There's been a lot of publicity in recent days about Apethorpe Hall (a notable Elizabethan house whose name strongly suggests the resident butler should be a monkey), and English Heritage's forays into property development. Essentially, the Government bought the house with a compulsory purchase order for £3.18 million, English Heritage spent £4 million restoring it and it is now on sale for £4.5 million. Yes, that's right - a loss to the taxpayer of over £2.6 million. Sarah Beeny would not be impressed.
Before I go on, I ought to say that I'm not just shooting from a heartless capitalist hip here - my BA is in Archaeology, and I care very strongly about the nation's heritage. That is what makes me particularly angry about this case.
Not only have the Government and English Heritage spent millions that could have been used elsewhere or simply given back to taxpayers, they had no need to do so in the first place.
As the Telegraph reported on Saturday, that compulsory purchase order snatched the property out of the hands of a consortium that had just bought Apethorpe with the full intention of restoring it, who had bought it three days earlier. Why, having originally planned to forcibly buy the property from an owner who had let the house fall into rack and ruin did the government steam ahead regardless of the fact that a new owner, enthusiastic about restoration, was on the scene?
Surely the preference should be for such restoration to be carried out by private owners rather than by English Heritage at the taxpayers' expense? The planning laws and listed building regulations are so strong that there would have been constant oversight of work done by the private group to such an important building to ensure they adhered to the rules. So why did the State feel the need to butt in and take over?
Even worse, it now turns out that when they learned that a compulsory purchase order was on the cards, the consortium offered to seel the house to the Government for a mere £1.6 million, just over half what the taxpayer ended up coughing up after HMG insisted on compulsory purchase. That is a bizarre decision, that unfortunately smacks of the bloody-mindedness recognisable to anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on the receiving end of a public construction programme. Whoever turned down that offer, and thus cost you and me over £1.5 million, should be ashamed of themselves.
And where has all this hoohah left us? The taxpayer is out of pocket. Other archaeological and historic projects, to which £2.5 million could make the world of difference, are unfunded, and the house itself will only be open to the public for 28 days a year.
An English Heritage spokesman has defended the fiasco by saying:
It was crucial that we acted, it was at risk of being lost for ever and we rescued the property because it is of exceptional importance.
But the sad thing is that Apethorpe Hall was already being saved by people who were keen to restore it to its former glory and had their plans dashed by the dead weight of public intervention. This "rescue" was equivalent to fighting someone who is already providing first aid for the right to be the saviour of a stricken person - pushing off a paramedic because you want to be in the papers as the hero instead.
The unsettling impression this sorry tale leaves is that the State seems to think that when something is saved for the nation, it must be saved by the State. Indeed, all too often the state seems to think it is the very embodiment of the British nation. It is time our civil servants, quangocrats and particularly our politicians realised that this is not the case; Britain is far more than its public sector, nor do they have a prime claim to our cultural heritage.