A dispute between learned societies that occupy coveted buildings in London's Piccadilly and the Government department that owns the buildings could end up in court.
The occupants of Burlington House have been holding closet negotiations with the Department of the Environment since 1994, when the DoE said that the societies should pay a full commercial rent by April 1996.
The societies, which include those dealing with astronomy, chemistry, and geology, have occupied the buildings for about 120 years.
A meeting between the societies and Sir Paul Beresford, under secretary in the DoE, on May 14 broke up apparently without progress. The societies say that their lawyer - one of the country's leading property lawyers - has told them unequivocally that they have the right to occupy the buildings for free as was intended by the Government when they moved in. The freehold dictates that the buildings must be used for scientific purposes.
But the crucial document describing this grace and favour status cannot be found despite extensive rummaging through every corner of Burlington House. One theory is that it was lost in the Blitz.
Government lawyers, however, disagree and wish to dispose of the property, as has been policy with many properties since an Efficiency Unit report of 1994. The Government has suggested arbitration, which has been rejected by the societies. One society official said: "there is no point because there is nothing to arbitrate on." Failing that there is the possibility of the matter being resolved in court, according to the Royal Astronomical Society.
The listed buildings surround the Royal Academy, which was given a 999-year lease of its building for Pounds 1 in 1867. They may end up being owned by a trust, a situation with which both sides would be happy. The problem would be whether money should change hands in setting up the trust and whether the Government should add money for soaring maintenance costs.
Outside maintenance is at present paid for by the Government and the occupants say that future bills could be huge, possibly working out at Pounds 40,000 per society per year. The Department of the Environment said: "Negotiations are continuing with the societies. We are seeking to reach a consensus with the societies about the future management of Burlington House. We don't accept their position."