Lord Inglewood: Heritage and the issue of sustainability
Writing for The Parliamentary Review, Lord Inglewood, former MEP for Cumbria and Lancashire North and latterly North West England, discusses heritage and the issues faced by those trying to balance sustainability with economic pressure.
Had I been born in the time of Trollope, I daresay it would be thought I had drawn a first prize in the “Lottery of Life” – an hereditary peer with an estate in the country. It’s still not a bad ticket, but it is a lot less straightforward than it used to be.
Hutton-in-the-Forest in Cumbria has belonged to my family for between 13 and 15 generations, depending on how you calculate it, and almost everything has been created by us: the family has never owned significant development land, mineral rights or married great heiresses.
For most of the last 400 years, this family business, for that is what it is, has evolved inconspicuously under the direction of its now nearly forgotten baronet owners, most of whose portraits are still in the house.
It goes without saying they were better off than most of their contemporaries, but they were never great grandees. Downton Abbey is an interesting parody of almost every country house’s history: by leading the life they did, the fictional family ran out of money as the Abbey became an increasing financial millstone around its neck. The question I ask myself is, what is the purpose of places like this for now and into the future?
At the centre of the estate, and dependent upon it, is Hutton-in-the-Forest, a Grade I listed building, designated of national importance, and probably the finest secular building in Cumbria which still contains most of its traditional contents.
It is part of the country’s cultural infrastructure but in financial terms, it is a black hole into which money is relentlessly poured.
The response, you might say, is turn it into an “attraction” or sell it, which invariably entails the fragmenting of the property and the scattering of its contents. Apart from sentiment, which does not pay bills, there are two points to note.
First, such places can and do go bust, and secondly, for better or worse, the buildings, their surroundings and their contents are works of art – we are in the era of land art and installations, a contemporary reworking of some of the ideas of a country house set in its landscape.
In any event, selling does not solve the buildings’ problems, it merely means they cease to be mine and become someone else’s.
Quite rightly, in my view, I, and any other owner, is constrained by listed building consent and undertakings in my care which I have voluntarily given to the state to provide public access and to ensure its conservation. It is a kind of partnership. Works of art should not be carved up and degraded and they cannot be moved.
The key question thus centres on sustainability. The answer: it depends on the attitude and behaviour of government which over time is capricious and can, and often is, ill-informed and unaware of the evidence.
The nature of responsibility for such a place is that ownership and management is very long term and evolutionary.
We are talking about decades and even centuries, and this responsibility involves attracting external financial support as the building by itself is incapable of covering its real costs on any configuration acceptable to a planning authority or English Heritage.
In our case, this financial support has been provided by revenues from surrounding land which becomes an essential item of business income.
Now, land gives an income return which most businessmen would dismiss as derisory, and in this context, possible increases in capital value are not really relevant unless you asset strip the lot and sell up. This is the opposite of sustainability.
Despite this my wife and I, aided by our family, have spent a huge amount of time on this project. I have had to earn our living to support my family’s and this is indicative of the paradox at the heart of the future of this place.
Nicholas Ridley was not invariably right that the "'Ancien Pauvre’ should make way for the ‘Nouveau Riche’” because whoever may be in charge has to have a parallel career to pay for their own family life. Thus the inherent unsustainability remains.
Perhaps we are foolish to do what we do but nobody else seems especially eager to take this responsibility off our hands and we are content for now.
The National Trust, which is losing interest in such places, and increasingly presents its properties homogeneously in a way slightly reminiscent of a chain of hotels, will want everything I own, and I daresay more as an endowment otherwise it will have to come from the state.
Another owner will face a similar future to me, and our family would no doubt take away with us many of our family heirlooms which are an integral part of the whole historic entity.
The government might respond there are mechanisms for enabling such continuity. The rules are very complicated and they are far from fit-for-purpose because of their financial inefficiencies. This is a direct result of their relationship with the tax system and highlights the most pressing issue: economic pressure.
Part of the right answer, I think, is to ensure those who find themselves tasked with the responsibility of managing such places can use their own resources tax efficiently. This will ensure owners are able to focus on the long term conservation and maintenance of these sites in a tax efficient manner.
There is an income and a capital aspect to this which varies according to the characteristics of the person assuming responsibility.
This reduces the direct and indirect demands on public money which the present arrangements entail. The basic rule is that in a business, income can be used to support that business’ purposes. This is an uncontroversial principle but as currently drafted, the economic reality and the legal rules do not mesh together well in the circumstances with which I am concerned.
Thus far I have been approaching this from an owner’s perspective, but there is another one to consider. In a world where “place” is increasingly recognised as very important to people, a whole range of buildings and landscapes are being redefined and recognised as important elements in communities. The political system needs to recognise and promote this.
In the contemporary world, they are just important to the country as, for example, research and development and manufacturing innovation and should be treated as such priorities and not as cash cows for the state or perceived as economic quarries for the owner.
Finally, from a family point of view, what is the future of this business?
I must emphasise this may not be a conventional looking business but it has to be run like one otherwise it will cease to exist. Speaking personally, that would be sad for us, but equally it would be a much wider loss.
In the last analysis, the issue that really counts from a public policy perspective is: what is the future of this important place?