Dan Cruickshank talks to members of the Historic Houses Association about the trials of owning and opening an historic house to the public.
According to an English Tourist Board report , in 1993, 79,000,000 people visited some aspects of the 'national heritage', including cathedrals and parish churches, properties owned by the National Trust and English Heritage, and Royal Palaces. Of this total, 17,487,212 visited houses in private ownership. By comparison, the National Trust says that it received 10,606,686 paying visitors during the same period in England, but this incluides visitors to gardens and other attractions. Max Hanna, the editor of the report., Estimates that the National Trust received around 8,000,000 Visitors to its houses.
Clearly a lot of people spend a lot of time and money visiting old buildings and looking at their contents, and the majority of these historic buildings and collections are in private ownership. The Historic Houses Association (HHA) is a significant body because most ofthe private owners of architecturally, artistically, or historically important houses are members; including, virtually all the big house owners. Certainly, a glance through the HHA's list of members is impressive: Blenheim Palace, Houghton Hall, Holkham Hall, Castle Howard, Wilton House, Longleat, and Leeds Castle are all there. But as well as these great ancestral homes many smaller houses are members. These were often acquired recently by enthusiasts determined to save, live in, and perhaps make a living out of one small part of the national heritage.
Most HHA members do not open their houses to the public; only around 300 are open on a regular basis, though many more open occasionally. Owners join the HHA not for advice on how to make money out of their property or on how to manage it as an entertainments business but for advice on tax laws and other legislation, including the mystery of grant giving, that can seriously baffle the average houseowner. It does not interfere withi the way its members run their houses but it does provide them with a political and taxation lobby to protect and further their interests. It is politically bi-partisan and, as Terry Empson, the Director General of the HHA explains, it does not try to affect general government policy, but it does aim to ensure that all issues to do with heritage get consideration.'We lobby early, and if necessary fight.'And, perhaps surprisingly given the immense potential power of the house-owners' lobby and connections, the HHA currently has a lot to fight for.
As the statistics reveal, HHA members are responsible not only for the maintenance and management of a significant proportion of the national heritage but also, by implication, form a major component of the tourist industry. Despite its obvious cultural and financial importance, the private sector heritage industry receives surprisingly little help or encouragement from the government on a number of key issues. A few particular cases make the general point.
Hammerwood Park, Sussex, was built in 1792 to the design of Benjamin Latrobe, an architect who went on to launch the Greek Revival in the United States where he remodelled and extended the Capitol in Washington in 1814-. Hammerwood is an important and handsome neo-classical house, that fell into a ruinous condition during the 1970s. In 1982 it was bought by David Pinnegar who has been striving ever since to repair the house and rebuild the estate through income generated by opening the house and gardens to the public. The task has been far from easy. Pinnegar has suffered some hard knocks which have undermined his plans - notably a court case launched by neighbours seeking to curtail the number of visitors to the house (currently visitor numbers are limited by law to a mere 3,000 a year with none on Sundays). Pinnegar is far from crushed by this decision - 'I now have to concentrate on how to maintain the house on the lowest possible budget'- but it does make him more bitter about the additional bureaucratic and legislative obstacles that he has encountered. Notable among these is the government's current policy for the distribution of National Lottery funds to support the national heritage. As Pinnegar puts it: 'Come Easter, when the house visiting season begins, dirt will begin to fly. It is then that the public will discover that that no National Lottery money is available to help private owners of historic houses, even those clearly struggling to preserve buildings of great importance. From the government's perspective it seems that all private-house owners are in it for profit. This is, in many cases, simply not true.'
This view is supported by Katrina Burnett, chairman of the HHA's South East Region and owner since 19 71 of the early eighteenth-century Finchcocks, Kent. 'We are very anxious that the public should understand that privately owned houses get no assistance from the government and receive very few tax concessions. Lottery money is unavailable no matter how often the house is open to the public or whatever its value as an educational resource. English Heritage does give grants for restoration, but with so many caveats and often with conditions which make it more expensive to accept than to struggle without.'Katrina Burnett is gloomy about the future of the privately owned heritage.'Times are very tough for the private sector at ttie moment. Every year more and more houses give up the struggle, which is a great tragedy. It is essential to raise awareness ofthe problem a-d capture public sympathy. Only if we do this, and show that privately owned historic houses provide an important public benefit, can we change government policy.'In many cases owners are in the business not for profit but for the love of the house. Often visitors' money goes straight to repair leaks in the roof.'Finchcocks itself attracts about 20,000 visitors a year, but it offers very special attractions including a museum of historic keyboard instruments and a very full programme of concerts and special events.
The fate that had befallen the magnificent baroque Castle Howard in Yorkshire reveals just why so many great houses have, since the war, moved from being exclusive private domains to semi-public entertainments. As Simon Howard explains,'Castle Howard has been open to the public ever since it was built, however in order to help with the running costs my parents opened it on a more commercial basis, when they moved back into the House in the 1950's. Since then we have accepted large amounts of government grant for repairs, and furthermore most of the contents have been exempted from inheritance tax on the condition that they are publicly displayed.' To Howard it seems clear that'most people are willing to go to the very ends of endurance to hang on to their homes and the obligations to open in return for grants and tax concessions is just one of the reasons why so many houses are now open to the public.' For Howard, the main disadvantage is loss ofprivacy,'but that's part ofthe game'. As for lottery money, Simon Howard takes a phlegmatic view. Houses in private hands, certainly those not open to the public, are as far as he can see, extremely unlikely to benefit from this new source of revenue.
Terry Empson takes a characteristi- cally more vigorous view of the lottery problem.'1 get very annoyed when I hear politicians say that all our heritage problems are solved because we now have lottery money. The answer is that they are not. Ifprivately owned historic houses are open and providing a public benefit then they should be eligible for lottery money.' The solution could lie in partnerships between private owners and the trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), the body which administers that portion of the lottery money allocated to the heritage. In Empson's view, 'The NHMF trustees should be ready to discriminate and give grants to certain houses. They should also fund private treaty sales to acquire works of art threatened by sale. Then the nation owns the object, it stays in its historic context, and the trustees can ensure that the money given for the work of art is used to repair the building.'
David Pinnegar believes that'The only solution to the lottery problem is to give the house to a charitable body, but this means that the family has to surrender its wealth.'Lord Neidpath, who lives in the largely seventeenth-century Stanway House, Gloucestershire, and is chairman of the HHA's Heart of England region, agrees but does not regard the transfer of the house to a trust as an insurmountable problem.'The charitable trust could be set up so that the family retains control, per- haps by leasing the house to the charity for a limited period, say twenty-five years.'As Stanway's guidebook points out, the house is'notable for having changed hands only once, other than by inheritance, in the last 1,260 years', but Lord Neidpath'would vest Stanway in a trust tomorrow if I thought that would get money from the lottery to recreate the early eighteenth-century cascade or to pay for the repair of the garden pyramid'.
David Pinnegar is working up a different argument. 'I am currently playing with an idea based on the attitudes ofEnglish Heritage and the Treasury towards the private-house owner. English Heritage gives grants and the Treasury is prepared to roll-over inheritance tax, offer certain tax concessions, or accept objects in lieu of tax if certain conditions are met, including opening the house to the public for as much as fifty days a year. Since both these bodies are willing to view the private-house owner in a favourable light providing there are obvious public benefits, surely the National Lottery trustees must follow suit. What's good enough for English Heritage and the Treasury must be good enough for them.'
Pinnegar is also wrestling with the consequences of one of the other great official anomalies which do g the owners of historic houses. At the moment VAT at I7.5 per cent is charged on repairs and maintenance works to listed buildings, whereas alterations and new works to listed buildings are zero rated. This tax arra ngement. which encourages radical works and discourages sensitive and sensible maintenance, clearly threatens the character of historic buildings and further burdens the responsible historic-house owner. As Terry Empson points out, this tax is especially unfair because it falls more heavily on the owners of smaller houses because they never earn enough to register for VAT while owners of large houses open to the public are registered and so can eventually reclaim the tax.'We are,'says Empson,'very keen to see measures taken to resolve this problem because no other single change in the law could help such a large and threatened area of the heritage.'Consequently, the HHA is lobbyin g hard in Brussels to persuade the European Union to include works to listed buildings among the goods and services for which a lower rate of VAT may be applied.
Most of the concessions and considerations for which the HHA is lobbyin g will be supported by the public only if there is an appreciable public benefit from these favours being granted. Terry Empson realises this very clearly, especially in relation to lottery money:'The last thing we want is for the public to feel that it is being ripped off, with public money being used to prop up private estates.'It is essen tial for the HHA to demonstrate conclusively that the national heritage embodied in the 1,450 or so homes ofits members is best maintained and, of most interest to the public, the houses remain private family homes. As David Pinnegar points out, there is a limit to the number of historic country houses that can be divided into flats;'often this is very destructive, does not work aesthetically.'Equally there is a limit to the number of ailing historic houses that can be turned into museums or be acquired by the National Trust. To Pinnegar, and to many of the HHA members, 'the best solution must be for a family to continue to live in the house, to maintain the use for which the house was built, and to provide a public benefit by opening the house and holding concerts in it and in its grounds. This provides an amenity and an education, especially for potential vandals of both the physical and the bureaucratic kind.'
Click here to return to the Hammerwood Heritage resource siteDan Cruickshank has written many books on eighteenth-and nineteenth-century architecture, and is currently the editor of the Sir Bannister Fletcher History of World Architecture.  Site Seeing in the United Kingdom, compiled by Max Hanna, 1993.