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February 7, 2012

From William Cash: Save Britain’s Historic Landscape

By Spear's

As part of Spear’s campaign to Save Britain’s Historic Landscape and protect heritage tourism in the UK a critically important economic sector, growing by 2.6 per cent a year I recently met with Planning minister Greg Clark at the House of Commons.

As part of Spear’s campaign to Save Britain’s Historic Landscape and protect heritage tourism in the UK ’ a critically important economic sector, growing by 2.6 per cent a year ’ I recently met with Planning minister Greg Clark at the House of Commons. Mr Clark is responsible for the National planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which is currently being redrafted following consternation among heritage groups that the current draft will pose a threat to preserving both the priceless nature of the English countryside and also the country’s heritage assets, which are a hugely significant reason why so many people visit the UK every year.

The meeting with Mr Clark was off the record, and we hope to follow up with an interview in Spear’s once the redrafted NPPF is released in the earlier part of next year. What I can say is that I outlined to Mr Clark the findings of the two month long investigation that Spear’s has recently conducted into the current threat of proposed wind farms to the settings of some of Britain’s most historic and architecturally significant buildings. They are chilling.

Working with the help of information provided by the Historic Houses Association, we have found that almost 100 heritage sites are currently at risk. With Chris Huhne now promising up to 32,000 wind turbines, the need for some form of heritage protection is even more urgent. No wonder the Duke of Edinburgh has come out blasting wind turbines as useless blots on the landscape, echoing the private views of the Prince of Wales who ’ to his great credit ’ refuses to have any on his Duchy of Cornwall estate.

Buildings under threat include Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire, with four Grade 1 facades by Vanbrugh; Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, where Edward II was murdered; Glamis Castle in Scotland, where the Queen Mother was brought up; Ashby St Ledgers Manor in Northamptonshire, where the Gunpowder Plot was schemed; and Easton Neston, possibly the most perfect Baroque jewel of a country house ever built.

Around the country, the story is the same, with our heritage being increasingly marginalised or considered irrelevant by developers and local planning authorities. In Shropshire, where tourism is critical to the local economy, a wind farm proposal at Upton Cressett will greatly harm the setting of the Grade 1-listed Morville Hall and the Dower House gardens of Katherine Swift (the Sissinghurst of Shropshire).

It will also harm the ancient setting of my own place, Upton Cressett Hall, open to the public and the recent winner of ’Hidden Gem’ in the 2011 Hudson’s Heritage Awards, the Oscars of the heritage tourism business. Yet in the developer’s ’screening’ report to the local council, Natural Power did not even bother to mention my house or Morville Hall, or any heritage aspects; and even more shockingly Shropshire Council allowed this omission to go unchecked in their own report.

The case for reform of the current NPPF planning draft in relation to heritage protection is both urgent and overwhelming. There is a strong case for specially designated protection in the NPPF to safeguard the setting of heritage tourism assets, in particular those that directly contribute to sustainable economic growth by being open to the public.

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There are approximately 400,000 listed buildings on the National Heritage List. The 1,100 properties which are mainstream heritage tourism sites amount to just 0.25 per cent of all listed buildings. Yet these important heritage assets play a critical role in the tourist economy and sustainable economic growth. There is a strong case ’ as proposed by the National Trust ’ for a ’presumption in favour of conservation’ for these heritage assets of national importance that contribute so much to our economy.

THE AFOREMENTIONED HUDSON’S Heritage Awards at the Grosvenor Square Hotel on 1 December were a nerve-wracking affair. A hint that it might be a good idea to show up on time had come when I got a call on Friday afternoon ’ just a week before the awards ’ from the office of Norman Hudson OBE, chairman of the judges, saying they were making the final decisions and could he come for a ’quick visit’ on Monday morning. The weekend was spent dusting the furniture, repainting the front door, ordering in enough flowers for a wedding and polishing the 16th-century oak staircases ’ preparing for an inspection from the godfather of the UK heritage business.

Things went well until my gardener found a tin of some old-fashioned Farrow & Ball oil paint for the front door that takes two days to dry and so it was still wet as Norman parked his BMW on the gravel by the Gatehouse. I was anxious that he would try to push open the front door and would end up covered in gloss paint so I guarded the front door like a suited Cerberus waiting for him.

Just as Norman walked towards me along the topiary gravel path and I gently kicked open the door, disaster struck as a gravel stone got caught under the door. It would not move. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the door to open without a heavy shoulder shove which would have resulted in me being covered in paint. In the split-second I had to think, I walked calmly towards him and said: ’I think we’ll start with a tour of the Gatehouse.’ The entire 48 hours prior to Norman’s visit was straight out of the episode of Fawlty Towers when everything goes horribly wrong before a visit from the hotel inspector.

The awards lunch was a peculiarly eccentric English affair. They were held in the Seventies-style ’Mayfair Room’ in the basement of the hotel ’ not a glamorous venue, at least by any of the standards of the statelys up for awards. In a slightly surreal way, it was often difficult to tell from the motley collection of nominees present ’ all of whom were either winners or highly commended ’ whether they were the actual owners of such magnificent stately piles as Chatsworth, Port Eliot (which won for Best Event) or Burghley (winner of two awards), or some estate manager or secretary or housekeeper.

As the awards were read out, it became increasingly evident that the majority ’ despite being dressed as if going for a relaxed day’s racing at Plumpton ’ were the actual owners. Any Americans looking on would have thought it incredible that the national awards for the most prestigious and stately heritage venues in the entire country could be handed out in a windowless basement suite under the bowels of Grosvenor Square. I only trust that next year’s event will be held in a more splendid location ’ fitting for awards which recognise ’The Nation’s Finest Heritage Venues’.

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