Societies defy Prescott over Burlington rent

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The Independent Online

Five societies granted free accommodation in the West End of London in the 19th century were in the High Court yesterday to fight a Government attempt to make them pay rent.

John Prescott, whose department is responsible for planning matters, is in dispute with The Royal Astronomical Society, The Geological Society, The Royal Society of Chemistry, The Society of Antiquaries of London and The Linnean Society. With the Royal Academy as their neighbour, the societies have occupied a quadrangle at Burlington House in Piccadilly since the 1870s and no one has ever suggested that they should pay for the privilege. But lawyers representing Mr Prescott are now arguing the societies only remain in Burlington House on sufferance as "licensees" or "tenants at will".

Representing the societies, Patrick Talbot, QC, said they had been granted rent-free accommodation at Burlington House because of the vital contribution they made to the sciences and the growth of Britain into a major power during the 19th century.

To back his case, he referred to parliamentary speeches of Disraeli and Gladstone. He told Mr Justice Peter Smith that, during the 19th century, successive Governments had "encouraged the belief" the purpose-built quadrangle buildings were intended as a "permanent home" for the societies.

Over a century and a quarter, the societies had "laid out substantial expenditure" altering and improving the premises, he said. Mr Talbot told the judge "it would be unconscionable for the Government to resile from its historic commitment".

Mr Prescott's counsel, Jonathan Gaunt QC, said there was no intention to withdraw consent for the societies to stay at Burlington House but court guidance was needed on the extent of their legal rights.

The dispute had come to court, said Mr Gaunt, because the Land Registry has refused to register the Government's freehold title to the property whilst the exact nature of the societies' occupation rights remains doubtful.

The hearing, expected to last three days, continues today.