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Somerset House

Volume 301: debated on Tuesday 25 November 1997

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To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what progress is being made with plans to open up Somerset House to wider public access. [17925]

A new trust, the Somerset House Trust, has been established, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Sir Timothy Sainsbury. The trust has its objective the care and stewardship of Somerset House, with a view to restoring it fully and turning part of the building into an improved centre for art and culture with increased public access and use.The Government propose shortly to assign Somerset House to the trust on a 128 year lease. Under the terms of the lease, the trust will pay no rent to the Government for 5 years; after 5 years, it will pay 25 per cent. of the income receivable from its tenants; and after 10 years, 50 per cent. The Government will also make available to the trust an initial grant of up to £1 million a year for the first four years of its operation. Once the lease is signed, ownership of Somerset House will be transferred from the Inland Revenue to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.As regards occupancy, the Lord Chancellor's Department plan to vacate the South Wing of Somerset House next year; after necessary renovation and adaptation, part of the South Wing will house the Gilbert Collection of precious gold and silver objects and the trust will seek appropriate heritage uses for the remainder of the Wing. The Courtauld Institute will continue to occupy the North Wing, as tenants of the trust, and the Inland Revenue will continue to occupy the East, West and New Wings.This is an important step towards the long term preservation of one of the London's finest heritage assets and its development for public enjoyment. The Gilbert Collection, generously donated by Mr. Arthur Gilbert, is the largest ever gift to the nation of works of art of this kind. I wish the new trust every success.