Letter: The preservation of Britain's heritage

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The Independent Online
Sir: Angus Stirling and D. C. Eastwood (Letters, 9 and 13 October) have dealt more than adequately with your leading article 'Hooked on stately homes' (8 October). As you say, nostalgia makes a poor guide, but so does ignorance and muddle-headedness. Preserving the heritage for the benefit of the nation and future generations is a different issue from 'subsidising the present owners'.

There are three approaches to conservation. The first is to leave it to market forces, which you propose. This, supplemented from time to time by major rescue packages, has been the policy of successive governments, which have left the private owner to bear the high cost of maintenance from his own pocket while taxing him as though he were running a profitable business. As a result, 450 historic properties have been sold over the past 20 years. Less than a quarter have been bought by new owners dedicated to preserving them. A few have been successfully converted to flats. The balance were converted for commercial use in the affluent Eighties (and are again in trouble in the austere Nineties) or have been back on the market one or more times in search of a buyer who can afford to look after them. During the past 12 years more than pounds 196m of chattels have been sold from private collections, more often than not to pay for maintenance and repairs.

For some houses the National Trust offers the right solution, but invoking the trust is not a magic formula. Like the private owner, the trust needs funds to preserve and run its properties.

The third solution is to allow owners to settle their own assets into 'tax-free' maintenance funds irrevocably dedicated to the maintenance and repair of the heritage property, subject to reasonable public access.

At present, maintenance funds attract the full rate of income tax and capital gains tax. From what is left there is also VAT to pay at 17.5 per cent on maintenance and repairs. Relieving the tax burden would free more resources for conservation.

Allowing private owners to endow their own properties for the benefit of the nation rather than the occupants is surely a reasonable proposal.

Yours sincerely,

SHELBURNE

President

Historic Houses Association

London, SW1

21 October

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