Today, also, I happen to live in a smaller house which is scheduled, architecturally.
We shall be judged by future generations on what we have done. Are they going to say of us that we were conscious of all that had been given us in the past and that while developing modern archi- 2224 tecture—as I am so glad the Minister said—and seeing that modern architects had a chance of showing what they could do, we preserved these historic buildings. I hope that will be the case; but instead future generations may see vast open spaces, derelict because these buildings have been wantonly destroyed, and instead of marvelling at our appreciation they may marvel at our stupidity. We may be known as the generation that let our own countryside fall into decay—a generation which did not know what its forefathers had done for it.
§ 1.27 p.m.
§ Mr. C. E. Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)
I think this debate has been a very useful one, if only for the reason that it has enabled my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works to give in brief outline the sort of legislation which the Government have in mind on this subject. But, like the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop), I hope the House this afternoon will try to get this problem into its right perspective.
What we are discussing now is part of a much wider problem, namely, the preservation of all buildings of historic or architectural value, whether they be guildhalls, tithe barns, churches or country houses large and small. When we are talking about the English country house it is a mistake always to assume that we have in mind the great palaces which are very well known. Up and down the countryside there are large numbers of small manor houses of great architectural and, in some cases, historic value, which are equally worthy of preservation.
Each category has its own problem; but whether it be a church, a guildhall or a house, each is part of the whole problem. I was very disappointed with what my right hon. Friend said in relation to the amount of money which was likely to be available this year. It will be a bitter condemnation of our generation if it can be said that in this Year of Grace we could only afford £250,000 to help to preserve some of the most beautiful specimens of British domestic architecture.
I think my right hon. Friend was very optimistic in what he thought he could do with this sum. If I understood him correctly, he said that he thought that 2225 with the £250,000 he would be able to preserve 50 selected houses in the various categories. I do not think he can do anything of the sort. I think the most he can do with the £250,000 will be to prop up, so to speak, the tottering fabric of some of these houses for another two or three years. It is simply buying time. I hope there is still time for second and wiser thoughts to prevail and that the £250,000 will be only a beginning.
I cannot help feeling that the cheapest way of dealing with the problem, from the point of view of the Exchequer, is to do something to enable the owner himself, where possible, to continue to live in the house, because the owner and his family can give a degree of devoted attention and care to the task of looking after the contents of their own home which no Ministry of Works official or caretaker, however skilled, could possibly give. I also feel that it is worth a great effort to enable the owner to go on living in the house where possible, for the simple reason that as long as the house is a home, it is a living entity. It is not a series of impersonal spaces containing museum pieces; it is something alive. It is of great value, in my opinion, not only to the visitors who come to see these houses, but to the nation as a whole, that as many as possible should be preserved as homes.
May I say a few words about tax relief? I do not entirely agree with the arguments, although I understand them, that if we increase the tax relief to owners of houses of historic or architectural importance we are setting up a privileged category. I believe that both former Chancellors of the Exchequer and also my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury took this view. Indeed, in the last debate on the subject, which was on the Adjournment on 1st August, 1952, my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said:But, in general, it would cut right across the accepted canons of taxation if special tax adjustments were to be made in favour of individuals by reason of the fact that they happened to be the proprietors or inhabitants of beautiful or ancient houses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st August, 1952; Vol. 504, c. 2020.]But special tax adjustments are already made in respect of anybody who happens to be able to set off against his Schedule A expenditure incurred in his maintenance claim. Is the maintenance 2226 claim to be regarded as setting up a special privileged category? As my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) has said, a ridiculous anomaly exists. If the exterior of a house is damaged, the repair is a justifiable charge to maintenance. If the roof of a house by Vanbrugh falls in, the cost of replacing it is a charge on maintenance against Schedule A and is subject to tax relief over five years, but this relief does not apply to the cost of cleaning paintings by Gainsborough or other artist or to the repair of tapestry or the furniture under the roof. I regard that as a ridiculous anomaly.
In conclusion, I regret the delay which has already occurred in grappling with a problem which becomes increasingly urgent as months go by. I understand the arguments about the difficulty of finding Parliamentary time; there is something in them. But I beg my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply, to take note of this: as every month goes by the problem assumes greater magnitude. In the long run delay will involve the State in a far larger expenditure if we are to pay attention to the preservation of houses of architectural or historic value. Indeed, I believe the position to be so acute that the sooner even the £250,000 is available the better. I cannot think of any situation which more perfectly proves the wisdom of that old Victorian nursery proverb. "A stitch in time saves nine."
§ 1.34 p.m.
§ Viscount Lambton (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I should like to endorse the feeling which has been expressed from every side of the House of disappointment at the sum of money mentioned—£250,000 —for the preservation of the great houses, the small houses, the fine architectural houses of this country. I do not think we can over-emphasise that if this sum is all that is to be given for this preservation work, the problem will not be scratched. We shall make no dent at all. Indeed, one might say as an example of its paucity, that the only thing which might be preserved in a year by the Minister of Works would be 500 mantelpieces. That is all this money would cover.
We should try to persuade the Minister to increase this allocation if we wish to make any improvement in the situation 2227 or to arrest the decline which is taking place today. We have had an abandonment of the intentions of the Gowers Report; none of them can conceivably be carried out with this sum of money. We have had an expression of the opinion of the Minister of Works rather than a presentation of what can be done to carry out the recommendations of the Gowers Report.
Perhaps I may leave what the Minister has said and try to make a few suggestions as to what can best be achieved in the near future. I believe that we have in this country today the last practical chance of preserving these fine houses in their entity. Even when houses themselves remain, parks are being cut down and gardens are going to seed; and unless drastic action is taken immediately, the entity itself will disappear.
Pictures, works of art, are exempted from death duties, but the houses themselves are not, so that we have the extraordinary idea of preserving what is in the houses and yet not preserving the houses themselves. I think we should press for more tax relief—not direct aid but tax relief. It is not a question of allowing a privileged class to live in such houses. This scheme merely provides for caretakers so that the goods things in these houses are maintained and not allowed to deteriorate.
I will say nothing beyond that except to endorse the general opinion that this sum of money is by no means adequate to meet the situation. It will in no way help to arrest the decline in the condition of these houses. I can only repeat that this is the last chance we have of preserving the fine houses in this country as entities.
§ 1.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Henry Channon (Southend, West)
I find myself in agreement with almost everything which has been said in the debate and particularly with what was said by my hon. Friends the Member for Windsor (Mr. Mott-Radclyffe) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Viscount Lamb-ton). I want to make a modest plea to the Government that they should implement the recommendations of the Gowers Report, if not in toto at least in a modified form whereby they can assist owners of occupiers of historic houses or houses 2228 of great architectural beauty or even houses with recognised political or literary associations.
Implementation is long overdue. I do not see how that can be done unless we resort to some means of tax relief. Therefore, I think the problem is more simple than as it was put to us by the Minister, because I have yet to be convinced that that the Bill which he hinted at so sketchily is necessary. Many people in this country want an extension of maintenance claims and tax rebates. My noble Friend used the word "caretakers," but I would substitute "trustees" as a description of the people living in these houses.
My sympathy is for the living country house, still inhabited by the family, not for the dead or dying country house, sad as that may be. The hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) mentioned Rolls Park, which I pass several times a week. A sadder sight can hardly be imagined, but there is another house two miles away which is in an even worse condition, because it has fallen down. We want to stop that sort of thing from happening in future, for the living country houses of this country have long been the admiration, the envy and the study of the whole world, because the way of life which existed and still exists in them exists nowhere else. Not only that, but a whole literature has sprung up about them.
It is up to us as trustees of the nation to prevent any further decay. It is too late, as well as impossible, with this small sum, to try to save the derelict houses. We can only try to maintain the living ones. As we live in a practical age, the point may be worth making that these country houses are "dollar-earners." They must bring in larger sums of money from abroad every year than the quarter of a million pounds announced today.
During the war we lost many beautiful buildings, some due directly to bombing and some indirectly to war-time taxation and requisitioning. There is, therefore, all the more reason to preserve what we have. I am not so alarmed about the few big houses to which the Minister indirectly referred, Blenheim, Warwick, Longleat and the others, because a solution—at any rate, half a solution—has been found by opening them to the public 2229 and already they enjoy some taxation concessions.
The houses in which I am most interested are the small country houses of great beauty, the manor houses, frequently remote and inaccessible and almost always uncomfortable. The people who live in those ought to be helped. If we do not help them we are indirectly dispersing the collections inside these houses because the people who are clinging rather pathetically to their homes often denude them of their valuable possessions, selling them to America and elsewhere in order to preserve the fabric of their houses for a little longer.
One or two speakers have referred to the anomalies of taxation. Pictures, furniture and tapestries are exempt from death duties as long as they are not sold. That has been an accepted principle for a long time, but is it not absurd that the expense of cleaning pictures and repairing tapestries should not be exempt from Income Tax? It does not make sense to exempt them from death duties, but not from Income Tax when they are only being preserved for the benefit of the country. I believe that interest in this question is growing. One has only to see the thousands of people who visit those big houses which are open already. That alone shows that it has aroused the interest, I might say the conscience of the country, though the latter has been awakened to a less degree.
If we do something by way of legislation or by concessions in the form of maintenance claims, I hope that the conditions laid down will not be too rigid because, if they are, we shall only be defeating our own ends. People who visit houses, whether these are big or small, are interested in the way of life of the owner, even in his eccentricities if he has any, and the house that becomes a museum or half a museum soon loses its flavour. I could cite many examples.
In any maintenance claim or tax rebate I would include gardens of exceptional beauty or interest when attached to historic houses. The National Gardens Scheme has done magnificent work in causing many hundreds of houses to be opened which otherwise might be shut; it has raised large sums of money for charity; it has given pleasure to thousands of people who visit these gardens, indeed, it has helped everybody 2230 except the unfortunate owner, who must have the skill, patience and money to keep them up. If there is any extension of the scheme, these gardens might be considered—as is hinted at in the report.
I hope the Government will take a sympathetic line over this problem. The Opposition have already shown that they are prepared to do so. I think that some form of maintenance claim or tax rebate would be far better than a Bill, which does not meet the peculiar requirements of one of our richest heritages.
§ 1.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)
When the Prime Minister announced during the debate on the Address last November that we were likely to have a Bill to save our historic houses, not a voice was raised in protest. On the principle and desirability of that Bill there was no disagreement on either side of the House or even between individuals in the country. Therefore it was a good thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) has raised the subject today because it has given us an opportunity to put before the Government our own suggestions before the publication of the Bill in the hope that here and there they may find a point or two with which they are in sufficient sympathy to incorporate it in their own proposals.
It was with those motives and expectations that I and many of my hon. Friends entered this Chamber at 11 o'clock this morning to hear the Minister announce that a sum of £250,000 is to be devoted to carrying out the object to which the Prime Minister himself has given his blessing. It has been obvious from the speeches made this morning that there has been universal disappointment as a result of the announcement of that paltry figure, and I urge the Minister of Works and his Parliamentary Secretary to place before the Chancellor the arguments which many of my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite have made in an attempt to get this sum increased before It is incorporated in a Statute of the Realm.
These houses are irreplaceable. They cannot be built again or imitated or replaced by others of our own generation of equal architectural merit. We have lost not only a certain taste, which produced these houses during those three miraculous centuries between the reigns 2231 of the first Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, but we have lost also the private financial ability to put up and maintain such houses. It is quite true that our taste ran out before our money and that during the Victorian age our great grandfathers did great harm to these houses as well as putting up many monstrously ugly palaces of their own, but the best of the houses of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries remain, both great and small, and it is with those that we are concerned today.
It is not only because these houses are owned by people who no longer have the necessary financial resources that they are falling into disrepair. It is because since the Tudor age these houses were rarely built mainly for strength. They are delicate works of art, and were built for comfort, for grace and, in some cases, for display; and after the passage of several hundred years, inevitably they begin to grow weak and are in need of external assistance.
These same houses, which may be compared to living, growing beings, have passed their maturity at the very time when conditions are least favourable for their survival. They are not only weakened by the passage of years. In the war, we had examples of houses being damaged by requisition or by bomb blast. We have seen others pass, owing to the break up of family tradition, into hands which have not always cherished them with the care which they deserve and need. We have also seen, for the first time, perhaps, in their whole history, these houses subject to dry rot, subsidence and undermining. For all these reasons, coming together at this one moment, they are in need of help now more than ever they have been in the past; and if this help is not given, the opportunity to save these houses will never recur. It is for that reason that I implore my right hon. Friend the Minister to do his best to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look once more at the figure of £250,000.
Some of my hon. Friends have already mentioned the number of houses which are in danger. In their last report, the National Trust say that of the 320 houses which they, together with the Ministry of Works, listed in 1939 as being houses of prime importance, some dozen have 2232 already been destroyed and many others are in great danger. I feel that the position is, in fact, very much worse than was reported six months ago.
In a new list, I see that the number of houses totally demolished since 1945 is 25. The number of houses which are scheduled to be demolished is nine, and this includes a house like Fawley Court, Henley-on-Thames, which must be familiar to many hon. Members for its association with the Royal Regatta. With regard to houses which are listed as ruined, abandoned or in danger, the total is 61.
I shall not trouble the House with reading out a long list of names and periods, but will merely refer to some of the notes given in a tragically, pointedly, telegraphic style, which describe the present condition of these houses: "Ruinous," "Tenements; badly deteriorating," "Timber merchant in possession," "Abandoned and ruinous," "Stripped of fittings," "Abandoned," "Empty, land sold," "Now in great danger," "Practically collapsed," "Garden a caravan site," and so on, for 61 houses.
We are facing a problem which will, of course, cost many millions of pounds if we are able to put it completely straight. Our most pressing task is, surely, to set up the Historic Buildings Council, which the Gowers Committee recommended; and their first task, concurrently with the first aid which is needed to save the best of these houses, is to draw up the list, of which my hon. Friend spoke, which will call the attention of the public and of the Government to the most historic and valuable of all our houses which are in danger of destruction and in need of preservation. That list must be made.
Some people have said that the list already exists. It does exist, but in so many forms, forms which are sometimes contradictory, overlapping and scattered, that it is impossible for the public to know which of these houses falls under the protection of the State and which does not. Consequently, in many cases not enough warning has been given that they are about to be destroyed.
The Historic Buildings Council should be drawn from those who not only have the will to preserve our houses, but have the knowledge in terms of stone and timber, in terms of law and finance, and 2233 in terms of personal experience and architectural taste, to achieve those results. They should not only have regard to the great mansions of the country. They should have regard to the small town house, the small country house, the mill and the row of cottages. They should not neglect those which, perhaps, have no architectural merit; they must include houses which may be of surpassing ugliness, such as Haworth Parsonage or Shaw's Corner, but which happen to be associated with great figures of our literary or political past. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the Historic Buildings Council should be controlled by the Ministry of Works, and through the Minister their activities and expenditure should be subject to the control of the House.
When we come to consider how we could spend even the small sum which my right hon. Friend has announced, we should have regard to two principles. First, every possible alternative to State aid must be considered before that aid is granted. An owner should consider whether it is not possible, through economies in his personal expenditure, to save the money which is necessary to maintain his own house. He should consider whether it would not be possible to do so by converting part of his house into flats, which could be let off without destroying the character of that house, or by allowing part of his garden or park to be turned into an allotment or market garden, which would result in commercial profit; and whether he could not open his house to the public, who would pay a fee. Only if all these possible solutions failed, and it could be proved that without State assistance the house and garden would deteriorate, should that assistance be given.
The second principle is that reasonable public access to the house is an essential where assistance has been given. By "reasonable" I do not mean that the owner should be put to no discomfort or inconvenience whatever. Indeed, the slight loss of privacy that he would suffer is a form of interest payment upon the loan or gift that he receives from the Government to help him to maintain his house. On the other hand, it should not be suggested that the State had become the owner of the house which had been thus assisted, nor should the public be allowed to believe that they have the 2234 right to wander where and when they will, simply because the house is scheduled for assistance. Nor should the owner himself regard such visitors as intruders, because they are there by right almost as much as he is himself.
I welcome with very great pleasure the announcement which was made in the speech of my right hon. Friend that chattels, associated pictures, furniture, and so on, should be given to the nation in lieu of Estate Duty. This will keep inside our greatest houses many objects which might otherwise be dispersed to the United States and elsewhere. All that I ask is that this provision should be extended to the parks and gardens, which are just as much a part of some of our greatest houses as the chattels and other objects which they contain.
We in this country have had three periods of iconoclasm. We had the period when our monasteries were destroyed. We had the Cromwellian period, when our castles were destroyed, and we had the Victorian age when many of our houses were ruined. Are we now entering into a fourth such phase, at a time when, paradoxically enough, our taste has revived and an awareness of the beauty of our heritage is present in everybody's mind, but when, at the same time, we are seeing day by day more of these objects of veneration and respect disappearing, never to be recovered again?
Every country in Europe has made some sort of provision except ourselves for the circumstances which we are discussing today. Even during the worst moments of the French Revolution notices were put outside the chateaux imploring their own people to protect, as they put it, "These national treasures." It is in exactly the same sense, at a time which is perhaps somewhat milder, but in circumstances just as urgent, that we make our appeal to our Government today.
§ 2.1 p.m.
§ Viscount Cranborne (Bournemouth, West)
Before I say anything else I should declare a personal interest in the subject and I should also like to say how much I support what has been said by the last four speakers.
The question is how to preserve those houses of historic interest which are still in existence. We have been told by a number of hon. Members that many of 2235 these houses are deteriorating and in danger. It seems to me that in facing a problem of this size it is no use having single way of dealing with it. There must be many alternatives which should be adopted to meet the needs of the various houses in their individual cases.
One of the special delights which these houses have is that all are different and represent individual examples of architecture of this country and at different periods. They have "grown up," I think it is true to say, in almost every case and practically none of them is in the condition in which the builder left it. Some have improved in the course of time; some, we think, have been damaged by later alterations, particularly those made by our Victorian ancestors. But, however we look at them, I think we have to acknowledge that so far as bricks and mortar or stone can be they are "alive" and constantly developing.
We want to see that continue, but I think there is a grave danger that if we have a council responsible for saying yes or no too rigidly to future developments we shall find them following a pattern, which is something we surely should avoid. What we want is different houses with different points of interest, representing different aspects which are especially attractive and representative of their period. That seems one of the reasons for retaining private ownership and the opportunity for the individual private owner to put his ideas into practice.
Many of these houses have already passed into other ownership. Some have gone to the National Trust. Today, we are not concerned with what happens to those. Some have passed to other purposes and are now used as institutions, or schools. In many cases that works out as a very satisfactory solution. What we are really concerned with now is preserving those houses which are still in private ownership and I want to say a word about the position of the owner. because I think little has been said of him today.
It is true that our principal object is to preserve the house itself, but the owner, often at great personal sacrifice, has maintained that house to this day. He has special ties of his own with that building. It may well have been built by one of his ancestors; successive forebears may have 2236 improved and developed it. In other times of stress, such as the Civil War, they may have managed to keep them going in exactly the same way and under similar conditions as private owners are endeavouring to maintain their houses at present.
That long history and intimate connection with the house has to be taken into account. I do not think there is one owner who is thinking of some special benefit, except that he is anxious to retain for himself and, if possible. if taxation allows it, for his successors, the affiliation of his family to his family home. It has already been suggested that that adds an interest to the house itself and I support that view; I think it does.
What the owner wants is some means by which money may be available for maintaining not only the structure but the interior decoration and perhaps, assistance to maintain the contents of that building. It has been suggested that this can be achieved by means of grants from the Ministry of Works. That is a possible system and, in some cases, it might work, but I suggest that that should not be the only way. There should be a number of alternative systems to be adopted in different cases.
There is. of course, the possibility that more houses will pass to the National Trust. We welcome the action of those owners who feel disposed to do that. There are some owners still in possession of considerable sums of capital. I wonder whether it would be possible for them to allocate in perpetuity to a house a lump sum, the income and, if necessary, part of the capital. of which could only be used for the maintenance of that house and its surrounding amenities—its garden, perhaps, and the immediate land around it. That seems a not unreasonable proposal.
It is true that the Exchequer would ultimately suffer in that they would not recoup the same sum in death duties, but. as we have heard, the Treasury are to make grants towards the maintenance of houses. Surely this is an alternative way of approaching the problem. By this means we would ensure that a sum is permanently attached to the maintenance of a particular building of historical interest. For that reason the suggestion is worth considering.
There is also the possibility, which has been mentioned, of making some further 2237 allowance out of taxable income. I know that it has been suggested that this is not a scheme by which the Treasury are affected, but surely it is possible to use the ordinary scheme by which a maintenance allowance is made against an estate for the upkeep of a house and allow an even larger sum for this purpose.
It may be that if adopted it would involve a sum exceeding the £250,000 which the Government are prepared to allocate for this purpose, but surely it is not beyond the scope of the Treasury organisation to deal with that. It seems to me that it would work very fairly and there would be no chance of owners taking an unreasonable advantage of such a system.
It has to be realised that certain owners will not wish to accept a block grant towards the maintenance of their houses if they can possibly help it. They would feel differently than they feel over assistance in taxation relief—that they are receiving charity for the maintenance of their own persons in the building—and that would react very strongly against the scheme. I do hope that before a Bill is produced consideration will be given to the question of having alternative schemes.
I should like to say a word or two about the cost of maintenance. The Minister has given some figures with reference to some of these buildings which are under the care of his own Department. We all realise that the Ministry carries out a very fine job in this respect, but I wonder whether it carries it out as economically as it is possible for a private owner to do. For instance, all the schemes have to be carefully vetted by various officials and the work is superintended by more officials than would be employed by a private individual. I think it would appear, if we took a comparison, that the maintenance costs of houses in private hands are lower than those of the Ministry.
It seems to me that there are two reasons for this. The owner is on the spot. he takes a decision and it is carried out as part of his general maintenance plans for his property; it is done at the most convenient time. usually worked in with other business. Further, he has his own pocket to consider, and we all tend to be more careful when spending our own money than when spending other 2238 people's, however honest and straight we are. For that reason cheaper results are obtained by leaving maintenance in the hands of the private owner. I believe that is probably even truer when one compares the cost to the private owner with the cost which the National Trust finds itself faced with; it has the same problem of inspectors, etc. In the case of doubt on the part of the Treasury as to whether maintenance has been properly carried out within permitted limits by the owner, it is easy to extend existing safeguards which the Treasury have to cover this point of undue expenditure.
This means that it is necessary to have not just this one Bill which, as has been suggested, covers a very small section of what is required but also a simple alteration of the appropriate Section of the Finance Act to cover the wider problem satisfactorily. I hope that a rather wider view will be taken by the Minister, when he introduces his Bill, than he has suggested is likely.
§ Sir Edward Keeling (Twickenham)
The ground has been well covered by previous speakers, and I wish to add only a few sentences. It has not been made clear by all previous speakers, and I think it should be made clear, that it is an express provision of the Gowers Report thatif financial help is given, whether by tax relief or by grant or loan, it should normally be one of the conditions that the house is shown to the public.I am quoting paragraph 163 of the Gowers Report. The whole population will or can get the benefit of this expenditure or tax relief. That is also the rule of the National Trust with its houses. I have thought it desirable to restate that as it may be that somebody reading this debate might not otherwise have appreciated that.
§ 2.14 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Hugh Molson)
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) has had an unusual experience in moving this Motion. There can seldom have been occasions when there has been so general a concensus of opinion in support of a Motion as in the case of the one which has been moved today. I only regret that the Motion has 2239 been moved at a time. not through any fault of my hon. Friend, when the Government are not yet in a position to state how they will come to the help of these historic houses. There is indeed nothing I can add to the speech made by my right hon. Friend, which was, as the House is aware, a very careful and guarded statement of what the Government are hoping to do.
We shall be encouraged by the general line which has been adopted by hon. Gentlemen opposite in feeling that the Bill should be an agreed measure. That will of course go some way towards overcoming the difficulty of finding Parliamentary time. The hon. Member for Newcastle - upon - Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) referred to the possibility of some contribution to local authorities to help them in adapting houses which they were able to take over. That is one of the matters which we have under consideration at the present time. I hope that this debate today will contribute to the happy result which we all hope will come about—that this Government and this Parliament will be able to preserve the masterpieces of the aristocratic age of the past for the enjoyment of the democratic generations of the present and the future.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary could reply at least to the point I raised. I asked particularly whether he could say, with regard to tax remissions, which is a matter of great interest to Members in all parts of the House—very much to Members in this part of the House—if he still takes the view expressed by his hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in reply to a debate on the Adjournment that the Government would not feel able to accept that part of the recommendation of the Gowers Report. That is certainly the view which we on this side of the House take.
§ Mr. Molson
I have noted the point of view of the hon. Gentleman, which was also the point of view of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), but every method of giving effect to these objectives is still under consideration by the Government.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
May I put a further point? I asked whether it would be possible for the hon. Gentleman to give us any information as to the number of protection orders that have actually been issued, because it is not only the problem of future legislation—which we are very anxious to see—but it is also the problem of what to do in the meantime. Can we not get at least more administrative action to speed up the actual protection of houses which may at this very moment be going out of use or even being pulled down?
§ Mr. Molson
The hon. Member will appreciate that these preservation orders are of a purely negative kind. It is not possible to compel a private owner to spend any money. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to use those powers unless there is money made available by which necessary repairs can be carried out.
§ Mr. Ede
I am very surprised at the brevity of the hon. Gentleman's reply to the debate. It is not often one complains that speeches are too short in this House, but really this was hardly treating with reasonable courtesy the speakers on his own side of the House, as well as on this side, who followed the Minister. I heard two speeches which were delivered with great knowledge, and we were entitled to expect that speeches would be delivered with great knowledge on this subject, by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) and the noble Lord for Bournemouth, West (Viscount Cranborne). Not a single word was said by the hon. Gentleman in reply to the points that were put forward. I would hope that the promise made by the Minister that we should have from the Parliamentary Secretary a reply to the subsequent speeches will be honoured on this occasion.
§ Mr. Molson
I am quite sure that the two hon. Members on this side of the House to whom the right hon. Gentleman has referred will not think that I was guilty of any discourtesy to them. I certainly did not mean any discourtesy, either to them or to the House. I have listened to every speech with the closest attention, and the points which have been made will be considered by my right hon. Friend and by the Government. We have made it plain that this matter is under 2241 the most careful and anxious consideration. Hon. Members on the Front Bench opposite know how embarrassing it is to be asked questions. especially by those best informed on the subject, at a time when the Government are not yet able to announce a decision.
§ Mr. Dugdale
May I ask one question? Am I right in thinking that, although no definite proposals have been made, a definite sum has been fixed? Or may we take it that the sum of money available may also be considered in the light of the discussions today?
§ Mr. Molson
My right hon. Friend announced to the House the figure which has been made available by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
§ Mr. E. Fletcher
The Minister did say that the Parliamentary Secretary would reply to the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) referred to the speeches made by hon. Members opposite, apart from a number made by hon. Members on this side of the House, the burden of which was that the amount of money to be made available is totally inadequate. The hon. Gentleman says the matter is still under consideration. May we have an assurance that the representations made in this debate about the total inadequacy of this figure of £250,000 will also be considered by the Government before the proposed Bill is introduced?
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
Just to give the hon. Member time to think about that, may I, with the leave of the House, put this point? Surely the hon. Gentleman is not saying now that he cannot make at least the same statement which his hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury made in the Adjournment debate; or is he, as it were, withdrawing even from the relatively small point put before the House at that time? Surely he is able to say something about that?
§ Mr. Molson
I have said that the Government are very glad there has been this debate and these expressions of opinion, and that the whole matter will be considered. There is no doubt that my right hon. Friend would be glad if a larger sum had been made available. The attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be drawn to the views which have been expressed. But beyond that it is impossible for me to go. It is 2242 not customary that on a Friday afternoon there should be two speeches from the Government Front Bench.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ That this House urges the Government to introduce legislation at the earliest practicable date to give effect to the objectives of the Gowers Report.