I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members participating physically and virtually must arrive for the start of the debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to stay for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the future of the learned societies at Burlington House.
First, I declare an interest as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, which is one of the learned societies. I am grateful for the huge interest in the debate, but I will not take interventions so that we can get more people in. If necessary, I am happy to give up my right to reply at the end. I just want to get on with it.
I particularly welcome the Minister who has taken a real personal interest in the problem since he was put into his current role. I want to thank all colleagues who responded to the quite intensive lobbying by the Society of Antiquaries, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society and the Royal Astronomical Society who, together with the Royal Society of Chemistry, form the learned societies who have called Burlington House in Piccadilly their home since the 1850s. Those learned societies, also known as the courtyard societies, are under-appreciated gems in UK research and academia, but they have global standing across a number of scientific and historical fields. I have had loads of emails. Just this morning I had a letter from various professors in Denmark and museums and learned societies in support of the case that I am making this afternoon. As the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, the learned societies’ next-door neighbour, recently put it,
“These charities have stood sentinel on this site since the 19th century, preserving our histories, furthering our understanding of the world and promoting its study to bring about discoveries and advances in the field of science, history, astronomy, natural history and earth sciences.”
The societies, together with the Royal Academy, were originally housed in Somerset House, but were turfed out by the Government of the day and relocated to Burlington House in Piccadilly, which, from 1855, gradually became their home and effectively a cultural hub for the arts and sciences. It was here that Darwin explained the theory of evolution and Schliemann showed off his discoveries from Troy. Important scientific works have been deposited and priceless artefacts safeguarded, including some of the oldest existing copies of the Magna Carta and iconic items entrusted to the societies to keep safe for the British public, and to foster both academic and public understanding of our heritage. There are works by Galileo, Copernicus and Newton.
The Society of Antiquaries, the Geological Society and the Linneans are the oldest of their kind in the whole world. The Society of Antiquaries has been an educational charity of global historical and cultural significance since 1707. The Geological Society, founded in 1807, is the UK’s national society for earth sciences, whose charitable work focuses on improving our knowledge and understanding of the earth. These are not dusty museums set up to indulge crusty old anoraks like me. They are very much living, breathing and highly relevant institutions that provide guidance to the Government on matters such as climate change and greenhouse gases, the safe disposal of radioactive waste, and the impact of immigration planning on the future of UK science. Those are just a few of the roles of the Geological Society, for example. It also gives strategic advice on HS2.
The 4,000 members of the Royal Astronomical Society advise and publish on solar system science, geophysics and many other areas crucial to the protection of our environment, and the Linneans play a substantial role in providing evidence and guidance on the biodiversity crisis and the ever-increasing demands of the global population. All of a sudden, if they were not there, a very large hole would be left. But their very existence is threatened because of a change to the way that their landlord—in this case, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—charges the learned societies rent. In effect, that has meant that in the past 10 years, the annual rent charge has increased by 3,000%. In the case of the Linneans, it has gone up from £4,000 a year to £130,000 a year, and rents are set to double further in the next decade. That was not what was envisaged when a new rent framework linked to the local rental values was first mooted under the previous Labour Government.
When the societies signed the lease back in 2005, they accepted that by 2085 they would pay commercial rent. However, at the time, calculations showed that the societies would have 45 years to adapt to a new model of income generation and rental payment before a dramatic increase. That increase actually started after just seven years, and was so rapid that the societies cannot adapt in time.
The societies are not the sort of luxury retail emporia to be found in other parts of Piccadilly. They are charities with limited income and particularly limited routes to raise more income while their tenancy is highly uncertain and their leases specifically prevent a third party from taking a charge on the properties, meaning that the societies cannot approach major funding bodies for grants to adapt and improve their building. The leases also prevent additional income generation through subletting or commercial activities—they cannot even have a café.
They are severely hamstrung in increasing their revenue, without which they cannot afford to pay their rent. But there is a Catch-22 as well: if they cannot afford their rent, they will have to move, but in the case of the antiquaries, the cost of moving the thousands of priceless fragile treasures would bust that society. Even the prospect of moving to a warehouse on a cheap industrial estate in a town in the midlands or north of England is a non-starter, let alone the fact that it would break up the hub and make the collections largely inaccessible to fellows and the public alike.
Their location in the heart of London enables courtyard society activities across the United Kingdom. As in other areas of operation, affordable tenure at New Burlington House allowed the courtyard societies to dedicate resources to active programmes outside London, from specialist meetings to large national conferences, matching local interests to available expert speakers. The societies are committed to a levelling-up agenda, and have been for a long time, reaching out and undertaking community-based learning. The London base is crucial to that work; they need the base to house their collections and to be near other societies, within easy reach of their important stakeholders who travel to Burlington House from all over the UK and internationally.
The societies are not expecting something for nothing. They have accepted that their rents should rise. At the behest of a previous Minister, at their own cost, they undertook a public value contribution analysis by the consultants PwC in 2019, which calculated that the learned societies together give an annual public benefit of some £47,368,500 to the British public, communities, and science and academic institutions throughout the UK. Surely it is only reasonable that the public benefit should be taken into account when calculating the rental value of those properties. In the case of the antiquaries, the same PwC study calculated that of the £5.4 million public benefit that the antiquaries generate, some 78% would be at risk each year if the society were to be forced out of its current premises.
The societies all want to increase that public benefit. They want to greatly expand engagement with the public at Burlington House and around the country, with other societies in schools and universities, with businesses, charities and many other partners. Indeed, the Society of Antiquaries has shown how this can be done with its other property at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, the former home of William Morris. Because it owns the property, it has been able to raise over £6 million from the national lottery heritage fund and others, to build a new education centre. When it reopens after the pandemic next year, it expects to double the number of visitors to more than 40,000. The same advantage awaits the other courtyard societies if they have a secure and affordable tenure, which is the basis of the problem.
We appreciate that Government have made certain proposals and have been helpful, most recently under the new Minister, including offers of a rent freeze, a rent holiday and some adjustments. However, the problem is that the rent now is unaffordable and without a new long-term lease, the offer to help seek lottery funding will not work. Since just 2019, the rent has increased by a further 39% at a time when financial positions have been made even worse by the pandemic. The situation has gone from bad to worse.
The problem is that the Government are still treating the buildings as investment properties housing commercial tenants rather than as the academic charities and educational research institutions that they really are. Unlike commercial tenants, they cannot just sell more widgets or put up the price of their widgets—or, perhaps more appropriately for Piccadilly, Louis Vuitton bags and designer frocks.
We need the Government to take a different approach and to recognise the learned societies for the unique tenants that they really are. The societies will be putting further alternative proposals to the Government and I am glad that there now appears to be a dialogue; for quite a long time, there was a logjam and dialogue just was not happening. Again, I thank the Minister for helping to facilitate that.
Among those proposals we should ideally seek a new long-term lease arrangement, as the Royal Academy negotiated some years ago, whereby they pay a peppercorn rent and have become commercially viable and very successful. The societies could make an up-front payment, made up of cash and in-lieu components, reflecting the public value assessments that have been mentioned already, and ownership of parts of their valuable collections could pass to the Government to make sure that they are enjoyed by even more members of the public.
Perhaps the management of the learned societies could pass to other Government Departments, where they could more readily be appreciated and engaged as cultural and heritage assets. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is an obvious candidate and I know that the Secretary of State has been sympathetic about taking a closer interest in and engaging with some of the learned societies. It would be helpful to understand on what basis discussions have already taken place. Apparently there have also been discussions between DCMS and the National Lottery Fund, because, as it stands at the moment and as I have said, the learned societies just cannot access those funds because they do not have the security of tenure.
The other solution is that MHCLG changes its rental policy so that it can charge a nominal rent but at a level that at least equates to the capital charge levied on the Department as a consequence of holding this asset. We believe that there are parallels with the way that the Ministry of Defence values some of its defence assets, for example, and the way that the Department has disposed of previous assets of historical and cultural value, such as Somerset House and the Royal Naval College.
Whatever solution is found, the Government really need to revisit the way that they charge the learned societies to reside in their purpose-made home at Burlington House. I am sure that colleagues who are here today, and the many others who have shown support for the cause, will help to play whatever part MPs can to help to forge a new arrangement between Government and these unique institutions, so that they can stay in their natural home, a cultural and scientific hub in central London, working with each other and with the Government to produce huge value for the whole country, worth well in excess of the sum of their individual parts.
I know that the Minister is the man to make that happen and I am delighted that he has agreed to visit the learned societies—hopefully next month—to see them at first hand. I hope that that will help to produce a long-term, fair and sustainable settlement that will see these unappreciated gems flourish further, and for the whole country to benefit as a result in tackling the big challenges of the day in science, environment and culture. It all rests on the shoulders of the Minister; I am sure that he will not disappoint and that we will have a solution to take back to the learned societies, which eagerly await the outcome of the debate.
I should declare that I am a candidate for fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries; so, if anybody in this room is a fellow, please do not blackball me. I should also say that the president of the Royal Academy, the first elected woman president of the Royal Academy, is sort of my adopted surrogate sister, Rebecca Salter.
I start from a fundamental principle, which is that this is basically a part of our national heritage and I cannot see why we would want to unpick any of it. It is part of global Britain, too, for all the reasons that have already been advanced. We stand tall in so many of these fields because of work advanced by these charities, in particular because they are within the capital and in a place that was purpose built for them. That is vital.
The courtyard societies are a harmonious whole. If commercial bodies sold Louis Vuitton handbags or whatever in each of the different buildings, what could then be made of the courtyard and its entrance? That would wholly disadvantage the experience of the artistic, creative, intellectual and academic basis upon which the courtyard was built. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The societies have managed to work together, one with another, to be able to achieve far more on behalf of academia and so many of the different scientific and intellectual pursuits there.
It was specifically built for them. There were endless debates in the House of Commons for weeks, months and years. It took 15 years for them to decide exactly what was to happen. It was built for them; it is form and purpose united. Why on earth would we want to unpick that? As has already been said, the cost of removal of all the valuable and fragile material in the libraries and various exhibits would be so prohibitive that we would effectively be closing down some of those charities. That would be a terrible mistake.
I would say to the Government what I said to the Labour Government when we were in power, because this has been going on all the time that I have been an MP. It was the Deputy Prime Minister who first meddled with it in 2004 and ended up having to backtrack. I said, “Please, Government, stop pulling at the threads of this.” I thought earlier today that the little thread on my sleeve could be pulled, but then the button came off. It may seem like we are sorting out a little thread, but it ends by dismantling the whole seamless garment.
I will end with a simple point made by Gladstone when debating this issue:
“Vacillation, uncertainty, costliness, extravagance, meanness, and all the conflicting vices that could be enumerated were united in our present system. There was a total want of authority to direct and guide.”—[Official Report,
Things do not seem to have changed much. The Conservative MP, Beresford Hope, said that the traditions of old historic London were every day swept away. I am sure the Minister would not want to be the person who finally swept away this part of historic London.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Tim Loughton on securing the debate and on an outstanding campaign that he has waged over the past few months on behalf of the learned societies. It has been a model of good lobbying of the best possible kind. I agree with everything he and Chris Bryant have said. I will not repeat it, to cut things reasonably short.
I am reminded of Churchill’s great remark, I think about this place originally.
“We shape our buildings;
thereafter they shape us.”
That quotation applies very much to the learned societies. They shaped those buildings and we shaped them together, over a matter of 200 years, or thereabouts. The shape and existence of those buildings and the things in them shape the learned societies. It would not be possible to remove them willingly and put them into an industrial estate somewhere on the outskirts of London. It would simply not work. Those buildings and the learned societies are integral to each other.
That applies to so many other great Government owned or publicly owned buildings across our nation. With those other buildings—cathedrals, churches, this palace, Buckingham Palace and the MOD buildings—the Government have taken an extremely sensible view over many years, which is to conclude that they are worth nothing. They are not worth anything; they cannot be sold. This palace could not be sold and is, therefore, worth nothing. Of course, it costs money to maintain but it cannot be sold.
The problem behind this particular episode is that the Government have concluded that the building is a valuable asset that they own, and which they can therefore sell or otherwise maximise income from it. That is the wrong presumption. That building was not set up as a Government asset, which could be subsequently sold. It was set up to be the home of the learned societies. Therefore, we require an extremely radical approach, not through a renegotiation of the lease, which cannot succeed. The lease cannot work and they cannot afford to pay the rent, so there is no point renegotiating it. These learned societies cannot pay a rent to the Government. Therefore, let us consider renegotiating it fundamentally. If we depreciate the value of an asset, that depreciation cannot count against profit and loss. It must not work at all.
I would like to think that the Government will consider not bleeding the assets, which is what they are effectively trying to do, whether through rent or another way. We should not be bleeding the assets; they are cultural and historic assets and they should belong to and be preserved by the nation. There are all sorts of ways of making sure they do not cost anything. None the less, the notion that a building, worth billions, freehold, should somehow become a national asset that is there to bleed seems to me to be entirely wrong. The capital value should be set at zero—the same applies to a great many other national assets of one sort or another. This is a political decision. It is not a cultural one; it is not a financial one; it is a political decision.
We need a Government who will say, “This is an asset to our nation. This is an asset that we want to preserve. This is an asset that does more for our nation”— £47 million worth more for our nation, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Bleeding it, getting rent out of it and selling it off would achieve nothing for the cultural and intellectual assets of the United Kingdom. Finding a way of keeping the learned societies there, finding a way of making it possible for them to succeed in that location, seems to be something that we as a Government ought to be doing.
I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will not simply talk about the renegotiation. I want to hear a really radical restart to say, “These assets must be left as they are.”
In the centre of London, our capital city, we have a world-class and unique cultural, educational and scientific hub that has come about because of the work that was done, going back to the time of Lord Palmerston and beyond, to create that juxtaposition of the Royal Academy, Burlington House and the courtyard societies. It is irreplaceable and, as has been observed, putting any other type of tenant in there for commercial operation would destroy something that scarcely exists anywhere else. Perhaps the French might claim something similar, but it is a unique selling point.
As we talk about the value of soft power for the United Kingdom, the value of our scientific, educational and intellectual attainments is a key selling point in that assertion of Britain’s soft power and reputation in the wider world. Against that background, it is surely immensely short-sighted to treat this unique set of properties as an investment portfolio, as has been observed.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Minister. He is an excellent Minister and I am delighted to see him in his post. I moved into the same Department in 2010, doing much the same job, and I discovered that there were things that sat on our portfolio that none of us had ever imagined until we walked into the door of the Department. The truth is, it is a bit of an accident of history that this has ended up on the Department’s books because they are the ultimate successors in title to the old Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, which was merged into the Department of the Environment years ago. In reality, this is a cultural and an educational asset, and therefore needs to be approached as such, as has been observed, rather than as part of the Government’s investment property portfolio. I would appeal to the Minister to sort that out.
I welcome the energy and commitment that the Minister has brought to this subject. Having talked to constituents who work and are engaged with the learned societies on a professional basis, I know they are conscious that things have moved since he has been in the Department. I hope he opens up the logjam and recognises, as has just been said, that the current arrangement leaves a lease that is unaffordable in financial terms and constrains the societies from expanding their other sources of income and activities, as charities might wish to do. They would like to do more, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said. They are keen to maximise their footfall and potential in the centre of London. That cannot be done anywhere else. Off what is almost the nation’s high street we have this unique cultural gem, and it would be a crying shame to allow that to be lost or dissipated; my constituent, who is a professional curator, attests to the massive wasted costs that will be involved in a forced move.
There is the old phrase about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. I do not think that applies to this Government and I am sure the Minister will prove that. We place the value, in this instance, above the price, because it is much greater for this country. I hope that he will respond positively to the debate.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd. I, too, would like to thank Tim Loughton for securing this debate, and for his campaign. I am pleased to add my voice to the campaign to secure the long-term future of the learned societies at Burlington House.
Others have eloquently discussed and will continue to discuss the importance of the work of the other learned societies based in the scientific and cultural hub of Burlington House, but it is the Society of Antiquaries and its connection to Wales, through the Welsh Fellows Group, on which I would like to elaborate.
The Welsh national group has long been one of the most accurate and effective fellows groups in researching the historic environment and promoting the understanding and appreciation of Welsh heritage. The group also organises antiquarian events, outings and lectures, helping fellows who live throughout Wales to remain engaged and involved in the full activities of the fellowship, in addition, of course, to the London programme. Past events have included archaeological lectures at Cardiff University and annual field weekends in Wales, such as the 2016 trip to Sir Fynwy, where the programme included visits to castles at Hay-on-Wye and Usk, Llanthony abbey at Abergavenny and Clytha House and gardens.
The relationship between the Welsh national group and the parent society is of real practical value. It promotes the interests and the results of the Welsh group’s work on the international stage. It also provides networking opportunities for members and helps to maintain an effective flow of knowledge and understanding of heritage issues and policy between London and Wales.
Members of the Welsh group have testified to me about the essential value of the central and special location at Burlington House for the achievement of the society as a whole. To go briefly off record into my personal experience as a child, I remember the delight of attending exhibitions at Burlington House. It is a really special place. It brings different experiences to different people. The United Kingdom as a whole would be the poorer if we were to lose it. The relocation of Burlington House would be not only financially damaging for the society, but culturally damaging for Wales.
I call upon the Government to do something that I would have thought would be essentially conservative for a Conservative Government—to conserve an affordable and sustainable arrangement that allows the learned societies to remain at Burlington House and which, in doing so, allows them to preserve their unique record of history, discovery and heritage, and to continue their work in promoting and strengthening historical learning and research as it relates to Wales.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend Tim Loughton on securing the debate and the eloquent way in which he introduced it, which hit so many of the important marks. It is also a pleasure to take part in a debate where there seems to be unanimity across the parties in the House. The challenge is to find a solution that will work for everyone, and that meets the objectives and challenges that have already been set out.
I do not plan to detain hon. Members for too long; much of what I wanted to say has already been said. I merely want to underline a few points and offer a potential way forward.
We all recognise the unique part that the learned societies—the courtyard societies—including the Royal Society of Chemistry, play in our community and in society, including the public good they bring to culture, science and academia, and the positive influence they bring to global Britain, as has been said. I would add to that the importance of their independence and the scrutiny and the standards they set across their various specialist fields.
As well as their role, their history and their contribution needs to be recognised, as many hon. Members have stated this afternoon. It is part of our heritage. I understand the accounting policy change, the value of capital and the return on investment that Governments, going back 20 years or so, have wanted to gain. However, in reality—this point has already been made—their role in our heritage has made them heritage assets in themselves. The benefit is gained by so many of us right across the UK, but the prominence of their location really matters. It was good to hear from Liz Saville Roberts, who tied in that Welsh link with these organisations that have their headquarters in London, highlighting their reach right across the United Kingdom.
These important organisations are considered in terms of accounting policy and investment property, but in my mind, they should be considered as heritage assets. That would give the Minister greater flexibility to come up with a solution that will meet their demands and needs. I cannot imagine that it is beyond the ability of a bright, ambitious Minister and his officials to come forward with a solution that will work for all of these organisations. Doing so will also place him in a strong position to seek to influence these organisations in a positive way, so that they can extend their reach across the UK—so that their London base is their headquarters, but their reach continues right across the United Kingdom.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend Tim Loughton for having secured this important debate, and put on record my interest as an elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Chris Bryant should not worry: I am not going to blackball him in his election. I also put it on record that I will also speak in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for museums.
The Society of Antiquaries, along with the other learned societies in Burlington House and the courtyard, is undoubtedly a national treasure. I am glad that the Minister is going to take the opportunity to visit that society, because he will be dumbstruck by the wealth of cultural heritage there. Some of those manuscripts managed to escape even the dissolution of the monasteries, yet they are now being threatened by the financial situation that the society finds itself in. When he goes on his visit, he will see remarkable portraits, including not only the earliest surviving portrait of Richard III but Hans Eworth’s portrait of Mary I. He will see the processional cross that was rescued from the battle of Bosworth, which is one of the reasons why I held the launch of my book, “Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors” at the society in 2013. He may also know from his notes that as a Government Minister—the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation—I held a keynote address at the Society of Antiquaries in 2019, in which I underlined the Government’s respect for the arts and humanities.
The society’s collection is unique, with 40,000 artefacts and 130,000 books and manuscripts. It simply cannot be replaced: three of the earliest copies of Magna Carta are among them. My concern is that, with the ratcheting effect of the rent going up, following the supposed agreement over eight years to reach market rent, as my hon. Friend James Gray mentioned, the society cannot even afford to pay the current rent of £150,000 a year, which has risen from £4,800 over an eight-year period—a 3,100% increase. The society is asset-rich and very cash-poor, and money that could be spent on preserving these artefacts or on future research projects for early-career researchers is being drained to pay the rent. An agreement should be found—perhaps an in lieu payment of artefacts could be made to the Government, and those artefacts could then be preserved for the sake of our national heritage.
This Government are committed to standing up against cancel culture—they are absolutely right to do so—and to stopping statues from being pulled down so that we can respect our heritage and learn from it, but one of our greatest national assets, artefacts and institutions is being pulled down in front of our very eyes. That is the exact opposite of what the Prime Minister, who so values cultural heritage, would wish. I urge the Minister to look seriously at what could be done to protect the society for the future.
I thank my hon. Friend Tim Loughton for arranging this session. I do not have a book to plug and I am not clever enough to be a fellow or even a candidate, but I am passionate about trying to find a solution for the societies. We have high hopes for the Minister, as has been seen. Please, please, please free the big planet-sized brains in the learned societies. They need to be freed by you from the interminable discussions about rent and leases, to let them get on to use those planet-sized brains to help solve the greatest challenges of our time and educate people along the way, because we know they can do that.
It takes years of history and knowledge to solve challenges, and the learned societies have hundreds of years of respect and experience between them. The Royal Astronomical Society founded in 1820, the Geological Society founded in 1807, the Linnean Society founded in 1788, the Society of Antiquaries founded in 1707—so much would be lost by a forced relocation that is unnecessary, and that would be a brutal disrespect to all that has gone before.
I thank my Stroud residents, who wrote to me in large numbers and who brought the issue to my attention. Stroud is a cultured and learned place and is also the best place to live, according to The Sunday Times; I have to get that in for a whole year. The cultured and learned place that is Stroud is absolutely exasperated. My small patch of Gloucestershire cannot understand how we have spent 16 years trying to settle a matter that would effectively mean that we are preserving the learned societies for future generations—future generations like that of my baby daughter, who I want to grow up to be a candidate or a fellow, certainly.
What are we asking the Government to do? I have a briefing about that, but what we are asking the Government to do is to stop faffing around. We call on the Government to provide for an affordable, sustainable arrangement that allows the societies to remain at Burlington House, and to use the apartments as appropriate for their needs in the 21st century. That will preserve the unique and irreplaceable record of history, discovery and heritage. In the year of UK COP, G7 and the fact that we are leading on so many aspects of global policy, let us not lose the backbone and history that we have in the learned societies as we go along.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who obtained the debate. Like my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie I, like others, am not eminent enough to be a fellow of one of the societies, nor am I even a candidate, it has to be said, but in researching the issue, and having had conversations with a number of constituents who brought it to my attention, I have appreciated that the courtyard societies are unappreciated gems, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said.
What is going on here in the Government? I suspect that what is proposed will bring little additional resources into the Department—the amount is not even petty cash, and yet the societies have added so much to broader society and to our local communities through their work over many years. As has been said, we are talking about a 3,000% increase in rents. The societies quite clearly do not have the funds to purchase alternative accommodation, and they are focused on persuading the Government to allow the societies to remain and to carry on their work. Like so many organisations within our constituencies—voluntary groups and community groups—they spend so much time having to find the next funding stream that it takes the energy away from what they are actually trying to achieve. We do not want to put these societies into the same category. Much praise has been laid upon the Minister, and I must say it is very justifiable. Like others, I look forward to hearing how he will explain the arrangements. So many of the debates that we attend are summed up by a Minister saying a lot of words but not actually informing us of the solution to the problem. We want an actual solution, and I am confident that the Minister will provide it.
I add my support to all that has been said. We have organisations here that provide so much in added value to our society. Let us not lose them for the sake of a few extra pounds in the Government’s coffers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this afternoon, Ms Rees. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Tim Loughton not only on securing the debate but on his energetic campaigning on behalf of Burlington House. Appropriately, as a new Welsh MP, my first contact with the issue of the future of the learned societies at Burlington House was through an email last year from Cardiff, from Professor John Hines, the chair of the Wales fellows group and vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Professor Hines, like the right hon. and hon. Members who have already spoken in the debate, made the case with great eloquence for the continuation of the bespoke Government arrangement that has delivered immense public value as a hub of cultural and scientific discovery. As my hon. Friend mentioned, there has been a significant economic benefit from that. It is worth repeating the figure he mentioned of £47.4 million per annum, because it is a significant amount of money, and how it is estimated that almost a third of that value could be lost through the damage caused by relocation.
Liz Saville Roberts emphasised the benefits of decentralised activities, so I will not go back over that ground, but I strongly agree with the points she made. I would like to quote from Professor Hines’ letter to me, which covers some of the right hon. Member’s points as well as others. He wrote:
“Our relationship with the parent society— in this case, it is the Society of Antiquaries, but I think it is representative of the other learned societies based at Burlington House—
“is of inestimable practical value in placing our own concerns and achievements on the international stage”— that is particularly important in areas such as Wales that need to ensure that they have representation at the highest level in the UK. He continues:
“learning from networking opportunities, and maintaining an effective flow of information and understanding over heritage matters and policy between the capital of the United Kingdom and the Principality. We are especially able to testify to the vital importance of a central and appropriate location for the fulfilment of the special aims of the Society.”
That sums up why this is an important issue not only for the centre of London but for the whole of the UK. I therefore urge the Minister to find an acceptable solution along the lines outlined by my hon. Friend, which would enable the learned societies to remain at Burlington House. That would enrich not only their activities in London but their wider work in Wales and across the UK.
Thank you, Ms Rees, for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition. It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair. I congratulate Tim Loughton on securing the debate and setting out so clearly and powerfully the dilemma facing some of the country’s most respected academic and cultural institutions. I thank all hon. Members who took part. We heard from every single one about the value of the learned societies and their concerns about the situation.
My hon. Friend Chris Bryant, as so often, gave us a history lesson and set out eloquently the heritage value of the learned societies. What is notable about the debate is how many Government Members have expressed their concern and dismay. The Government have united the House in opposition to the situation that the learned societies have been placed in, potentially being forced to move from buildings specifically set up for their use as a cultural hub in central London.
The problem of unaffordable, escalating rent rises set by a landlord trying to maximise income is not unique, but what is wrong is that the rental arrangement for the societies should be unique, because their history and contribution to our society is unique, and there is a long history of British Governments providing them with an affordable tenancy in acknowledgment of their national value. These are model tenants who make essential contributions to our culture, heritage and society. In the post-covid world, where the climate challenge is huge, our policy makers may well be ever more in need of the advice and intellectual rigour of these learned societies. As Sir Robert Neill said, surely this is a case of a government knowing the price of something but not its value. That is not to say that the economic value is insignificant. As we have heard, PricewaterhouseCoopers say that the total contribution these societies make is well over £47 million per year.
The proposed rents are unsustainable for the societies. If they were forced to find new premises, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to afford another accessible city-centre location without the kind of special affordable rent agreement that was previously in place. A more remote location would reduce public access to the collections.
A relocation would be extremely expensive and likely require millions of pounds to be spent on transporting a huge collection of fragile items and customising a suitable place to store them. PwC estimated that almost one third of the societies’ public benefit value could be lost through the damage caused by forced relocation. Some of these losses would be priceless if the societies are forced to dispose of some of the precious objects in their care.
The societies have attempted to negotiate to secure a solution with the Government. Offers and counter-offers have been made, which have either still been unaffordable to the societies or have been rejected by the Government. Now is the time for the Government to really get serious about finally resolving this problem. For a Government who like to talk about global Britain, they are showing very little respect for protecting globally important British artefacts and institutions. The increases in rental income will be of relatively minimal benefit to the Government, but will do serious damage to the historic British institutions and to their cultural contribution.
The Opposition urge MHCLG to go back to negotiating in good faith with the learned societies, with the concerted aim of finding a sustainable solution that works for both parties and maintains the learned societies in their current home. I encourage the Minister to look at the various proposals put forward by Members today and by the learned societies, for example the acquisition of the long-term lease equivalent to fair market value that was offered by the societies in early 2020. If there are legitimate reasons for rejecting that or other offers, the Government need to be transparent about what they are, to continue the dialogue and to offer the societies the opportunity to work through them and to work together.
I close by making the point that many businesses are struggling at the moment with commercial rent debts, as a result of the pandemic. The Government’s response has been to issue a code of conduct for landlords to encourage them to negotiate with tenants to find a workable solution for both parties. Surely the Government need to lead by example.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Like others, I commend my hon. Friend Tim Loughton on securing this debate. We have heard fantastic contributions from right hon. and hon. Members from across the House. I note the silent contribution from my hon. Friend Alex Burghart, whose presence in the Gallery signifies a strong interest in the subject matter under discussion.
I am grateful for the contributions, but take issue with the idea that responsibility for the problem needs to sit with DCMS because they are more cultural. That is unfounded. Within MCHLG we have a strong appreciation of the cultural and scientific elements that are being discussed. We fully appreciate that heritage, and for that reason we all want to see the future of the five learned societies secured, not just in the short term but for many years to come, at a venue befitting their enormous scientific and cultural contribution.
I believe, as do the Government, that the right venue is New Burlington House. In deference to my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie, unfortunately there will still be some faffing about. We are in the early stages of negotiation; we have just pitched our offer to them and are now awaiting a response, so there will be faffing. Hopefully, with a Minister who is keenly engaged in the subject, we will be able to make some headway.
I echo the comments made by hon. Members who recognise the incredible work done by the Geological Society, the Linnean Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries, which seems to be well represented by Members, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. I will temper any praise with the caveat that many of the wonderful collections housed by those societies are not usually open to the public. We heard a fine outline of some of the things that are available, and I am looking forward to seeing those works myself. The Government recognise their contribution, but we need to support them to survive and adapt in a post-covid world to become, dare I say, modern and accessible institutions for all. Others have quoted Charles Darwin, as one of the Linnean Society’s most notable past fellows: it is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.
The legal position is that in 2005 the High Court confirmed that a landlord and tenant relationship existed between MHCLG and the five learned societies. Both parties openly negotiated and agreed an 80-year lease, which would protect the learned societies from paying full market rent until 2085. This agreement, which included a £1 million contribution to repairs from my Department, remains in place today, with MHCLG acting as a supportive landlord, working with its tenants to help the societies deliver their mandates.
Here is, unfortunately, where we get to the faffing. Under the current rental agreement, the rent set for each year is determined by a valuation designed to bring rents gradually to market value by 2085, when the lease expires. The market value is determined by market evidence from comparable properties being used for education or cultural purposes. Given the references to a posh merchandise that might be available locally, it is important to stress that market value in this context does not mean the same value attributed to office tenants or luxury retailers on Piccadilly. Both the learned societies’ and my Department’s valuers agreed the evidence that determines value, and I think we can all agree that that reflects the terms settled upon by the learned societies.
I want to return to the point that the Minister made about what the learned societies do. I would dearly love them to be able to take some of their experience and knowledge around the country more, but it is very difficult to do that if all the money is spent on paying rent to the Government. I wonder what a sensible assessment of, say, £150,000 a year could do for one of the learned societies, as opposed to what it can do for Government. That might be a sensible part of trying to assess a way forward.
I am sure I will repeat this later on, but we have made our pitch to the learned societies and we are awaiting their response. Given the commercial sensitivity of those negotiations, it important that we wait to hear from the learned societies themselves about what they think the way forward will be.
We must acknowledge that the growth in annual rent under the lease contract has been unpredictable. UK rents have grown significantly since 2005, causing a significant challenge for the learned societies. Achieving a rent that represents value for money to the taxpayer while giving security and certainty for the learned societies is the Department’s goal, and we hope to achieve that in collaboration with the learned societies.
Rent for 2020-21 financial year is £15.35 per square foot, which was agreed through the formula and is some 70% lower than the £50 per square foot that is the current market value for similar use—as I said, for educational purposes, not compared with the much more expensive commercial properties. That was agreed by both parties. However, we have heard the real financial concerns of the five learned societies, and the issue has received significant media coverage. In 2019, the societies sought a grant from our Department that would allow them to purchase a 125-year lease from us at a peppercorn rent. We assessed the proposal and of course considered the benefits, which are incredibly difficult to put a value on, of keeping the learned societies at Burlington House.
The Treasury’s Green Book rules require us to assume that if a learned society vacated Burlington House, it could be replaced by a similar tenant who would meet the cost of the rent at the market rate. So, it is not in our Department’s gift to grant that peppercorn lease. I fully appreciate that others have said that different options might be available to the Treasury, but considering such options is clearly way above my pay grade.
Will the Minister not accept that he is missing the point? We are saying that this cannot be done—this building cannot be leased at a commercial rent. We want the Government to assess the building as having cultural value and preferably to give it entirely free of charge to these learned societies. And the notion that somehow or other, over 85 years, the rent may rise to the market rate is ludicrous. It cannot do so—these societies will go broke, these collections will be ruined and the Government will be to blame. We want the Government to renegotiate fundamentally and to charge them nothing.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution; the suggestion that he has made is clearly one for the Treasury to consider. However, in the meantime—as I said at the outset—it is the Department’s starting position that we are determined to try to keep the learned societies at Burlington House. So, as we enter into negotiations with them, I am sure that we will have the opportunity to discuss options further.
In January last year, we explained that we could not proceed with a peppercorn rent arrangement and proposed a simplified agreement, which involved slow convergence to the market rent by 2085. We subsequently held further discussions and recently we have put forward the proposal that I referred to, in order to provide security and guarantee predictable future rents for the learned societies, protecting them from market volatility while ensuring that they only have to pay market rent at the end of the lease.
This proposal is predicated on what I believe is a fair and reasonable condition that the learned societies should work with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and its arm’s length bodies to become more accessible to the wider public and to advance their cultural and educational agenda, so that the societies’ work continues to benefit as many communities as possible. The societies’ future must also reflect a more open and commercial existence, in order to identify and deliver alternative sources of income.
In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned the fact that there would be a restriction stopping the societies from having, for example, a coffee shop. I am sure that restriction is in place now, but it would be open to us to enter into discussions as to whether we could make changes of use, or to see whether there are other opportunities that could be pursued for commercial purposes. It is important to engender a conversation and get that discussion under way.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for saying that I cannot refer in detail to the negotiations that are under way. However, what I can say at the moment is that both parties are in the early stages of the negotiations, and I very much hope that a constructive and positive dialogue will result in the learned societies remaining in Burlington House for the foreseeable future.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend again for raising this issue today and I thank the other Members who have made pertinent and important contributions to the debate. The Government want to continue working closely with the five learned societies and indeed with MPs from all parties in the House, following their valuable contributions today, to ensure that the outcome of our negotiations is a positive one and that we make sure that the learned societies remain in Burlington House for the future, safe in the nation’s capital, where they can continue for generations to come.
I should have said at the outset that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.
This has been an excellent debate. I thank all hon. Members for the conciseness of their contributions, which were all the more powerful for it. However, as my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie said, it all comes down to: “Stop faffing around!”
I am delighted that the Minister absolutely appreciates the value of the learned societies, and I in no way meant to impugn his own culture by suggesting that DCMS might be an alternative landlord. However, the problem is that talking about formulas and talking about tweaking formulas just does not cut it. The learned societies would have to sell a hell of a lot of coffee to get anywhere near paying the sort of rents that are being proposed, and at the current rate they are going to be on a full market rent by 2040, not 2085. This is coming down the tracks very quickly.
This is a crisis facing the learned societies. If the Minister genuinely believes, as I hope he does, that Burlington House is their home, and that we need them to open up—we have given examples to show that they desperately want to open up, but they are hamstrung by the financial positions that they find themselves in—I hope that he will consider the way the rent structure works at the moment. It just does not work for these learned societies. We risk losing the huge contribution that they make unless he does that—