Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence



Copy of a Letter to the National Audit Office sent to the Chairman of the Committee from Historic Houses Association


  You may have seen allegations in the press last week, following the publication of the NAO report on the conduct of the EH grant arrangements, that historic houses were failing to honour access obligations.

  The HHA believes that owners should be punctilious in observing these obligations and that where wilful obstruction to access is proved the recipients of grant aid should be obliged to repay the grant monies. Moreover, this Association understands and supports the Government's strong commitment to the provision of access. We are therefore sensitive to these allegations and I considered it important to write to reassure you that, so far as our members are concerned, the situation is not as broadly represented in the press.

  I enclose a copy of my letter to Keith Hawkswell at the NAO which elaborates on our concern and seeks his assurances in setting the record straight with regard to elements of his report that are open to misinterpretation.

  I write as the President of the Association which represents the interests of Britain's privately-owned historic houses.

  I was greatly concerned by the sensational and misleading headlines in today's papers, following the publication of your report, claiming that the owners of England's substantial historic houses ("stately homes") were failing to meet their obligations following the receipt of grant aid. For this category of historic property, this is of course, far from the truth. Moreover it is damaging to the interests of the owners of these houses, and distorts the thrust of your report which in many ways we found helpful and reassuring.

  As you know, this Government sets considerable store by public access and we are proud of the degree to which our members properties contribute in this respect and mindful of their need to do so.

  The historic house category of your report, while it represents merely a quarter of all English Heritage grant recipients, does in fact provide substantial public access. Of the Association's 70 members that have received grant aid 57 houses were open on published open days and last year accounted for 2.3 million visitors.

  I am sure you will understand therefore that we do need to set the record straight on behalf of our members both in the press and with those who will have been influenced by these damaging articles. Given that these were written as the result of your report, I hope that I may seek your assistance.

  Whilst I appreciate that you cannot name individuals it would be helpful if you were at least to indicate the categories of owners you found unhelpful and whether your findings took into account individual circumstances and the present inadequacies of English Heritage records—for which the owners cannot be blamed.

  I am, meanwhile, as suggested by your Press Office, writing to individual Editors recording specific inaccuracies in their reporting.

  I would be very happy personally or for our Director General, Richard Wilkin, to meet to discuss how best this unfortunate situation may be resolved.

The Earl of Leicester

15 May 2000


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