x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Stately pile of repair bills for English aristocracy

As the cost of maintaining the UK's historic homes has tripled to more than £750m, owners are increasingly reliant on domestic and foreign visitors to pay for their upkeep.

The Sudeley Castle has been owned and managed by Lady Elizabeth Ashcombe and her family since the 1970s. Tim Graham / Getty Images
The Sudeley Castle has been owned and managed by Lady Elizabeth Ashcombe and her family since the 1970s. Tim Graham / Getty Images

The English aristocracy is fighting to maintain its stately homes in the face of rising maintenance costs and a prolonged recession.

Britain's stately homes are facing a time of crisis with repair bills growing faster than revenues. The Historic Houses Association (HHA) reports the backlog of urgent repairs at Britain's stately homes has almost doubled since 2009. The combined repair bill for Britain's historic homes is now £764 million (Dh4.25 billion), having mushroomed from £260m in 2003, according to the HHA Member Survey 2013.

Decreased consumer spending and poor weather during recent summers have also contributed to the growing annual shortfall facing those stately homes now tackling rapidly rising running costs.

"Owners' resources for maintenance have been squeezed by a combination of rising costs and the economic downturn, not to mention a series of unseasonably wet summers," finds the survey.

Nevertheless, Britain's historic homes and castles attract almost nine million visitors a year, according to VisitBritain, the brand name for the British Tourist Authority. Visitors to the United Kingdom's stately homes and castles now spend about £6.5bn annually while holidaying in the UK.

The owners of stately homes are also seeing growing interest from tourists from outside Europe with VisitBritain listing visiting stately home and castles as "the best activity the UK has to offer".

Although all stately homes have had their bottom line hit hard by the UK's struggling economy, it has also had the effect of making Britain a cheap destination for many foreign visitors.

"The weak pound has attracted a greater volume of European visitors as well as other from locations such as the Far East and America," says Nick Moorhouse, the director of operations at Hatfield House, Lord Salisbury's stately home in Hertfordshire.

Lady Elizabeth Ashcombe, who with her family has owned and managed Sudeley Castle, situated in the heart of the Cotswolds, since the 1970s, also reports a growth in the of international tourists visiting her stately home.

"What is particularly interesting for us at the moment is the growth of international tourism from places such as China and Asia," says Lady Ashcombe.

VisitBritain reports a growing number of visitors from outside the UK. In 2011, for example, 46,000 tourists from the UAE spent £58m while visiting Britain's stately homes and castles.

But despite the attractions of a weak pound and growing interest from overseas visitors, the owners of Britain's stately homes and castles are struggling to make their properties pay for themselves and are becoming increasingly anxious to generate new revenue streams.

According to HHA, 60 per cent of the UK's historic houses are open to the public in one form or another, whether by welcoming day visitors or groups by appointment. Historic houses have also diversified to become venues for conferences, social events and concerts. Nearly a quarter of all historic houses now host weddings.

Hatfield House, a magnificent Jacobean structure where Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the throne in 1558, and which is owned by Lord Salisbury and his family, is offering visitors a growing number of attractions in order to increase what Mr Moorhouse refers to as visitors "dwell time" from an average of three to five hours each.

This is being achieved by the conversion of outbuildings into shops and a restaurant, the creation of a children's farm plus other attractions.

"Maintaining Hatfield House costs a seven-figure sum each year. To minimise the effect of that financial black hole, we have initiated a number of revenue generating schemes," says Mr Moorhouse.

These include the increasingly frequent use of the house's extensive grounds for concerts catering to all tastes and ranging from heavy rock to classical music.

Like Hatfield House, Sudeley Castle has been brought into the 21st century by sheer economic necessity with revenue from its shops, restaurants and other events such as folk music going towards the estate's upkeep.

"It costs around £500,000 a year to maintain Sudeley Castle. At the moment we have around 70,000 visitors a year but we really need around 85,000 before we start to break even," says Lady Ashcombe.

Lady Ashcombe has been balancing revenue from the visiting public against the rising cost of maintaining stately homes since 1970, when she and her late husband took over the day-to-day running of Sudeley and first opened it to the public.

According to Lady Ashcombe, much of the attraction of Sudeley, like that of many of Britain's historic homes, is its unique role in British history. Henry VIII stayed at Sudeley with his wife Anne Boleyn, whom he later beheaded in 1536, and it became the home of his last wife, Catherine Parr, who survived the monarch. It was also Charles I's headquarters for the area during the 1642 to 1651 English Civil War.

Longleat, the stately home of the colourful Marquess of Bath, is also hosting a growing number of commercial operations in addition to its internationally renowned safari park. New attractions include Stingray Bay, Longleat's second seawater feature, a large open-topped display housing a selection of stingray species.

But rising maintenance costs are combining with recent changes in UK tax laws to put the future ownership of many of Britain's aristocratic stately homes into question. New levy changes limit the exceptional losses owners of stately homes can offset against other income.

"We are making our case to HM treasury to reverse this recent tax change," says the HHA president Richard Compton. "We are at a critical point, and our plea is from tourism businesses which are huge income earners for the country."

But despite such setbacks, VisitBritain firmly believes the UK's stately homes and the history they represent will continue to draw growing numbers of visitors.

"Britain has some of the most iconic built heritage in the world and is something we offer which is truly world class," says the VisitBritain spokesman Mark Di-Toro. "Most visitors, whatever their age, want to experience our rich history, which will continue to drive international visitors for many years to come."