Country houses for sale

Access and publicity rules for country houses

The owners of properties exempted from inheritance or capital gains tax on grounds of their national interest will shortly be receiving a letter from the Inland Revenue (IR) encouraging them to include their homes in the Heritage Open Days scheme in England, or the equivalent schemes in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This new directive comes in the light of the Special Commissioners decision in what is known as the A&B case, and constitutes an update to the IR’s previous policy, which was set up in accord with the 1998 Finance Act, and which held that public access to heritage objects and houses should be by prior appointment. The Act aimed to enhance public access, and to extend existing access arrangements where this could justly and reasonably be done.

Although the IR actually lost the A&B case, the results have provided it with additional guidance on extending access and publicity, in line with the 1998 Act?hence the letter.

The IR would argue that participation in the four-day Heritage Open Days event, to take place every September under the co-ordination of the Civic Trust and English Heritage, will not involve owners in any greater costs, security risks or inconvenience than are incurred by the existing appointment system.

For some, the nationwide publicity will be too much of a liability, but generally it may be welcomed, provided the change in conditions is not too draconian. It is doubtful, however, that dropping access ‘by appointment’ at other times could be used as a quid pro quo for the Heritage Open Days, which attract 800,000 people a year.

Suzanne Marriott is a partner in the private client group at Charles Russell LLP.