Unless the Government eased the tax burden on owners or provided funds for rescue, a vital part of Britain's cultural heritage would be lost, Angus Stirling, the trust's director-general, said. The houses would be separated from their contents and risk being pulled down, altered in character or turned into conference centres.
The trust's warning came as it was disclosed that Pitchford Hall in Shropshire, one of the country's finest half-timbered Elizabethan manor houses, had been sold to an overseas buyer, after coming on to the market for the first time in 500 years.
Other historic houses forced on to the market this year include Heveningham Hall in Suffolk, 'saved' for the nation 22 years ago but now being sold again, Brympton d'Evercy in Somerset and Mitford Hall in Northumberland, the home of the Mitford family since the Norman Conquest. The rising burden of maintenance and the decline in agricultural income from estates are a key factor in these and other sales.
The Colthurst family, the owners of Pitchford Hall, had been hit by losses at Lloyd's and announced its sale five months ago. An pounds 11m rescue package by the trust was turned down by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and last week the contents of the Grade 1 listed building, including 40 family portraits, were auctioned separately for pounds 1.3m.
'What we all feared would happen has happened,' Mr Stirling said. The splitting-up of Pitchford was 'just as much a matter for national shame' as the loss of Mentmore, the palatial Buckinghamshire residence of the Earl of Rosebery, whose sale in 1977 led to the setting up of the heritage fund. Mentmore now belongs to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Natural Law Party.
The initial asking price for Pitchford was pounds 1.25m, but it is understood to have been bought for more than pounds 750,000. However, Mr Stirling denied that the pounds 11m sought by the trust, which included repairs, contents and pounds 6m for a permanent endowment, was a 'very expensive option'.
He added: 'History shows that in another 15 or 20 years it would have looked a bargain from the point of view of the nation.'
The trust wants taxation on owners' maintenance funds for historic houses to be eased. They should be free of income tax as well as capital transfer tax, for instance. It also wants a lower rate of VAT on listed building repairs.
Mr Stirling said such measures would 'ease the financial situation of a very wide range of private owners . . . It would make them think the game was still worthwhile. By far the best value for money and the most appropriate way forward is to try to improve the fiscal climate in which the private owner has to live'.
He added: 'These great historic buildings represent amongst the finest cultural achievements this country has to offer. It is a very short-sighted policy to allow them to get into bad repair, because it will be infinitely more expensive to rescue them later on.'Reuse content