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Mentmore Towers

Volume 929: debated on Monday 4 April 1977

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the Government's position with regard to the acquisition of Mentmore Towers, as Lord Rosebery's offer of the house and its contents to the nation expires on 5th April.

I have made it clear that the Government are prepared to spend up to £1 million on Mentmore Towers and its collection.

I agreed to consider Lord Rosebery's renewed offer if a contribution towards the cost of acquisition and running costs of at least £2 million were made available from private sources. Considerable interest has been shown, but all the schemes so far proposed would have involved public expenditure in excess of £2 million.

Is the Secretary of State aware that substantial funds have been promised since last week from private sources? Is he also aware that Lord Rosebery is prepared to receive a major part of the sum due to him over a number of years and also that Lord Rosebery's solicitors have just informed me that Lord Rosebery is willing to extend tomorrow's deadline until later this week?

In the light of these facts, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to see Lord Goodman and myself later this afternoon with a view to considering afresh the acquisition for the nation of this outstanding house and its contents?

I am aware, as is the hon. Gentleman, who has maintained a strong interest in this matter, that some funds have been tentatively put forward from private sources. I am pleased about that, but there is still a considerable way to go. In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said about the message from Lord Rosebery's solicitors to the effect that Lord Rosebery is prepared to extend the deadline, I am willing to have talks with the hon. Gentleman and with others to see what can be done.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that no public money will be spent on this building, as distinct from its contents? Is he aware that it is a nineteenth century copy of the sixteenth century hall which is in the middle of my constituency? Is he also aware that the city of Nottingham, which owns the original building—not the copy—urgently needs some money to spend on that building? If there is any public money to be spent on a building of architectural merit it should be spent on the original and not on the copy.

I note what my hon. Friend says. It is true that the building has not met with universal approbation. Nevertheless, it has recently been upgraded to a Grade 1 building and will therefore be subject to the protection that goes with that listing.

Whilst accepting that Mentmore, as indeed this building in which we meet, is not always regarded as the finest piece of architecture ever produced, none the less it is of historic interest, as are the contents. [Interruption.] Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the reference to my Tory ancestors who sat in this House is very flattering, and I accept it with thanks to the Tory Party? I thought that they had not forgiven me for deserting their ranks.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we are, in fact, talking about a national collection, and, whatever the Philistines below the Gangway may think, it is worth between £8 million and £9 million? Is there not a real possibility of a £3 million bonus to the nation?

Since the Treasury last turned down the suggestion, a further £1 million has come into the kitty, with the possibility of still further funds, and a longer date for agreement on this matter. The Treasury must be more open-minded and more flexible.

I hope that I heard all that the right hon. Gentleman said. I do not entirely accept the arithmetic of the valuations that he has put to me. Nevertheless, I agree that there is here a valuable and, in many ways, a unique collection, and it would be desirable, if we could, to find satisfactory terms on which it could be brought into the public domain.

May I thank the Secretary of State for the Environment for his encouraging words and ask him to make a determined effort, even at this eleventh hour, to save this historic house? Does he not agree that if the house and its contents are dispersed, not only will these be a grave loss to the national heritage but the Government will be losing the bargain of the century on behalf of the nation?

We must be careful about the language we use, because, inevitably, widely varying judgments are always imported into considerations of any collection or building. Of course we are anxious as a country—and on both sides of the House—to protect the national heritage. But the truth is that we have an enormous national heritage to protect, and it is the job of successive Secretaries of State to come to a view of what really are the most important items to preserve. Against a background of severe public expenditure restraint, I believe that we have done the right thing in showing considerable willingness—we are prepared to find £1 million—but private sources must come forward with the additional resources required.

Is it past the wit of anyone in the Government responsible for these matters to comprehend that the Government are passing up the opportunity of acquiring for the nation's collection and for the benefit of our tourist trade a unique property? [HON. MEMBERS: "A copy."] This is a serious matter if some of the lower ground twits would understand it. The Government are passing up a unique opportunity at a price about one-third of the £9 million that this collection alone, without the house, will get at auction, to the delight of Sothebys, ad a Grade 1 empty building will lie like a white elephant around the Government's neck. Cannot they understand this matter?

I acknowledge, and the House will recognise, the great enthusiasm of my hon. Friend for this particular building and its contents. Of course it has a potential in the context of the tourist trade. But I have no reason to change the general evaluation that I have made—that it must be judged against other priorities and other claims within the sphere of the national heritage, and I must look very carefully at any proposals put before me.

Will the Secretary of State accept that it really is all or nothing, because if the house goes the collection must go to auction, and most of it will go abroad? In view of the enormous progress that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) in his negotiations, I hope that the Secretary of State will have another think about this matter before it is too late.

As I have already said, thanks to the information that has been imparted in the House, it appears that I shall have an opportunity for a further exchange with those acting on behalf of Lord Rosebery and, of course, I shall look at the matter seriously. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the export of particular works of art of outstanding national importance is an entirely different issue. The ordinary rules would apply to such items in any event.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the opportunity to take this splendid house and its contents into public ownership will be lost for ever if it is not taken now?

Would it not be a great pity if we allowed the present temporary situation—I am as concerned as other hon. Members about public expenditure cuts and so on—to condemn us to losing this national asset permanently?

I am not sure whether one should view this matter entirely in terms of the present situation. As I said, the wider and more difficult question is to assess the place of Mentmore in the whole context of the enormous and costly national heritage that we have and intend to preserve.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the real point of Mentmore lies in the combination of the house and the collection and that to separate the two would be to destroy a unique part of our national heritage? May I assure him that we are grateful to him for his response to us?