Historic Houses Supplementary Evidence: Promoting Britain Abroad Inquiry

 

Since submitting both our initial and written oral evidence, there have been some significant developments which have affected many Historic Houses member properties that we believe are important to alert this inquiry to ahead of its final report and recommendations to government.

Business update

Many Historic Houses members have had a promising start to the open season: the warm weather over Easter meant good visitor numbers, and they are beginning to feel slowly more optimistic about the summer ahead. However, international visitors are not back yet to anywhere near pre-pandemic levels, and Historic Houses member properties in the South East (particularly in Kent) have reported issues with the queues and checks required in Operation Brock, a lack of continental European visitors as a result of the chaos at Dover, and local visitors and staff being stymied by the long tailbacks and bad traffic around the M2 and M20.

One Kent property wrote: “we have undoubtedly been affected by the problems on the M20 since we opened on 1 April. We are situated just a couple of miles from the M2 motorway near Brenley roundabout where police have been carrying out lorry checks in recent weeks diverting them back to the M20 to join the queues! Our visitor numbers have been noticeably low although, despite the really rather good weather this month, although they are beginning to pick up as the problems ease a little”. Others have raised concerns about the as-yet unspecified implementation of the EES at Dover, which will almost certainly cause further delays and issues.

The situation at Dover is undoubtedly Brexit-related, and whilst at the moment the disruption is only causing localised issues, if there is not resolution, we fully expect inbound continental tourism, including coach tours (which have historically been a core part of many historic house tourism businesses), to be seriously diminished. It is clear that the situation must be rectified and guidance issued as soon as possible in order to reassure inbound tourists and not provide another barrier to post-pandemic recovery for tourism businesses.

Costs and staffing

Inflation and the cost of living crisis has worsened quite significantly since the February evidence session, and many of Historic Houses members have reported having to revise their 2022 prices ahead of opening to reflect increased costs across the board. Fuel has been a particular problem: heating oils such as gas and oil have shot up in price, making the already large bills faced by properties even more unmanageable. This not only affects the comfort of visitors but potentially jeopardises the architectural fabric of the house as interiors need to be kept at steady ‘conservation’ temperatures in order to ensure they do not deteriorate.

Soaring petrol prices have also posed issues, given many Historic Houses member properties are located in rural areas and both staff and visitors rely on cars as their only mode of transport to reach them. Staffing shortages are still widespread, with some properties curtailing their opening days or hours because they cannot find sufficient staff, and many have had to increase salaries in order to retain existing staff, let alone attract new staff. Whilst there are no longer legal Covid restrictions, the virus is still in relatively high circulation and visitor-facing staff who contract Covid will still need to take time off work, posing issues for even the properties which have got sufficient staff.

We have also had reports of insurance costs increasing significantly in the past 6 months, squeezing margins further. The prospect of new or higher taxes is an ongoing concern: historic houses businesses can often be marginal, and profit is largely ploughed into tackling the backlog of repairs and maintenance to the structural fabric of the house in question. The consultation on the prospect of an ‘online sales tax’, for example, is a concern for businesses which have adapted during Covid to bring in much needed revenue. The rising cost of business, combined with an uncertain post-pandemic recovery, is posing a real threat to the viability of some historic house businesses.

Ukraine

Anecdotally, Historic Houses members have suggested that visitors from America and Asia are much more cautious about European holidays as a result of the Ukrainian war: and whilst there is little that can be done about this, we believe it is worth highlighting to the inquiry that it may well slow the return of high-spending visitors from these areas for the duration of the war.

Many member houses have expressed support for Ukraine through donations, special open days, signing up to host refugees or issuing messages and making gestures of solidarity. However, the ongoing issues with Ukrainian refugees struggling to get visas and many of those who generously signed up to host refugees not being taken up on their offer has hit the headlines – and not in a positive way. Britain already has issues with being perceived as ‘welcoming’ and combined with wider visa problems for tourists post-Brexit, it is clear that the image of the Home Office needs to be somewhat rehabilitated on the international stage to show that we are welcoming and generous country.

Planning reform

The sharp rise in heating costs in April, combined with the war in Ukraine, has further highlighted the need to divest from fossil fuels in heating, and the introduction of the Energy Security Bill in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month had welcome mentions of reviewing planning regulations for energy efficiency measures in listed buildings. We hope that relaxations on this front will allow many Historic Houses members to review the ways in which they heat their properties and encourage them to switch to clean energy sources wherever possible. We look forward to seeing DCMS, DLUHC and BEIS work in tandem to implement this as quickly as possible, given the pressing nature of the climate emergency.

The Queen’s Speech also announced that a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would replace the proposed Planning Bill. We note however that the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill does not introduce anything to implement the ambitions of the Planning White Paper to ensure that “the planning consent framework is sufficiently responsive to sympathetic changes, and timely and informed decisions are made”. Instead, the heritage measures in the new bill are more concerned with modifications and enhancements of the regulatory powers of local planning authorities in relation to built heritage – it adds to, rather than reforms, the system of heritage protection.

As our President, Martha, touched on in her oral evidence, historic house businesses need to be supported so that they can erect temporary structures and hold events without the need to submit endless time-consuming, expensive planning applications. For businesses to be agile and creatively adapt to situations they need more freedom than they are currently given: we hope that more can be done to allow listed buildings, especially those that also serve as tourist attractions, to sensitively adapt and change to the demands of the present day.