Navigating the Nadir
By Emma Robinson, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Historic Houses
It’s bitterly ironic to be writing this nearly 70 years after the publication of the Gowers Report on ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest’. At the start of a decade of economic crisis for the country house that some historians estimate saw one demolished every five days, Sir Ernest Gowers’ committee recommended that if historic houses were to escape this fate their owners should be supported to remain living in them and funding their upkeep through their own resources, in exchange for opening to the public.
Since those straitened times, historic houses have been able to diversify to become the bedrock of our fifth biggest industry – tourism. The 1,500 independent historic houses and gardens we represent are vibrant hubs for culture, community and commerce in the countryside. They attract tens of millions of visitors every year, generate tens of thousands of jobs and pump billions into the economy. This commercial activity is what enables most independently owned historic houses – which make up the majority of historic houses open to the public across the UK – to fund essential conservation work and education projects through their own resources, rather than drawing on the public purse.
The arrival of Covid-19 this spring has put this infrastructure at serious risk. Cashflow has dried up overnight, staff have been furloughed, and essential maintenance work has been postponed. A survey of our member houses – carried out for Historic England earlier this month – found that a three- to four-month closure would leave 53% unable to continue operating. In the event of a five- to six-month lockdown that rises to a frightening 75%. Business failure would mean closure to the public at a time when the health and wellbeing benefits of access to the historic and natural environments are perhaps more valued by the public than ever before.
Even if sites are able to re-open to the public in the coming months, the majority of the 2020 tourism season will be over. This means most are facing an uncertain and potentially destabilising six to twelve-month period with little income, until the 2021 tourism season begins. Even then, many are concerned the knock-on impacts of this crisis will reach well beyond next year. Relying as they do on income from tourism, festivals, events and holiday lets for survival, independently owned historic houses are finding that without these income streams their business models may no longer be sustainable. Ultimately, this means the Grade I and II* heritage in our members’ care is at greater risk than it has been since the mid-20th century.
Our immediate focus must be working together as a sector to ensure heritage sites are able to re-open safely when the time is right. At Historic Houses we are thinking hard about the steps that will need to be taken in order to reassure visitors that full safety precautions are in place. Ideas might include, for example, caps on visitor numbers, timed ticketing, strict hygiene protocols and creative solutions for catering outlets. We are working closely with colleagues across the sector on this, so that there is some consistency of approach for when reopening becomes possible. At a time when communities are perhaps realising the value of local places more than ever, there is also work for us to do to translate this into public policy outcomes.
There have of course been some silver linings during this crisis. Houses are busy diversifying their digital content to stay in touch with visitors and local people stuck at home (video diaries and blog and YouTube content from our member places are proving very popular), and there are many examples of places with farm shops delivering groceries to vulnerable people; the farm shop at Walsingham Abbey has even set up a pop-up food shop for NHS staff at the local hospital.
While creating new digital content and offering new community support initiatives is important, ultimately independently owned historic houses need a regular income in order to survive. Restarting the economy will be a difficult process, and social distancing measures may limit the recovery of tourism businesses for some time to come. It may well be necessary to adapt sites before they can reopen fully, for example with temporary marquees or other temporary additions to the visitor infrastructure. We very much hope that the usual level of planning requirements will not be mandated for things like this.
The Job Retention Scheme, grants for leisure businesses and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme have been much-appreciated lifelines for many of our member houses; but forms of government support – “whatever it takes”, as the Chancellor has said – will need to stretch and flex beyond lockdown to help tourism businesses make it through the recovery period. At Historic Houses we continue to work closely with DCMS and sector colleagues to detail the ongoing support that will be needed. With the right backing in place, we hope the irreplaceable historic houses and gardens we represent will be able to weather this storm.