Estate owners break access deal

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The Independent Online

Up to a third of owners of historic houses who receive grants on condition that they open their properties to the public are failing to allow access, the Government's spending watchdog reports today.

Of 460 grant recipients who were contacted by English Heritage so their names could be put on a website, 100 failed to reply. Of the remaining 360 whose properties were listed on the site as being open, 40 did not respond to inquiries from researchers working for the National Audit Office. A further 12 refused outright to allow visitors, in breach of agreements they struck when they received their grants.

When owners of listed buildings receive funding from English Heritage to carry out repairs, they must agree to allow public access for the following 10 years. In 1998-99, 177 properties were awarded grants totalling £7.52m. The NAO said it was concerned both about the failure of owners to comply and about the efficiency of English Heritage's public information system about the properties.

Half the owners said they needed at least a week's notice of visits by members of the public, and half charged a fee for entry. In one case, the NAO's researchers were told they would have to pay £50 to visit, and in another that the house was open only to groups for a minimum of £100.

Although many of the researchers who visited houses found the owners informative and friendly, others received a frosty reception. One owner "had nothing to say. He just opened up and stood and waited for us to leave so he could lock up", according to one visitor.

David Davis, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said English Heritage should do more to ensure that obligations were honoured. "English Heritage should not tolerate any such disregard for the rights of the public and it needs to do much more to monitor compliance with access conditions," he said.