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Burlington House

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 7 March 1996

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3.23 p.m.

Why they have decided to sell off the premises of the five learned societies which have been located around the forecourt of Burlington House for over a century and which now face eviction.

My Lords, since about 1877 the learned societies have occupied part of Burlington House free of rent and external repair costs as it was understood to be part of the government estate. The ownership of the building is now in question. Until that matter has been resolved, no permanent arrangements for the future can be made.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. However, are the Government aware that those learned societies, which are used by scholars from all over the world, are unable to pay the £10 million now being asked by the Government for premises which they have occupied for more than 100 years? It would be a tragedy for scholarship if they had to leave and a tragedy for the ambiance of Burlington House itself.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, may be a little carried away with some of the figures. The Government have not asked for £10 million. They had an individual assessment made for Burlington House as though it were freehold and not tenanted. The rough assessment amounted to £10 million. The point is—and it is important—that the issue arose because there was an efficiency scrutiny undertaken as a result of which it was decided that government departments, rather than the property holdings, should be in charge of the property in which they are housed. It was found that no government department was involved in Burlington House. We want to ensure that there is a long-standing, suitable arrangement for that excellent and beautiful building which houses the learned societies to which the noble Lord refers.

My Lords, does the noble Earl remember that after the war there was a plan to build a science centre on the South Bank? It was never implemented. The plans are still available. The societies are not ordinary tenants. They need library space, meeting rooms and so forth. The Government have a responsibility to the intellectual community to see that they are properly housed.

My Lords, I do not disagree in the slightest with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. It is not our intention that that should not be so housed. At the moment, we are concerned that property which we thought belonged to, and was the responsibility of, the Government is now disputed. Until the dispute as to who owns the property can be resolved we cannot decide what to do with it. We want to see that the learned societies remain properly housed.

My Lords, can the noble Earl confirm that one of the societies is the Linnean Society, which is housed in the forecourt of the Royal Academy? I know that that society does not have any extra money. Will the Government consider returning that botanical collection to the country of its origin, where I am sure it will be housed for nothing?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to say that the Linnean Society is one of the learned societies in question. I am not sure of the import of the latter part of the noble Baroness's question, nor of the meaning, but I shall study it. I was merely trying to point out that the ownership of a house which was always considered to be part of the government estate is now disputed. Once the ownership is resolved we can find the best way forward for the future of that building and those who occupy it.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House with whom the Government have had the dispute as to the ownership of the property?

My Lords, the noble Earl does not recall, I am sure, that when the learned societies were moved to Burlington House in 1873 Lord Palmerston said that they were being provided with accommodation mainly for the advantage of the country. Is it still the view of the Government that the work of the societies is for the advantage of the country? If so, cannot the Government give a more positive response to the questions being asked and say that, whatever may happen to Burlington House in financial terms, they will ensure that the societies are properly housed?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the first part of her question. I do not recall what Lord Palmerston said in 1873. However, I am prepared to accept that he said what the noble Baroness suggests. There are three alternatives, possibly more. If the building belongs to the learned societies they may take responsibility for it or it may be possible to set up a trust fund for them to look after it. Alternatively, it may be possible for the Government to look after it. If that is so, we shall need legislation to ensure that taxpayers' money is properly used for that purpose.

My Lords, apart from the fact that Lord Palmerston died in 1865, is the noble Earl aware that his answers this afternoon have lacked the crystal clarity we normally expect of him? Will he give an assurance that it is the firm intention of the Government that the learned societies shall remain in the forecourt of Burlington House at rents they can afford?

My Lords, I am grateful for at least one part of the noble Lord's question; that is, that he corrected me. My noble friend the Leader of the House corrected me but at the same time as about 100 other people were talking on the Front Bench. I was therefore unable to hear that Lord Palmerston died in 1865 as opposed to 1873. However, I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, will take the rebuke from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said that my answers were not of the crystal clarity he normally expects. I am deeply grateful for that. The fact is that the position lacks the normal crystal clarity which one would expect. We thought—everyone thought—that the building belonged to the Government. That is now disputed. Until that dispute is resolved one cannot decide what should be done. In his final question, the noble Lord asked whether we would ensure that the learned bodies hold those offices—I think he said free of charge, but perhaps he did not. Our desire is that they should remain. But we have to work out the realities, and I cannot give the noble Lord a carte blanche. What we have to do is to try to find out the best way of preserving the building and the best way of ensuring that the learned bodies can stay there.

My Lords, it is a matter of regret that the Government seem to have lost a building which they thought they owned. Given the fact that the Government thought they owned the building and the forecourt, is it not extraordinary that the forecourt itself has been allowed to fall into a state of total disrepair? The Government, whom one must assume accepted responsibility, will have to meet a bill, or the learned societies will have to meet a bill—depending on who actually owns the forecourt—of some £2 million. What are the Government going to do?

My Lords, the first thing we have to do is find out who owns it. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, really cannot laugh in a disparaging way. One does not spend £2 million on something one does not own. So that is the first thing. Having done that, one then has to try to devise the best method of ensuring that the building is looked after. What noble Lords opposite are trying to say is that the Government should give a guarantee that they will foot all the bills. I am saying that I will not give them that guarantee. But we will give a guarantee that we shall do our best to ensure that the learned societies remain there and that the buildings are properly looked after. We cannot do more than that.