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Serious threats to England’s historic environment, says official report

English Heritage’s first “State of the Nation” report appeals for tax changes to help save country houses

London

English Heritage has released its first “State of the Historic Environment” report. It will become an annual publication.

The detailed study argues that the historic environment is “a massively underexploited asset, which is under attack from all sides.” Threats include “a skills crisis, incongruous development, half a century of unsympathetic agricultural policy, inappropriate tax regimes, climate change and natural erosion, and of course, a lack of funds.”

At the same time, people really do care about their historic environment. The Heritage open-house weekend attracted 1,160,000 visitors in September 2001. The National Trust now has three million members. In 2001 there were 58 million visits to England’s 983 leading historic visitor attractions. There are 900 local amenity societies working with the Civic Trust and 500 bodies affiliated to the Council for British Archaeology. Membership of environmental organisations has grown eight-fold in the past 30 years.

In producing the “State of the Historic Environment”, English Heritage worked closely with other interested parties, such as the National Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. But politically the most significant development is the alliance that has been forged with the Historic Houses Association (HHA), which represents the interests of private owners. A few years ago this would have been regarded as an uneasy partnership, but Arts Minister Baroness Blackstone put it bluntly when she said that “it is not constructive to see this as the ‘toffs and us’.”

The English Heritage report points out that “some of the most interesting historic buildings are those that form an entity with their contents and surrounding landscape”. Yet 26% of capital repairs at the major privately owned historic houses are funded by sales of works of art, diminishing the links between buildings and their contents. According to the HHA, £64 million ($101.1 million) a year has to be spent on capital repairs to its members’ houses, and this is partly financed through the sale of around £17 million ($26.8million) worth of works of art.

The imposition of Value Added Tax (VAT) of 17.5% on repairs (but not on new buildings) has also added to the burden, and English Heritage has added its voice to those who are calling for it to be reduced to 5%.

Britain is the only country in Europe that does not allow tax relief for maintenance of privately owned historic properties open to the public.

The HHA has now won backing from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for a new scheme which would offer tax incentives to encourage private owners to invest more money in vital maintenance, providing they open to the public.

The proposed Historic Properties Maintenance Relief would allow owners of listed properties of architectural or heritage significance to offset bills of up to £40,000 ($63,200) a year against tax. Although this would mean a revenue loss of £5-10 ($7.9-15.8) million a year to the Treasury, there would be a public benefit because owners would be required to open their properties for a minimum of 28 days a year.

It is estimated that this would lead to a further 60 houses being opened to the public, stimulating tourism, particularly in rural areas. The challenge now will be to get the Treasury to accept the principle of tax relief for historic buildings.

The “State of the Historic Environment” report is available on www.historicenvironment.org.uk, and responses from the public are welcome up to 28 February.

Recent country house sales to fund repairs

o Alnwick Castle, North-umberland Raphael’s “Madonna of the pinks” (The Art Newspaper, No.131, December 2002, p.17).

o Aske Hall, North Yorkshire Chippendale furniture.

o Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire Sculpture of Juno (after Canova).

o Castle Howard, North Yorkshire Gentileschi’s “Finding of Moses”, Guercino’s “Erminia finding the wounded Tancred”, Michelangelo’s drawing, the “Study of a mourning woman”, Reynolds’s portrait of Omai, etc.

o Firle Place, Sussex Fra Bartolommeo’s “The Holy Family with the infant St John.”

o Longleat House, Wilt-shire Paintings, sculpture, furnishings, manuscripts, decorative art etc.

o Mount Stewart, Strath-clyde Important Bute pictures, furniture and decorative art.

o Muncaster Castle, Cumbria English silver.

o Newby Hall, North Yorkshire The Jenkins Venus sculpture.

o Stanford Hall, Leicestershire 17th-century embroidered bodice.

o Stanway House, Gloucestershire Botticelli’s “Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ Child.”

o Tissington Hall, Derbyshire Paintings by Velázquez, Gaulli, De Vos.

Source: HHA.