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Speke Hall

Volume 78: debated on Friday 10 May 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

2.33 pm

Speke Hall outside Liverpool has been described by Professor Pevsner as one of the four best timber-framed mansions in England, and with its farmland and woodland is an asset to Merseyside. It was accepted by the National Trust, on whose executive committee I serve, in May 1943 with an endowment of £10,000, on condition that Liverpool corporation would take a lease for 99 years, under which it would be responsible for all the repairs and maintenance, taking into account the endowment fund. In 1974, the lease was taken over by Merseyside county council, which has done a first-class job in refurbishing the house. More than £1 million has been spent, but another £300,000 is required to complete the work.

Under the Bill to abolish the metropolitan councils, the Government are proposing that the house will revert to Liverpool city council. This is the nub of the problems that I wish to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister. He is well aware that Liverpool is a great city fallen on hard times. Some 100 years ago, Lord Derby thought it a greater honour to be lord mayor of Liverpool than to be Prime Minister—a somewhat different scene from today, when the Government are having to embark on a whole range of special measures to prevent the city from falling into irreversible decay.

The shadow of this decline has been apparent for some years. As far back as 1947, James Lees-Milne, reporting on a visit to Speke Hall, wrote:
"I drove to Speke where we were met by the Town Clerk, the City Engineer and a member of the finance committee all smelling strongly of drink. I was not at all satisfied that this house was being looked after by the right committee and gathered that the inside of the house was exclusively within the control of the City Engineer."
The problems today are somewhat different, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is as concerned as was Mr. Lees-Milne that the house should be placed in the right hands, particularly given the amount of public money that has been put into it.

Despite what was said in Standing Committee on the Local Government Bill, I cannot believe that my hon. Friend will argue this afternoon that Liverpool city council, which has been described by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment as a total and utter disaster, is the right body to act as custodian for this important house. If he is, will he explain why he believes that Liverpool city council will prove a responsible tenant, what undertakings he has sought or received and what assurances he can offer the National Trust? I shall not be surprised if he can give me none of these, but I shall be delighted if he can.

I have been doing my homework on Liverpool city council, as I am sure he has. It is controlled by the local Labour party, on which the Militant Tendency often prevails. The closed shop and the party line predominate. The story surrounding the destruction of the glasshouses in the botanical gardens at Hartshill, as reported to me by a former city councillor, hardly inspires confidence. Apparently, the gardeners were required to go out on a sympathy strike. Several of them refused to do so and were subjected to the sort of treatment suffered by some of the working miners recently. They were told that they would never work again. Shortly afterwards, the glasshouses were condemned as unsafe and pulled down because there was not the money to repair them.

Plants and buildings can be sensitive to short periods of neglect at critical times. Just suppose that Liverpool city council takes over Speke Hall and all council employees are called out on a sympathy strike or for a day of action. If this has happened on a day when there has been a heavy fall of snow followed by a fast thaw, there will be nobody to clear up the snow on the roof. Who will accept responsibility for the ensuing flood?

My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that the Liverpool city council has closed St. George's hall through lack of funds. The more I learn of what goes on up there, the more I understand the disbelief in the voice of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) on the Front Bench of the Standing Committee on the Local Government Bill when he said in effect: "So they are giving Speke to Derek Hatton."

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister was asked what extra funds were to be made available to Liverpool city council if it accepted Speke, but he refused to be drawn. I fear that if Liverpool city council is given Speke without extra cash, it will let it run down or will even close it. It is in the highest degree unlikely that it will maintain progress of recent years or complete the programme of refurbishment.

In that situation, the Government have two options. One is to endow the house and return to the National Trust, but that would require about £4 million. The other is to transfer it to the new trustee body that is to take over the Walker art gallery. Either of these courses of action would safeguard Speke Hall without any of the risks of passing the necessary funds to sustain the house through the uncertain intermediary of Liverpool city council.

Ministers have the power to transfer Speke to this new body, and I find it difficult to understand why they have not already said that this is what they intend to do. Liverpool has no museums department, and I imagine that the skilled staff looking after Speke will be transferred to the trustees to be appointed. I believe that Ministers accept that Speke Hall is a house of national importance and akin to a museum in displaying a significant collection of furniture and tapestries. I say again that I do not and cannot believe that Liverpool city council is the proper custodian for Speke. Nor can I believe that my hon. Friend would suggest that.

Ever since this Government came to power, Liverpool has been regarded as a special case for financial and other help. Surely my hon. Friend will not quibble about the price of transferring Speke to the trustee body. Surely common equity requires that when the Government abolish a satisfactory tenant, they have a moral obligation to replace that tenant with an equally satisfactory one.

Under the Bill, the Government hope to save—if they have done their homework correctly—something over £100 million per annum. They are surely in a position to ensure that they act honourably.

My first inkling that something was wrong was when I asked the Secretary of State whether he would list the historic buildings currently financed or administered by the metropolitan county councils or the GLC. He replied:
"The preparation and publication of lists giving this information is the responsibility of the individual local authorities."
It smelt of Sir Humphrey Appleby.

I had to ask myself why, if Ministers had done their homework, they were not prepared to answer such a straightforward question which had to be part of normal contingency planning. I believe that there is a ministerial colleague in another place who is prepared to argue over Speke, "What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away." That is a somewhat lordly approach, and not one that I or my hon. Friend would wish to put forward to our constituents when credit has already been claimed for the benefits introduced by the original Act to establish the larger counties and which, in the case of Speke, had so clearly delivered. I understand that my hon. Friend is more sympathetic to the case for Speke than I have indicated. However, I also believe that he is seeking a significant contribution from the National Trust as the price of transferring Speke to the new trustee body.

If the National Trust had to find half the cost of the endowment required, that would represent one quarter of its total income from the current membership of 1,200,000. Half the running costs would be sufficient to finance the wardening of 50 miles of coastline. My hon. Friend will be aware that the National Trust already looks after 450 miles of our best coastline, and the Neptune appeal has just been relaunched to provide funds to safeguard another 450 miles.

I fail to see why the National Trust should be asked to pay a penny towards the transfer of Speke to a suitable tenant. Speke Hall now has a satisfactory tenant, and the Government are proposing that it should have an unsatisfactory tenant. Such conduct is wholly at odds with the Government's record. They have a fine record of helping to preserve buildings of outstanding architectural merit. I am sure that Speke is one that they would wish to see preserved; one where the programme of refurbishment should be carried through. I do not believe that they would wish that house to fall into ruin. I am sure that the original decision of the National Trust to accept it is one that they wish to endorse.

In addition, Merseyside needs all the tourists it can attract. Last year 58,000 people visited Speke, and the surrounding woodland and farmland provide a valuable lung in an increasingly industrial environment. The House is a valuable source of education to a great many schoolchildren who visit it regularly. To call now for the National Trust—a charitable body to which the Government are continually looking to support our heritage in so many ways—for funds to sustain Speke, is entirely wrong.

I wish to raise one other point. The National Trust is empowered by Parliament to hold property inalienably. That requires a quality of judgment, in a world changing as fast as ours, that is given to few. If the Government change the ground rules in a way that was not foreseen and which prejudices the National Trust, it is likely to be more cautious about the properties that it accepts in future.

During the Committee stage of the Forestry Bill in the last Parliament, I pointed out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), then Minister for Agriculture, that the trust had accepted some land as of heritage quality because the neighbouring woodland was owned by the Forestry Commission and the integrity of the whole could be guaranteed because the Forestry Commission could be counted upon to act responsibly. If these woods had been sold and replaced by unsightly development, the trust would have felt that the Government had let it down. My right hon. Friend took the point, and there have been no problems.

Today, I hope that my hon. Friend will say that he understands the real fears of the National Trust and that he and his ministerial colleagues will ensure that Speke Hall passes into responsible hands.

2.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

This is not the first time that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Bulmer) and I have "adjourned" on heritage matters. I have to repeat again my admiration for his knowledgeable understanding of these affairs. The last Adjournment debate that we had was concerned with Calke Abbey, some 18 months ago, and I think that eventually some good news emanated from that debate.

I have listened with considerable interest and concern to many of the matters raised with great sympathy by my hon. Friend. If he considers that I am less than forthcoming in this debate, I hope that he will understand that my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for the Arts will study the problems and the case very closely, as will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I in my Department. I know that my right hon. and noble Friend has already studied carefully the problems which Speke Hall might experience after the abolition of the metropolitan county, the current leaseholder.

As far back as February 1984, my right hon. and noble Friend undertook to look at Speke in the context of the future of the museum service on Merseyside. He could give no assurance that Speke could remain a part of that service, since strictly speaking it is a historic house arid not a museum. But he recognised, as we have been made aware today, that the management and development of Speke Hall has been expertly handled by the director of the Merseyside museum service and his staff.

I take this opportunity also to pay tribute to the financial backing and the long-term commitment of the Merseyside county council which has enabled this fine Tudor property to be put in excellent heart for future generations to enjoy and profit from.

When we decided to abolish the metropolitan tier of government, we did so primarily because the majority of the functions carried out by it could equally well be, and in most cases could better be, carried on by district or borough councils. Historic houses fall, for the most part, into this category.

We have made a limited number of exceptions: the three London historic house museums, Kenwood, Rangers and Marble Hill, will pass to the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, being houses of significance whose operation as a group has proved both valuable and economical.

Speke Hall, however, has had a long association with its local authorities. As far back as 1944, when the National Trust first accepted the property, a full repairing lease was negotiated with Liverpool city council. Speke has occupied an important place in the heritage of the Merseyside region. It is a reminder of a vigorous rural past; it gives Merseysiders an historical perspective beyond the 18th and 19th centuries so powerfully represented in the history and architecture of Liverpool itself.

Sadly, I must agree with my hon. Friend that the majority of present Liverpool city councillors appear oblivious to these qualities and to the enhancement they bring to the citizens of Liverpool and the surrounding districts. They seem intent on condemning Merseysiders to a cultural and physical desert, with the excuse that the money is better spent on housing and social services.

I do not deny the critical importance of these as priorities, but we do not live by bread alone. I agree with what the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said when interviewed yesterday on Radio 4. He pointed out that it is even more important for people living in areas of high unemployment, rundown houses and overstretched services to be able to enjoy fine cultural amenities, be they beautiful countryside, good libraries or museums. Speke Hall presents just such amenities.

But we are right to be concerned that they would not be cared for responsibly, given the recent closure by the city council of St. George's Hall and Harthill nurseries. Let us sincerely hope that this disastrous regime does not last beyond May of next year. Liverpool's citizens must by now recognise that they reap no benefits from such a profligate council, with such limited civic pride and vision.

But where does this leave Speke Hall? Neither my right hon. and noble Friend, nor my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wish to see it harmed in any way. I give that assurance to my hon. Friend. It may be correct to transfer it to the residuary body on Merseyside to give time for greater reflection on where best to place responsibility.

Speke Hall and Croxteth, not too far away, undoubtedly belong to the citizens of the region; there are numerous local authorities the length and breadth of England who would competently and gladly run them as a service for their ratepayers.

If Speke Hall were to be transferred to the residuary body, can my hon. Friend explain how it would be staffed during the period of reflection?

I shall deal with that point in a few moments. I do not intend to go into the matter in detail because so much of what we are dealing with at the moment is hypothetical. I am trying to identify some of the alternatives and options which are open to my right hon. and noble Friend and to other Ministers. I am not suggesting a specific way forward. I am merely trying to outline some of the options. There will undoubtedly be wide interest in the subject. In the context, therefore, of the discussions elsewhere it would be helpful to reflect upon the opinions that are expressed. Ratepayers in other parts of England certainly have local authorities that would be glad to run such houses as a service for their ratepayers and, until the present incumbents took over, Liverpool city council would have been, too. Let us reflect for a minute upon their magnificent cultural and municipal record. It is at a low ebb today but I can only hope that it will not be at a low ebb for much longer. The Government will reflect on the point made in today's debate by my hon. Friend. I appreciate the genuine concern and the anxiety expressed by my hon. Friend.

During the period of consultation following publication of the White Paper "Streamlining the Cities", the Minister for the Arts received many representations about the Merseyside museum service. My hon. Friend will recall that initially he proposed central support only for the Walker art gallery, but it became very clear that the majority of the museum and art gallery collections on Merseyside were of such outstanding quality that they merited special treatment. Hence they have been given the unique distinction of being recognised as on a par with the existing national collections whose principal location is in London. The trustee body which will be established by an Order in Council under clause 45 of the Local Government Bill will be responsible for those collections of national importance which Liverpool is so privileged to have in its midst.

My right hon. and noble Friend has not yet been persuaded that Speke Hall has an automatic place as part of those collections. However, the trustees will be given the power to enter into agreements and hold leases, on whatever terms they see fit. So, for example, should the lease of Speke Hall pass to Liverpool city council—I say should the lease pass to Liverpool city council—the trustees could enter into an agreement to care for and maintain the property and its contents. Similarly, if the National Trust itself decided to take back the leasing arrangement, it too could negotiate terms with the trustees. In the event of the residuary body being given the task of deciding the future of Speke, it also will wish to explore such an arrangement with all the interested parties.

This may well be a way forward. I accept that Liverpool city council has no curatorial expertise, and it would make little sense to duplicate this on a small scale when we already have such excellent museum staff on hand. What Liverpool does have is parks and gardens expertise, and it could make a happy marriage to share these separate skills.

Liverpool has established itself with the docks development, with the International Garden Festival and with Croxteth as a major and innovative tourist city, with all the economic benefits that this brings, and will increasingly bring. Let us hope that a more enlightened council will build upon this.

My hon. Friend was good enough to refer to our record on the heritage. We have established, with all-party support, the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission to manage our national monuments more effectively and we have given it many more resources—over £50 million—than have ever previously been devoted to the heritage. It has made an excellent start under the wise chairmanship of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.

Two months ago the Government awarded a special grant of £25 million to the National Heritage Memorial Fund to secure the future of three stately homes so that these could be opened to the public. I refer to Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, Weston Park in Shropshire, which houses an important collection of paintings, tapestries and furniture in grounds landscaped by Capability Brown and, finally, Nostell priory near Wakefield, which also happens to belong to the National Trust and which houses one of the finest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world. All these properties will bring public enjoyment to their local communities. They will also attract many tourists and so create employment in our service industries.

So nobody can say that the Government do not care about the country's heritage. And let nobody say that the Government do not stand by to help the National Trust continue its excellent work.

Next I may have to answer a more subtle charge. It is that the Government have allowed their determination to sweep away an unnecessary tier of local government to cause them to neglect some important local heritage interests. That is less than fair. We have demonstrated that we are prepared to make arrangements to ensure that certaid specific properties and certain specialist services are quite properly safeguarded after the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties.

I have referred to the special arrangements that we have announced for the three properties in London. I have also referred to special arrangements which my right hon. and noble Friend has announced for the future of certain museums and galleries in Liverpool.

None of those arrangements have been much helped by any constructive debate from some of the metropolitan district councils. Too many local councillors have concentrated on making speeches or convening conferences designed to scare their local communities with horror stories of what will happen post-abolition. Sadly, not enough constructive thought has ever been invested by those district councillors into how to plan sensibly for their new responsibilities.

Indeed, in some areas—Liverpool city is one—council officers have been instructed by political supervisors not to co-operate with my Department or even to provide it with information. That is one of the main features that lies behind this debate this afternoon. The debate stems not from any argument or dispute between the National Trust and the Government. There is no such argument.

Discussions continue between Lord Gibson and my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for the Arts. Neither is there any argument between this Government and the citizens of Liverpool. We want them to continue to enjoy the excellent amenities provided by Speke Hall and by the many other excellent cultural facilities in and around Liverpool. There are a number of ways of managing those services and while, as I have explained, the general presumption is to look to the district councils to take them on, the Government are not deaf to alternative arrangements and will consider closely all the suggestions that have been made this afternoon.

Abolition of Merseyside county council will result in many changes. In the arts and heritage field, many responsibilities which were formerly those of Liverpool city will return to it. The exception will be those collections, built up over the previous century by generous local benefactors and successive city fathers whose importance ranks on a par with existing national collections.

With the best will in the world. Croxteth and Speke are historic houses whose chararter put them outside the immediate responsibilities of the trustees. But I repeat that we shall, bearing in mind the points raised in this worthwhile and interesting debate, continue discussions with the National Trust and other interested parties with a view to safeguarding the future of Speke Hall.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock.