WE NEED to home in on a better way of funding the maintenance of our historic houses, writes Andrew Hopetoun.
As we come into summer, historic houses, castles and gardens across Scotland will once again welcome large numbers of visitors and tourists from their local communities and from further afield.
These properties, part of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom’s unique historic heritage, provide an important economic, cultural and social contribution. In Scotland, more than 2,000 jobs are directly supported by these houses; 4,000 local suppliers from whom they purchase are to be found in all parts of the country.
Heritage-based tourism is worth £26 billion to the UK economy. Our historic properties are an iconic draw, capturing the public’s imagination and attracting visitors to rural locations, many of which rely on tourism as the main driver of economic activity. However, these properties are not just open to an influx of guests who travel for miles to visit them. Historic houses stand at the heart of their local communities, contributing to their identity, character and history.
But we must ask: how can we best protect these magnificent properties for future generations to enjoy as we do?
The Historic Houses Association (HHA) for Scotland represents 240 of Scotland’s privately and charitably owned historic houses, castles and gardens, and I am delighted to be starting a term as the new chairman. We work hard to help owners conserve these wonderful places and to assist them in attracting 1.5 million visitors each year.
The majority of historic houses are privately owned, meaning they are maintained at little or no cost to the public purse, but with more than 70 per cent of HHA Scotland’s member houses opening their doors to the public, there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to enjoy their splendour.
With so many of these landmark buildings in private ownership, the onus is on the stewardship of individuals and charities to ensure this heritage is cared for. The public benefits provided by historic houses are dependent on the viability of these properties. Yet the conservation of listed buildings is an extremely expensive business, as specialist labour and materials are needed to meet the standards of heritage maintenance.
Costs of conservation and compliance with regulations has risen faster than incomes derived from visitors. The backlog of outstanding repairs to independently owned historic houses is now becoming critical, with a HHA member survey conducted two years ago revealing that the bill for essential repairs to member houses across the UK now exceeds £750 million - up from £390 million in 2009. At the same time, the findings show that the amount now spent annually on repairs has fallen, by £37m per year over the same period, to £102 million.
Meanwhile, owners work within an increasingly unfavourable tax framework. In 2012, VAT was imposed on alterations to listed buildings and the following year, a cap was imposed on Sideways Loss Relief, with a disproportionate impact on unincorporated historic house businesses.
Many historic house businesses are now finding it difficult to fund essential annual maintenance, let alone the costs of major restoration. If private owners have to close parts of the property for safety reasons, the cultural and tourism value of their houses will decline – a vicious circle. Should their businesses fail or be sold and then close, the effects on local employment and incomes will be multiplied, often in fragile rural economies. The closure of Torosay Castle on Mull, for example, quickly led to the closure of the nearby tourist railway and ancillary shops.
So what can be done to help ensure owners and charities are equipped to maintain historic houses and allow them to flourish? Removing excess regulation would be one step, but more can be done. A new body, Historic Environment Scotland, replaces the heritage protection functions of Historic Scotland from October. The HHA Scotland looks forward to working closely with the new organisation, and I hope it will be properly resourced to do the best it can for our built environment.
More can also be done financially. The Heritage Lottery Fund does a remarkable job but a broadening of eligibility would help fulfil its potential to support all forms of heritage and to deliver more benefits to the public. Research has consistently shown how much the public treasures the history and grandeur of Scotland’s historic houses and gardens. The test now is to ensure the love shown by the public for these houses can be replicated in the care we demonstrate by maintaining them.