Finance (No. 2) Bill

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Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent North): I am sensitive to the argument constructed by the hon. Member for Witney about the need to preserve for the nation the historic architecture--and access to it--of such buildings. However, does he not see some anomaly in arguing to retain a provision that is not based on the merits of the architecture but on the happenstance of whether an election was made within a particular year?

Mr. Woodward: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes an important point. We have tabled an amendment to ensure that houses that are open to the public and are of grade 1 interest are exempt from the provision, and we have done so precisely for the reasons targeted by the hon. Gentleman.

Of the 60 member houses indentified by the Historic Houses Association as under threat by the removal of this concession, the majority are open to the public. Last year, nearly 3 million people passed through the doors of those houses. They did so because the houses are incredibly interesting, important and undoubtedly central to the identity of Britain's heritage. However, we should not pay attention only to the benefits of heritage; we should look also at some aspects of the economy that benefit from the tourist industry associated with such houses.

The Historic Houses Association estimates that about 11 million people visit its 300 homes every year, some 75 per cent. of whom are British tourists and 25 per cent. are from abroad. British people value and prize those homes, which present an opportunity to see something special that resonates in the soul of our nation. They visit them to see the art treasures inside. At Eastnor castle, for example, they will see some of the finest pictures by Van Dyck, Romney, Wooton and, of interest to some hon. Members who pay attention to matters of architecture, the drawing room in that house was designed by Pugin.

These are important moments in the development of our culture. They are moments to savour; they are as much a part of our future as of our past, but they are threatened by the implications and consequences of the legislation.

When I was given the figures by the Historic Houses Association this morning, I was shocked to find that, although those 11 million tourists spend money when they pass through the 300 houses every year, only 2.6 per cent. of the money is spent in the houses. The other 97 per cent. is spent in the local community by the tourists who have been drawn to the houses. They spend it in the cafes, restaurants, hotels, shops and on taxis and buses. They keep the local communities around those houses going. It is crucial to realise that the amendment would benefit not just a small group of elite people who have been lucky enough to inherit those houses--although perhaps unlucky enough to inherit the problems of their upkeep.

I am sorry to hear hon. Members sighing, but in doing so, they reveal something that goes way beyond the problems of such houses: their failure to be interested in the problems that the local communities surrounding those historic houses face. Hon. Members who are lucky enough to have such houses in their constituencies will know how important to the rural community they are. They attract tea shops in the high street and second-hand bookshops. Small post offices do extra business because tourists come in to buy stamps. It is easy to underestimate the impact on local communities of the closure of such houses.

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy): What about amusement arcades?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position about amusement arcades, which we have debated. It is as important to understand the amusement of the future as it is to understand the importance of our heritage. Members of the Committee would do well in their moments of reflecting not only to consider the dome in Greenwich and Terry Farrell architecture but to recognise the importance to our education and history of the meaning of historic houses. We should consider, too, the 11 million people who visit them, 25 per cent. of whom come from abroad to admire what those houses stand for. It would be foolish for the Committee not to acknowledge their importance, so we must ensure that those houses keep their place in our history and heritage.

Such houses employ many people directly. The Historic Houses Association reckons that 7,000 people are so employed. As a consequence of the clause, all those people face the prospect of unemployment. There is a £65 million wage bill just for those working in such houses. Will the Paymaster General consider whether his officials have fully weighed up the impact on unemployment of the closure of historic houses?

David Quarmby, the chairman of the British Tourist Authority, points out that it is the historic heritage sites that form one of the principal attractions for visitors to Britain. As he says:

    ``Nowhere else in the world will you find as many historic entities, comprising not only the house, but its contents, set in gardens and surrounded by parkland.''

Three examples may be worth considering. First, there is Broughton castle, which is not far from my constituency in Oxfordshire, although it is not in it. It was the house in which the family opposed the efforts of Charles I to rule without Parliament. It is crucial to the story of the civil war in the 17th century. In the past 10 years, the owners of Broughton castle have carried out repairs costing just over £1 million. They received a 40 per cent. grant from English Heritage, but the family had to find an additional £600,000 to fund those repairs. One estate election has been crucial to the owners' survival and they have no appreciable assets on which to draw. It has been through the mechanism of one estate election that Broughton castle has remained open to the public.

A grade 1 house of crucial historic interest to our country, available for every man, woman and child--both domestic and foreign--to visit is open and accessible because of one estate election. The consequence of the clause for the family will probably be that the house will cease to be open to the public. Broughton opens for about six months of the year. During the rest of the year, it provides opportunities for visits from special groups and educational interests. It hosts many overseas visitors. It is one of the attractions that bring people to Oxford and Stratford. For many tourists, it epitomises the English country house and English architecture.

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Another house, Levens hall, in Cumbria, is an Elizabethan house built around a 13th century tower, with some of the most sensational gardens that any hon. Member who chose to admire our garden and landscape history could find. They include a sensational topiary garden. In 1994, it won the prestigious Historic Houses Association and Christie's award. Hon. Members who choose not to listen might do well to recognise that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport visited the house last year and especially commended its importance to our history and heritage. It is an important house with an outstanding garden. It sits in the Lake district and attracts 50,000 visitors a year. Yet again, one estate election for that house has allowed the owner, who is totally committed to public service, has a sense of responsibility and wants to open his house to the public, to continue to maintain that very expensive house.

Yet another house, in Yorkshire--a Palladian house called Hovingham hall--is currently subject to a survey to examine how much must be spent on its annual upkeep. As hon. Members will know, legislation imposes on the owners of grade 1, grade 2 star and grade 2 listed houses a requirement that they maintain their property in good order. The owner's son, William Worsley, has been told that next year he must spend £1.6 million to preserve the fabric of the building. The owners do not have that sort of money. It does not sit, as some Labour Members probably imagine, in a bank account, waiting to be spent. There is no pot to be raided, but only the hope that through one estate election and through offsetting rental income against maintenance costs, they will find a way to pay over several years. Even though three years remain before the clause is implemented, if it is introduced many families will suddenly face a bill of £1.6 million. All members of the Committee must consider the impact of that.

Mr. Gardiner: I do not hear the argument that I seek from the hon. Gentleman his argument is proceeding along the lines that some families cannot afford the upkeep of the houses in which they have chosen to live. It cannot be a good argument to say that taxpayers should subsidise families living in such properties. If an argument were presented that did not retain the arbitrary feature of 1963, the hon. Gentleman's arguments may have some coherence. However, given that the year and the election provision of 1963 are critical to the amendment, his argument must fall.

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: we are discussing targeting and identifying an effective way to keep such houses open. Some people have suggested that if the owners of such houses cannot afford them, they should sell them. Many people, not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the world, have considerable means to buy such houses, but one of the sad developments of the past decade or two is that the houses have been sold because people could not afford their upkeep. Such houses had been open to the public and were on the route that is taken by 11 million tourists.

What happened to those houses after they were sold? They passed into the hands of the very wealthy who closed them and prevented the public from having access to them. Do the Government want to prevent access to such houses? [Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth). I thought that she wanted to intervene, but obviously she is unable to say anything useful. That is relevant to our understanding of how lamentable it is that many Labour Members do not realise the impact that such a measure would have on our tourist industry.

The matter is serious; it is crucial. We have the opportunity to show children buildings such as Broughton castle in which the civil war was engineered, but the Government seem to be saying, ``If the owner cannot afford it, he should sell it. If it is sold to a foreign national, that is fine. If it is closed and no one can visit it, we don't care.'' The hon. Member for Warrington, South--she is talking at present--may wish to note that that was not the view of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Last year, when he addressed the Historic Houses Association he said:

    ``I recognise the essential role that the private owner plays in caring for the nation's built heritage and the significant benefit that the public derives from the privately owned and privately lived in historic houses.''

The hon. Lady may wish to disagree with the Secretary of State, who went on to say:

    ``With over half a million listed buildings in the UK, the Government''--

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