During lockdown more people than ever have ventured out into the countryside to exercise, to walk, cycle or ride a horse. It is great that so many are experiencing nature and it must give mental health a boost at a time of doom and gloom. There have been a few problems but, on the whole, the process has been positive. The Countryside Code is being ‘refreshed’ in the light of greater public interest.
Whilst this attitude is welcome, it brings little income to the rural economy and there is major concern over the ability of many businesses to survive further weeks, perhaps even months of lockdown. How many pubs will reopen when restrictions are finally lifted? I have heard of one estimate that only one in five will pull through and that opinion was expressed by a publican. Country pubs have been declining at an alarming rate for many years and this will be the death knell for many more. It is a shame that such an important focal point for social gathering should disappear in so many villages at a time when there is more need for social interaction than ever.
One aspect which has received little media attention is the fate of heritage properties, country houses in particular. Tourism is a hugely important part of the economy, rural as well as our great cities, and the inability to raise income has caused severe cash flow problems. Before the pandemic hit, it was estimated that, by 2025, tourism would be worth £257 billion a year to the national economy supporting 3.8 million jobs. In the countryside, rural tourism brings in more money to the rural economy than farming.
Of those who visit the UK on holiday from overseas, 48% come to visit historic houses and castles, the second largest motivation after shopping! Historic Houses is an association for owners of such properties with around 1,500 members, many of which are open to the public. The vast majority are private homes often with great history; some families have lived in them for up to 800 years. This in itself provides great historic value and context. Historic Houses estimates that owners need to spend over £100 million a year on repair and maintenance but the actual sum spent is only around £85 million. The backlog of £1.6 billion is growing inexorably, especially after this last year, when it is estimated that revenue was down by £267 million. Of the 33,700 jobs, perhaps 10% have already been lost.
26 million visits are made to these houses in a normal year, rather more than the 24.5 million to National Trust properties. This generates around £1 billion, of which £720 million is spent in the local rural economy. Owners have found many ways to raise income, not just from day visitors but also numerous events such as weddings, concerts, horse trials, game fairs, shooting and many others. Most of these activities were cancelled last year with some doubt whether they can resume in 2021. However, some houses have been able to allow restricted visits of pre-booked groups except in the stricter lockdowns, Highclere Castle being one of those.
The question often debated is how life will change when the pandemic is finally over. Will we revert to our previous lifestyle or will it be very different as a result of the experience. Many businesses will be unable to reopen, village pubs for example, and there will be far more people unemployed. The national economy will be in a very sorry state giving a gargantuan task to rebuild. If we are not to return to strict austerity, there will have to be tax rises and some very difficult choices on where to spend scarce public money. Health and education will obviously be priorities but how should we judge other competing demands? The £3.2 billion of support for farming and the countryside is put into perspective by the £196 billion spent on the health service even before the pandemic.
Historic houses have been struggling since the agricultural depression of the 1880s reduced farm rents on estates. The Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974 highlighted the fact that some 2,000 houses of heritage significance had been demolished during the century. Since then listing restrictions have been enforced more rigorously but the costs of maintaining a country house have not diminished.
At one time there were substantial grants available from English Heritage but its budget was cut drastically during austerity. The idea was that grants would be available from the Heritage Lottery Fund but initially they were unavailable to private owners. Even though, in theory, that has now changed, most find the requirement to prove public benefit from the investment difficult to meet. That leaves tax relief the only public funding.
If taxes are to be raised, one that is commonly proposed is a wealth tax, perhaps 1% of wealth each year for five years. Many owners of country houses are asset rich but cash poor and may find it very difficult to find the money. Even before the pandemic, one in six of Historic Houses members had sold a significant work of art over the previous five years to fund maintenance.
Of course, it is not just country houses that face financial difficulty, there are many other aspects of our culture at risk. Art galleries, museums, concert halls and their orchestras, libraries, theatres, even cinemas have all taken a big hit in the past year. If we are serious about our mental health, then cultural aspects of our lives deserve public support too.