Historic Houses (Gowers Report)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st August 1952.

Alert me about debates like this

6.50 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Colegate Mr Arthur Colegate , Burton

I am grateful for the opportunity of bringing to the notice of the House the Gowers Report on Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest. Before I go any further, may I say that the word "house" is used in that Report, and I so use it, as including not merely a hall, or mansion or a house but the gardens, parks, woods and lakes which serve to set off the building and form a very important part of the heritage of which I am speaking. There were great gardeners like Capability Brown and others who set these houses in settings which are really incomparable.

There is no need to argue the aesthetic importance of these houses, although I shall say a word or two about that. Before I come to that point, I should like to recapitulate what has happened in this House about the Gowers Report. The Report was published on 23rd June, 1950, and I took the opportunity, on the Report stage of the Finance Bill at that time, to move a new Clause designed to carry out its recommendations so far as Estate Duty was concerned. There was a short debate; naturally, it was very short. Everybody knows that in moving new Clauses to a Finance Bill one cannot hope to occupy very much time.

It was a very good debate, and Sir Stafford Cripps, who was then Chancellor, gave a very sympathetic reply indeed. That was only to be expected for after all it was Sir Stafford Cripps who appointed the Gowers Committee. I would point out that when he did so his terms of reference were not whether these houses should be preserved but how they should be preserved. In other words, he assumed, as I think we all may, that there was no question about the value of their preservation.

Sir Stafford Cripps pointed out in that debate that he wanted time to consider the matter; even more, he wanted time for other people to consider it, and to get general discussion so that there might eventually be more or less agreed proposals which could implement the Gowers Report. Unfortunately, no opportunity arose then or later, through the circumstances of Parliamentary conditions of the time, to have a debate.

The next thing that happened was that we had a written answer to a Parliamentary Question, of which I do not complain; again, it was due to the circumstances of the time. We then had, having had no debate at all, except on two other occasions on which I raised the matter, proposals put forward by the ex-Chancellor, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), in the form of a written reply to a Parliamentary Question.

There again, that was very difficult; it was not possible to ask a supplementary question, there was no debate on it and there was no possibility then of ascertaining the full meaning of those proposals. Had there been a debate, and had legislation been brought in, I have no doubt that we should have heard a full explanation of how the matter tied in, if I may use that expression, with the other proposals in the Gowers Report. Unfortunately, that written reply rejected the recommendations of the Gowers Report. There the matter has rested until a few days ago, when I asked a Question in the House.

One of the first things that I wish to ask the Government is that we should have, at a reasonably early opportunity, a debate on these proposals. In the short time at our disposal today that is quite impossible. There are many Members on both sides of the House who are very interested and very sympathetic to this matter, and whose contributions to a debate will be very valuable. There is no question that the proposals made by the Gowers Report are not such as would necessarily be accepted out of hand by any Government. They require a great deal of discussion. Any Chancellor of the Exchequer or Minister of Works who was putting forward proposals would pay considerable attention to the debate which would precede them in this House.

Not merely are these historic houses very beautiful, but they are one of the greatest heritages a nation can have. What is extraordinary is the rapidly growing public enjoyment of these places. In debates on industrial matters in this House we often talk about man-hours and I should like to apply the concept of man-hours to the enjoyment of these houses by the public. Last year, I understand, more than 100,000 people visited Chatsworth. An hon. Member of this House has kindly informed me that in the case of his own historic house over 80,000 people visited it last year.

I speak as a tripper, and I think that on an average the time spent on such a visit is certainly three or four hours. In other words, Chatsworth has been enjoyed by the public for 400,000 man-hours. Even allowing for a good many guests, the family could not have enjoyed the property for more than 10 per cent. of that amount of time. I have estimates of the figures for a number of historic houses and it is true to say—I am talking of the greater houses—that the public derive at least five times as much enjoyment from the house and the park and lakes as do the owners who have to pay heavy taxation and bills for repairs.

It is quite clear, therefore, that anything we do about this question will not be a matter of creating a privileged group of people; privileged merely because they happen to have been born, not with golden spoons in their mouths but in the delightful circumstances of a nursery in a great historic mansion. I think we may take it that there will be a general feeling of satisfaction not merely in this House but throughout the country if the Government, with the assistance of the House, can devise a satisfactory scheme by which these houses can be preserved. At the moment I am talking of administrative measures. I am not allowed to refer to new legislation as I should be out of order. But there are considerable administrative powers in the possession of the Government and when I speak of "measures" I must be taken to be referring to administrative measures and not to legislation.

There will be a great degree of pleasure throughout the country if satisfactory measures are taken to preserve these houses and to prevent them falling into decay; and, at the same time provide adequate facilities for the public to enjoy both the houses and the surrounding grounds and parks. At the moment there is a serious threat. If I may quote from the Gowers Report itself, it states: Under the burden of this accumulation of adverse circumstances … the resource to which an owner … naturally turns is the sale of the contents of the house piece by piece. But this only delays the inevitable end at the cost perhaps of the dispersal of fine collections of works of art. Sooner or later the house becomes decrepit and the garden runs wild; the park timber is cut down and the beauty of the setting destroyed. Eventually the house itself is sold (if a purchaser can be found) and it may either be put to a use that ruins its remaining features of interest, or broken up for the sake of … what the materials will fetch. That is a most serious threat. Many houses—I know of two myself—have been destroyed for the sake of the lead of the roof and the mahogany, the other woodwork, the bricks and stone, and so on. Unless that threat is removed quickly we may lose a large part of what we have inherited.

I should like to come to the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South. I think that I shall be in order in commenting on them. The right hon. Gentleman announced that he could not accept the proposals of the Gowers Committee. Instead he proposed that the Minister of Works should have power to make grants and loans and even to have repair works done in appropriate cases. There was little in his statement except that. The announcement was received with dismay by many of those interested in this matter.

No body of persons is more fully acquainted with this problem than the National Trust. In their Report they make two interesting comments. They say: The Council regret that the Government"— That was the Government in 1950— cannot see its way to adopt the recommendations of the Gowers Report.… They point out that something ought to be done and they conclude by saying: 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. In other words, they were extremely disappointed, as many of us were, with these proposals. I freely admit that it is impossible to do justice to these proposals. They appeared in a short Written answer. Had there been a debate, the then Chancellor of the Exchequel might have put them in a different light. Of course, to a large extent, they may have been tied in with other proposals which might have remedied the situation.

But the situation is not to be remedied simply by grants or loans for repairs. The problem is much bigger than that. I am debarred by the rules of order from indicating all that should be done. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury could find no more delightful reading during the approaching Recess than the Gowers Report.

Photo of Mr Arthur Colegate Mr Arthur Colegate , Burton

Then my hon. Friend knows what I am referring to. I hope that the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South are now dead. I ask that this matter should be approached again with a fresh mind to see what can be done even in the present difficult circumstances.

The Government already possess considerable powers under different Acts. On paper the powers under the Town and Country Planning Act are most impressive, but as far as I can find out they are not being used or, if they are, they are used only to a limited extent. The same is true of the Ancient Monuments Act, which set up the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments. They have some powers, as have the local authorities and the Ministry of Works.

It may be that the Ministry of Works and some of the other authorities are hampered by the Treasury. We understand the difficulties of tile time. I hope, however, that they will consider seriously whether more cannot be done than is being done now.

Among other things on which I should like information, which I hope I shall receive, is the question of what has been done in recording and listing the houses. Something, I know, has been done, but how is it getting on? Is anything being done to integrate the existing powers that the different Departments and authorities possess? That, surely, can be done without legislation. I see that the Financial Secretary shakes his head, but it is wonderful what we can do. Where there is a will there is a way, and we are astonished sometimes by the large administrative measures which can be taken by a Government when they are keen on them. I ask my hon. Friend to see if something cannot be done in that respect.

In conclusion, I ask, and I press very strongly, for an early opportunity of debating the whole matter, and I press the Treasury to provide sufficient funds to enable the existing powers to be utilised. This is a matter which the Government of the day ought to take very seriously. It is in the field of amenities, and no other problem is as important as this. We ought to take steps to save this great heritage before it is too late, not only for our own enjoyment, but for the enjoyment of those who come after us. Owing to the strain of the times, we cannot at present create a similar group of beautiful buildings, but we ought, and we can, preserve what we have inherited.

7.7 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Robinson Mr Kenneth Robinson , St Pancras North

I am sure that the House would wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) on raising this very important matter in an all too brief debate. This is a matter which concerns all sides of the House.

I am privileged to serve on the Executive Committee of the National Trust, and I can assure the House that the members of the National Trust are most anxious for an early solution of this problem. It was an urgent problem when Sir Stafford Cripps set up the Gowers Committee, and it was still more urgent when that Committee reported in 1950. It is even more pressing today.

I should like to take the history of the Gowers Report one stage further than that reached by the hon. Member for Burton. I do not agree with him about the proposals of the Labour Government. I think that, translated into law, they would have gone a good deal of the way towards solving the problem. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) when Minister of Works, had legislation in an advanced stage of drafting, and it is not too much to say that, had there been no change of Government, legislation would now be on the Statute Book.

If I may give an illustration how big this problem is, I would remind the House that, in 1939, the National Trust drew up a list of 300 private houses for the benefit of the Government of the day. These were 300 houses not only worthy of preservation, but houses of the highest architectural importance. Each one was unique in its way. Of these 300 houses, in the ensuing 12 years or so, some 20 or more have now been abandoned, destroyed or ruined, many more than this number have been turned to other than residential uses, and many of these uses are certainly contrary to the interests of public amenities. These are not merely private houses they are, indeed, part of our national heritage, and it is desirable that the public should have some access to the houses and to their surroundings.

The National Trust does what it can in this field, but what it can do is limited. For example, it can only accept what is offered to it, and it is also very strictly limited by financial considerations. In my view, Government action is desperately needed to save many of these national treasures from dilapidation and ruin, because the owners of many of them can no longer do this.

Few, out of their own pockets, can face the costs of maintenance and repair at present-day prices. They need help, but they are prepared in return, at least most of them are, I think, to allow public access to their properties. I think that the situation is very aptly summed up in a parody of a well-known verse which I came across in a magazine the other day: A poor man in his castleBrings trippers to his gate,From whom he seeks the florinsTo salvage his estate. This is not the time to suggest exactly what measures the Government can take. For my part—and I must emphasise that I am now speaking purely personally—I cannot accept the Gower Committee's recommendations for relief of Income Tax and Surtax. I do not think they could be supported in the present situation at all, but some action must be taken.

There is a story about a certain Minister of Education of I believe, one of the countries of the Commonwealth, who was asked by a distinguished visitor what he was doing about culture. He said that he only knew three kinds of culture—agriculture, horticulture and physical culture—and that they were all doing very well.

I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman's attitude towards culture, or even that of his Government, is exactly the same as that of the gentleman I have described. I do not think that, even in view of our somewhat unhappy memories of the Crown Film Unit and the closing of museums and art galleries. But I do say that the Government have this opportunity of doing something to redeem their somewhat tarnished reputation in the field of culture. I beg them to take early action before more of these beautiful houses fall into ruin.

7.13 p.m.

Photo of Mr Nigel Nicolson Mr Nigel Nicolson , Bournemouth East and Christchurch

I think hon. Members in all parts of the House will agree that the Gowers Committee's Report deserved a better fate than to be brought up for discussion two years after its first publication, in the very last hours of the present Session. I support all those hon. Members who have already spoken in pressing the Government to arrange for an early and full debate on this subject, anticipated, if possible, by a White Paper, or, even better, by a Bill which will give effect to some at least of the recommendations contained in the Gowers Committee's Report.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) that their recommendations about tax concessions are impossible in days like these, and I would remind him that the principle of those concessions from Income Tax, Surtax and Estate Duty, has already been acknowledged in the provisions relating to the National Trust, of which he himself is a member.

All that the Gowers Committee's Report asks is that those concessions should be extended to cover many more, perhaps 10 times more, of the houses which are listed as national monuments and which the Trust itself cannot look after at the moment. One of the troubles lies in the expression "National Trust." The word "National" means to many people, whose ears are well attuned to it by this time, some form of State control or subsidy. There is no such control or subsidy.

The word "Trust" implies some funds existing in the background with which to subsidise these houses. No such funds exist. Therefore, we are at this moment seeing, as the hon. Gentleman so rightly said, many historic houses of all sizes and types, not only the greatest in the land, falling into decay simply for want of those funds which the State could make available by the implementation of the main provisions of the Gowers Committee's Report.

I do not think that any hon. Member would represent the proposals made in the Gowers Committee's Report as an attempt to maintain a jaded aristocracy as stuffed dummies in their own mouldering manor houses. Indeed, the speeches already made on both sides show that there is no argument at all about the desirability of preserving these great national heritages. All that we are talking about is the possibility of preserving more than we are able to do at present. I have examined the list of these houses which have been destroyed for want of any such provisions. I might occupy two minutes to give the House some examples.

There is Westwood Park in Worcestershire, a late 16th century house. Permission has been asked for it to be demolished. There is Stoke Bruerne, in Northamptonshire, a house attributed to Inigo Jones, which is in grave danger of dilapidation.. There is Halnaby Hall, in Yorkshire, a 17th and 18th century house of great beauty for which permission for demolition has already been given. There is Rolls Park, in Essex, already destroyed. There is Whitley Beaumont, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, an Elizabethan and 18th century house, already destroyed.

Finally, there is an example which fits in perfectly with the argument I am trying to advance—the house of Ightham Mote, in Kent, which has fallen vacant owing to the death of the previous owner. The family have no funds with which to endow the preservation of the house through the National Trust. It is falling so rapidly into disrepair that if nothing is done before the autumn it may become irreparable.

This situation needs remedying as rapidly as possible. We have done a great deal through the Ministry of Works to preserve the records of our remoter past. The Bronze Age and the Stone Age are wonderfully preserved for all to see. Is my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to be known as a man who agrees to allow the relics of a finer age to go to ruin while these more uncouth monuments rise above the fields? Do not let us be known as an age which created Peacehaven while these and many other houses of smaller size though not of smaller worth were allowed to decay. I ask my hon. Friend to assure us that action will be taken urgently to avoid this disaster.

7.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

I think that hon. Members will agree that, subject to the limitations both of time and subject on an Adjournment debate, this has been a very helpful discussion. I should like to join in the congratulations which have been very rightly accorded to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) both for his choice of subject and for the very agreeable, sensitive, and interesting speech with which he used the opportunity which Mr. Speaker had given him.

It was particularly appropriate that he should do so because his interest in this subject goes back a considerable time and his knowledge of it is very deep. As he himself has said, this is a very difficult occasion on which to give this matter adequate discussion, and in that connection I would seek to answer the first of his questions. He indicated that there should be a debate on this subject. As the House is aware, that is not a matter for me to answer. The choice of debate depends either on the Leader of the House or, if the Opposition be so minded, on the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in connection with Supply Days.

Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

The trouble with a Supply Day would be that we should be still subject to the limitation with regard to legislation.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

That is perfectly true, but we should not be subject to the difficulty of length of time. In view of the very adroit way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Burton got over the first difficulty I should have thought that the second was the more serious of the difficulties with which we are faced tonight. I will see that what my hon. Friend said is considered by those concerned in this matter. It is a matter on which I can give no undertaking whatever. Speaking for myself, I should welcome the opportunity, because this is essentially a subject on which the general view of the House, I hope cutting right across party lines, would be of very great value and assistance in the formulation of the necessary proposals.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said both as to the beauty and the value from the national point of view of these houses. If any hon. Member who is not familiar with the houses themselves reads the Gowers Report, he will be fortified in that view by the really superb photographs of some of the houses, which, I think most wisely, were attached to that Report and which make it—if I may take this opportunity of advertising the products of the Stationery Office—one of the best 3s. worth on the market.

We all start on the basis that this is a matter about which we are concerned, and I do not seek to underrate the urgency of the matter. We are in a period during which financial stringency has undoubtedly made it more and more difficult for the owners of these houses to maintain them in proper repair, and, as anyone who is familiar with the problems of handling even very much smaller houses is well aware, to some extent delay in repair and maintenance has a cumulative effect upon the stability of the structure. I do not, therefore, in any degree seek to underrate the urgency of the problem, and it is, as I say, for that reason most fortunate that we have had this discussion this evening.

I agree, too, with what my hon. Friend said about public enjoyment. I hope we are not going to discuss this matter from the narrow point of view of the few persons who, by birth or otherwise, have found themselves enjoying the somewhat arduous privilege, in these days, of living in or being the proprietors of these houses. It is true that as they have become more and more available to the public, the public has responded with quite surprising enthusiasm, particularly when one recalls the physical inaccessibility of many of them from the great centres of population.

Therefore, measures to deal with the problem will be treated by this House in due course as being an attempt not to support or help certain privileged people but to deal with the problem from the point of view that this is of national concern.

Photo of Sir Barnett Stross Sir Barnett Stross , Stoke-on-Trent Central

Would the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that even if some of these houses are in inaccessible places where they are visited rarely or by very few people, they may still have such merits that they ought to be preserved?

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

By all means. I would not get involved in a question of Hegelian philosophy as to whether a beautiful building exists where nobody sees it. I do not wish to become involved with the hon. Member on those somewhat complex considerations, and in any case I doubt whether they would strictly be in order. It is important, however, when we are talking of the attitude of the public and of the Government towards these houses, to recall that a very large part of our fellow countrymen treat them, and properly so, as part of our national heritage.

The Gowers Report itself is a remarkable and interesting document, and I know that I shall be expressing the view of all hon. Members when I say how grateful we all are to the very distinguished people who worked on that Committee to produce that Report. Its recommendations fall into two main categories. One is the category of tax adjustments, and the second is the quite separate category of what it might be possible to do by direct Governmental action and support.

Dealing with the first of those categories. There is very great weight in the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) last year as to the dangers of embarking, for however good a reason, upon discriminatory tax arrangements of this character. There is one exception—of which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Burton was the putative father—the provision in last year's Finance Bill with respect to Estate Duty on houses handed over to the National Trust; 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.

It would be a complete traverse of the normal principle of taxation, particularly direct taxation, and I must say that there is a great deal of force in what was said on this issue by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South in the written reply to which my hon. Friend referred a few moments ago.

That brings me to the second half of the Report—the part dealing with the practical or direct steps that might be taken. Here we come up against the difficulty which I foresaw a few moments ago—that they would require legislation. I shall, therefore, have to try to copy the adroitness of my hon. Friend in avoiding the displeasure of the Chair and saying as much as I can before that displeasure becomes too conspicuously manifest.

I must point out that such powers as exist at the moment—I am speaking without the book, but I am almost certain of this—are completely dependent upon statute. Therefore, any re-arrangement between various Departments of State would require legislation. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works is more directly interested and informed upon that aspect of the matter, hut I do not think I am misleading the House in saying that, in general, the transfer of the present powers as between Departments is dependent upon statute and, therefore, could only be effected by statute.

Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

Cannot it be done by Statutory Instrument, under the Ministers of the Crown (Transfer of Functions) Act?

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is correct in a case where the power is expressly conferred by statute. My recollection is that these particular powers are conferred on a particular Minister by statute and could only be transferred by statute. But I hope that we are not going to be worried too much this evening about the technicalities of the matter.

We are at least as anxious as were our predecessors to secure the preservation of these houses, their contents and gardens, and we are anxious to do whatever can be done to help in present circumstances. What can be done is limited both by financial considerations, up to a point, and equally by the availability of Parliamentary time from the point of view of the situation which I must not mention.

The fact that we may not be able to move as quickly or as far as we would wish does not mean that the problem has been put on one side. In fact, we are doing what my hon. Friend asked us to do a few moments ago. We are looking afresh at the proposals which we inherited from our predecessors, at the powers which at present exist and the position as a whole, and we are studying this matter in the light of the Gowers Report and all those matters which I have mentioned.

We appreciate that nothing effectual can be done without funds and I am glad to be able to tell the House—and particularly to reply to the question my hon. Friend asked me—that 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 do. In reply to a further question, in addition to what I have just said he certainly does not rule out the possibility, contemplated, as I understand it, by our predecessors, of a limited use of the National Land Fund in respect of public acquisition.

That I cannot at this stage be more specific or more definite is due to causes of which the House is very well aware, but I hope I have made it clear that we are now examining the best way in which the responsibility of the State to give positive help can be recognised in practice and the means by which the limited resources which we can make available can be enabled to have their maximum effect. I think that will indicate to the House that we treat this as a serious and urgent problem, and the statement which I have been authorised to make about the attitude to this question of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor indicates, I think, that we are in earnest about the matter.