Orders of the Day — National Heritage Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 3rd December 1979.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Parker Mr John Parker , Dagenham 6:19 pm, 3rd December 1979

I welcome the Bill. I also declare an interest, as a member of the Historic Buildings Council and a member of the executive of the National Trust. But I should like to make it clear that I am not speaking for either body today.

Rightly, we have paid tribute to Hugh Dalton for the original idea which led to the creation of a national land fund. I should like to pay further tribute to Arthur Blenkinsop and to Arthur Jones, who urged the Select Committee to reach such sensible conclusions and recommendations which Governments have since followed up and which have led to the Bill.

It is important that the trustees should be independent and I am pleased that they will be appointed by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for the Environment. It is important that the trustees should be independent of the Treasury. Throughout our discussions on the arts, historic buildings and the heritage generally, there has always been opposition from the Treasury. I should like to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) that the Treasury should not come in by the back door to influence decisions unduly.

I agree that the funds available are much too small, in view of the amount originally set on one side by Hugh Dalton for this purpose. It is to be regretted historically, whoever may be at fault, that this sum of money was not left by itself to increase in value. As the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) said, it would now be worth well over £400 million, and there would have been an income of £60 million which would have gone a long way towards meeting the needs of the National Heritage Fund. We must, however, accept that that has happened.

I should like to comment on the present position and on some of the problems which the National Trust has had to face in recent years. It agreed to take over from the Government the ownership of certain houses which were handed to them. Arrangements were made by which the Government agreed not only to hand over houses but to pay a certain amount of money yearly to finance the deficit on those houses. Over the years there has been considerable trouble with regard to that arrangement. There have been arguments about how much money should be paid yearly towards the maintenance of these houses. There have been arguments about detailed managements and delays in paying the money. It was for those reasons that the National Trust decided that it could not take over further houses under those arrangements.

I do not think that that solves the problem. Whatever arrangements may be made for taxation purposes to try to keep owners in possession of their houses, from time to time there will be other houses for which some future will have to be found. I hope that arrangements can be made by negotiation by which the National Trust can take over properties on more favourable grounds than in the past.

The Department of the Environment—formerly the Ministry of Works—did a good job of work in the restoration of Audley End. I remember going there when it first came into the possession of the Ministry. It was almost an absolute ruin after it had been occupied by Polish troops during the war. No repairs had been carried out since 1860. The restoration cost so much money that the Department has not been prepared to take over similar houses for restoration in the future.

At the moment we have the problem of Heveningham, a house which was about to be demolished in the 1960s. The Government stepped in and bought the house to prevent it from being demolished. They were not prepared to manage the house themselves and to restore it as they had restored Audley End. They asked the National Trust to manage it for them. There has been considerable friction because the National Trust feels, quite rightly, that the house is not a credit to it or to the Government. Much of it is in bad condition. The orangerie is practically falling down and no money has been forthcoming to carry out essential repairs or restoration work.

Heveningham has now been put up for sale. National Trust management comes to an end, I understand, in March next year. If no one buys it, it will fall down or it will have to be demolished. What is to be its future? That problem should be dealt with in the debate tonight.

A large number of houses may be in difficulties in the future. I am all in favour of keeping such houses running as going concerns, but unless some arrangement is made with a body such as the National Trust to take over when necessary there will be difficulties in the future.

An alternative has presented itself. Special trusts are to be created for certain houses, as the Arundel Trust was created to manage that estate. Such trusts are set up because the owners cannot find sufficient capital to give to the National Trust to enable the trust to take them over. Therefore, a smaller fund is set up. But how long will that fund be a viable institution? There may come a time when extensive repairs are necessary and resources are not available. The creation, therefore, of such alternative trusts to deal with a particular property may produce problems in the future. That can only be a temporary solution. What is to happen to houses that cannot be taken over by the National Trust because insufficient capital can be found? What will the National Heritage Fund be able to do in such circumstances?

There are a number of minor manor houses which can never be great attractions for visitors. But they are an important part of our national heritage and should be preserved. It might cost, say, a quarter of a million pounds to put some of these houses in good condition. The National Trust might then take them over. The rent and income from occasional visitors might then be sufficient to maintain them.

Rightly, we have become interested in industrial archaeology, and a number of buildings—the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West mentioned The Iron Bridge—are being cared for, restored and maintained. But our agricultural heritage is not being maintained in the same way. Many barns at farms are fine examples of craftsmanship. Some are in the possession of the National Trust. Many large barns can be maintained and visited. There are also many smaller barns of good standard and character, some of which can be used for storage. But when a farmer receives a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture to put up new barns he may do that and keep the old barns or he may pull the old barns down to make room for them. There is a strong case for preserving our agricultural heritage. An agricultural museum for farm implements is not sufficient. Farm buildings which have architectural merits should be preserved.

I am particularly struck by what I think is a big error by the Ministry of Agriculture. The village of Laxton is one of the few places where the medieval open field system of cultivation continues. I believe that there is also a place in what was Carmarthenshire, and there are one or two other places, but Laxton is the most complete example in this country. People come from all over Western Europe to look at it. Schoolchildren are taken there to be educated on how we ran our agriculture before the enclosurer.

That property was bought by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1952 to preserve it. Now it is on the market, because the Ministry decided to realise some of its agricultural properties in order to find money to make a contribution towards the present financial crisis. No one objects to other farms that have no historical interest being sold, but this property should not be sold. It is of great historical importance; it is an important part of our heritage. Promises are being sought that a new owner will try to preserve the existing system, but there is not the same guarantee that this will happen as there is when it is in the Ministry's possession. The Ministry can see that the system works and that it goes on working.

The system has the full backing of the local population. The whole operation—the election of officers, the working and the division of the fields—is not merely a theoretical piece of history but is practical and working. It is unfortunate that at the very time when a Bill of this kind comes before the House the Ministry should be selling this property. We should consider the agricultural heritage as well as the industrial heritage when we think of possible grants and work to be done.

To sum up, I welcome the Bill. I hope that we can improve it in Committee. Many useful suggestions for improvement have been made. I should like to see it become law as soon as possible.