Yorkshire's stately homes facing backlog of vital repairs costing millions due to fall in visitor revenue

Stately homes have endured a dramatic drop in vital income needed to preserve the region’s heritage due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sarah Freeman reports.

Harewood House

Historic country estates have been left with a backlog of vital repairs running into millions of pounds following a dramatic fall in revenue over the last 12 months.

Historic Houses, which represents 1,500 estates, castles and gardens, estimates that some estates have seen revenues fall by as much as 50 per cent due to having been forced to close their doors to the public during the successive lockdowns.

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Traditionally, this income would have been earmarked for costly renovation and maintenance projects and half of owners have now admitted to postponing work, with an average project cost of £250,000.

Historic Houses’ director of marketing and development, James Probert, said: “Three years ago, the cost of outstanding repairs to these properties was estimated at £1.4bn, a third of which were ranked as urgent and the events of the last year means that there simply hasn’t been the money available to complete

“For some of these properties the business model will have to change. Diversification has become increasingly important to survival over the last 30 to 40 years and the pandemic has certainly accelerated that change.”

Further research by Historic Houses shows that while prior to the pandemic, these estates employed the equivalent of 34,000 full time staff, 10 per cent either have been made or are currently facing redundancy.

Mr Probert added: “There is a misconception that these estates are awash with cash. The truth is that the revenue derived from entrance fees is already spent before it’s come in. However, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom.

“Among our members there is definitely a sense of resilience and cautious optimism. These places have weathered crises from wars to threats of demolition before and they will weather this one.”

At Newby Hall and Gardens, which is owned by the Compton family, revenue generated by visitors to the grounds typically covers the wages of the staff. However, with the house closed, it lost out on additional income used to carry out vital maintenance.

Stuart Gill, the commercial director of the historic property near Ripon, said: “We employ the equivalent of 40 full time staff and all but one gardener was furloughed. The family jumped on the lawn mowers to keep the grounds in shape, but without money coming in we had to look again at the projects we had planned.”

The Grade I listed property received £63,000 to carry out planned repairs to stonework, but is still some months behind schedule.

Mr Gill added: “We will get there and fingers crossed the roadmap out of lockdown goes to plan so we can open up fully. Since Easter we have been busy but because we are still having to limit visitors to the adventure playground and because the house still isn’t opened, we welcomed the same number of people in 11 days as we did across the three days of the Easter weekend in 2019.”

Harewood House, near Leeds, last year estimated its revenue was down by £1.2m. While much of that was made up by two grants from the Cultural Recovery Fund totalling almost £1.1m, with the house itself not due to reopen until next month, the trust which runs the estate was forced to make eight people redundant.

Trust director Jane Marriott said: “That was incredibly difficult, but we had no other option. The last year has definitely influenced what we will do going forward.

“We took the decision to postpone our Craft Biennial until 2022, but towards the end of this year we will be hosting a digital programme of events to whet people’s appetite and much of what we have planned is a direct result of the pandemic.

“All our lives have been changed by coronavirus and with a greater emphasis on health and well-being, we wanted to find ways to use the 120 acres we manage.”

Next month, as part of Harewood’s Up+Open programme, a new three-mile circular walk featuring art works by Anthony Burrill, will give the public the chance to visit the East Terrace and South View for the first time.

Ms Marriott added: “Harewood House has always been a property which has asked the question: ‘What does it mean to be a stately home in the 21st century?’ It feels right that we adapt and acknowledge the events of the last year as we welcome visitors back.”