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Tony Baldry calls for a reduction in the regulatory burden on the owners of Historic Houses open to the public

By Jonathan Isaby

Tony Baldry In Westminster Hall yesterday Banbury MP Tony Baldry raised a variety of issues relating to historic houses, noting in particular how they can boost British tourism.

He noted that "out of the historic houses open to the public, those that are privately owned, managed, and funded outnumber the total of those belonging to the National Trust and English Heritage put together", relating his comments in particular to Broughton Castle, owned by Lord and Lady Saye and Sele in his Banbury constituency.

He argued that heritage maintenance funds need to be made more workable, before making the case for reducing the regulatory burden and red tape on historic houses:

"Five areas have been highlighted in which action would be relatively simple to take at little or no cost to the Exchequer, and which would bring worthwhile benefits not only to those promoting historic houses and tourism, but to the wider economy. The first is licensing and the implementation of the 2006 Elton review recommendations, which called for changes to the fee structures for larger events; permission for historic rural venues to host occasional events; and for a de minimis approach when the licence or activity is small in relation to the overall activity taking place.

"The second area is tourism signage and the hope that it would be possible to develop a policy to encourage the use of brown signs not just to manage traffic, but to promote tourism. Even under the current policy, there are inconsistencies in Highways Agency and local authority interpretation, resulting in some historic houses not being allowed tourism signs, or even losing their signs.

"Thirdly, on planning, we need to promote a more flexible approach to the way in which planning applications for temporary structures, such as marquees, are handled. Marquees house special events that can significantly enrich the experience of visitors to historic places without compromising the historic value of the site. Indeed, the Palace of Westminster has had temporary permanent marquees on the Terrace for as long as I can recall, but they are, by definition, temporary and reversible. For some reason, some local authorities treat marquees as though they are permanent developments.

"The fourth area is the application of fire safety rules to listed bed and breakfast accommodation. While recognising that fire safety is, of course, paramount, one needs to ensure that the application of fire safety regulations recognises the peculiarities and realities of historic buildings. Finally, we need to rethink the application of health and safety regulations in circumstances involving natural hazards, because, at present, it is undermining voluntary efforts to open the countryside for public access.

"Historic houses are not just stone and mortar. They should be living places. The soul of a historic house is the family who live there. Those families are the most committed, responsible and, dare I say, cheapest curators of these parts of our national heritage. May I therefore urge the Minister to note that modest changes to heritage maintenance funds can bring long-term benefits at a relatively tiny annual cost to the Exchequer? Moreover, will his Department please do what it can to tackle excessive regulation?"

In replying to the debate, tourism minister John Penrose applauded the work of the Historic Houses Association and praised the "incredibly careful and committed stewards of the properties" who look after them "for themselves and for future generations of not only their own family but the communities in which their houses are located and the wider public in general."

Picture 5 Here's how he responded to the points raised by Mr Baldry:

"My hon. Friend has mentioned two issues concerning the broader deregulation agenda. One is licensing, particularly of live music and entertainment events. He gave some good examples of the great breadth of entertainment that is frequently provided by owners of historic houses up and down the country. The creativity and range of those events is continuously growing, and we can all cite examples of the events being held at historic properties in almost every constituency around the country, which is all to the good. The fact that such events take place is superb, because it provides a sustainable reason for many of these properties to continue to exist. It will make sure that they are living and thriving and that they are not just museums or mausoleums, but have a current purpose, which is excellent.

"The second issue that my hon. Friend has mentioned is heritage signs-brown signs, as they are frequently called-on our motorways and other roads. In both cases-licensing and heritage signs-policy ideas are being discussed in my Department. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend a categorical promise at this stage, because the discussions are ongoing, and there would have to be sign-off all around Whitehall in the usual Cabinet government collective responsibility fashion, as I am sure that he understands as a former Minister himself. However, I promise that both ideas are under active discussion.

"In the case of the licensing regime, a great many people have concerns. Musicians' unions, for example, are calling for deregulation. My hon. Friend will understand that if one chose to go down that route, it would be important to make sure that there were no unintended consequences. There are real risks associated with live entertainment of one kind or another, simply because it can involve a large number of people in a comparatively small space. There are therefore concerns about health and safety, the disturbance caused by people arriving at and leaving a venue, public order and so on. All those issues have to be dealt with, so the devil in deregulating, or reducing the amount of regulation involved in, the licensing of entertaining is very much in the detail.

"I am, however, happy to reassure my hon. Friend that we are in the middle of discussions. I hope to have something to announce in due course, but that will rather depend on collective responsibility. My hon. Friend will understand that other Whitehall Departments are concerned to ensure that the right things are done on, for example, health and safety legislation or public order. The Department for Work and Pensions would be involved on health and safety, while the Home Office would be involved on public order. They have to sign off and approve these things, which have to be carefully and properly considered so that everybody is sure that we are not creating an unintended consequence.

"My hon. Friend also mentioned his concerns about the red tape surrounding fire and health and safety regulations. He is absolutely right that due to dramatic changes in building styles over many centuries, historic buildings often create and deliver a unique set of complexities and difficulties for fire and health and safety inspectors. Because they are, by definition, unusual and rare, they present issues that are not necessarily common or frequently encountered in modern buildings. Therefore, a degree of sensitivity is required on the part of health and safety and fire inspectors. A fire regulation solution that might be normal, natural and fairly straightforward in a modern building might be deeply antithetical to a historic building and fundamentally undermine its essential historic character. An approved and appropriate set of solutions to many problems commonly encountered in historic buildings is increasingly widely available.

"Of course, it is not sufficient to say, "Well, there's one answer that suits historic buildings and one that suits modern buildings." The sad and difficult point is that an answer to the problem of fire doors and so on in a 19th-century building could be completely inappropriate for an 18th or 17th-century building, and a timber-framed building would need a different set of solutions again. It requires an in-depth understanding of heritage issues and of the available solutions, but a widely understood range of solutions is increasingly being developed. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would not hurt for those solutions to be more widely known, simply because it is easy otherwise for an individual inspector to fall out with the owner or heritage guardian of a historic house, which is unhelpful for all concerned.

"Increasingly, there is a trend toward a risk-based approach to fire and health and safety inspections. Five, 10 or 15 years ago, some parts of the country had a rotational system where everybody was inspected every year, two years, three years or whatever, whether the property in question was well or badly run. Nowadays, I am pleased to say that there is a move in many parts of the country-I am told that it is spreading steadily-towards a risk-based approach. For a property that is known to be well-run and can be checked as such, perhaps a longer time can pass, whereas a property that causes grave concerns should perhaps be inspected more frequently and regularly. Such a flexible approach, particularly toward many of our excellently run heritage properties, is entirely sensible and appropriate."


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