27 November 2015

How Amber Rudd can make a Northern Powerhouse


What are we to do with Wentworth Woodhouse, the biggest house in Britain? This eighteenth century colossus is in a valley outside Rotherham in South Yorkshire and the only private buyer – a Hong Kong investment fund – has pulled out claiming half the house is “falling into a hole”.

The Government, in the form of energy secretary Amber Rudd, has an opportunity to do something useful here. Let me explain.

Wentworth Woodhouse is a monument to two great influences in British history: the Whig party and coal. Built in the 18th century, ts façade is 200 yards long and it reputedly has more than 300 rooms, one for every day of the year. But is also quite literally a bottomless pit, undermined by serious subsidence induced by coal mining and in need of some £42m of repairs.

Coal and the Whig party went together, though not always happily. The 2nd Marquis of Rockingham – twice a Whig Prime Minister – was the house’s most important owner. He was a lifelong advocate of the constitutional principles of the Glorious Revolution, a supporter of American independence and, like all Whig grandees, somewhat sybaritic. He was a famous race horse owner, commissioning Stubbs’ rearing portrait of Whistlejacket (now in the National Gallery).

Rockingham’s hobbies were actually paid for by investment in coal. Wentworth sits atop the excellent Barnsley Seam and it made his Fitzwilliam family very rich. Coal is unfashionable these days, but during the Industrial Revolution it gave Britain an essential competitive advantage: cheap energy.

However, this was also the house’s undoing. In 1947 Manny Shinwell, the Labour minister for fuel and power, fired up by the atrocious working conditions many miners endured, used war powers to order an open cast mine be dug around the house, destroying the Humphrey Repton park, its formal gardens, its lakes and trees. At the time, this was seen as an act of class spite and the family moved out a few years later. The sorry tale is documented in a book calledBlack Diamonds by Catherine Bailey.

The current owners, the Newbold family, clearly lack Whig-style wealth. They are pursuing a case against the Coal Authority which will be heard by the Land Tribunal next year. If successful, the Government would have to foot a £100m repair bill.

With no private buyer, we should now hope that a Trust backed by SAVE, the conservation charity, the National Trust, the Duke of Devonshire, some descendants of the family, Sir Simon Jenkins and the architectural historian Marcus Binney are allowed to buy it. Their plan is to open it to the public and let out parts of it as apartments and to small businesses. Allowing it to tumble into one of Shinwell’s pits would not only be a tragedy, but a national embarrassment.

Time is of the essence. The £7m pledges of funding which SAVE has received from the Heritage Lottery fund and others are about to expire.

So here is an idea. The Coal Authority is an offshoot of the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Amber Rudd, the secretary of state, should admit that Shinwell was indeed responsible for an act of vandalism and compel the Authority to settle the case. In return she could demand that the house is refurbished as a celebration of the contributions that both Whiggery and coal mining made to our history. That would right an historic wrong, secure the future of this important building by providing some seed capital, potentially save public money and command widespread support. It would quite literally be a Northern Powerhouse. Over to you, Miss Rudd.

How Amber Rudd can make a Northern Powerhouse