Rent row rocks royal societies

January 23, 2004

Five learned societies were this week locked in a High Court dispute with the government over whether they should pay rent on the historic London home they have occupied for over a century.

With the Royal Academy as their neighbour, the societies have occupied a quadrangle at Burlington House in Piccadilly since the 1870s, and no one has ever suggested in the past that they should pay for the privilege. But lawyers representing John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, argue that the societies remain in the premises only on sufferance as "tenants at will".

If they lose, the societies fear that they could be asked to find rent of up to £1.3 million a year.

A spokesperson for The Geological Society told The THES that the societies, already facing an estimated legal bill of £100,000 for this case, could not manage such a hefty sum and would have to leave the building and move out of London.

He said: "We think this is anti-learning. This is all about saving money.

But the societies are important to the state. We are the custodians of vast libraries of information that must be accessible to people from all over the world."

Mr Prescott's counsel, Jonathan Gaunt QC, said there was no intention to withdraw consent for the societies to stay at Burlington House, but court guidance was needed on the extent of their legal rights to do so.

However, Patrick Talbot QC, for the societies, said Mr Prescott was seeking to prove the societies' occupation rights were "determinable at will, making it possible for rent to be demanded from them in due course".

Mr Talbot told Mr Justice Peter Smith that, during the 19th century, successive governments had "encouraged the belief" that the quadrangle was intended as a "permanent home" for the societies.

Over a century and a quarter, the societies had "laid out substantial expenditure", altering and improving the premises, and had "adapted themselves" to Burlington House.

Mr Talbot told the judge "it would be unconscionable for the government to resile from its historic commitment" that the societies would be able to stay at Burlington House permanently and rent free.

The Society of Antiquaries of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, The Geological Society, The Linnean Society of London and the Royal Society of Chemistry are all registered charities, incorporated under royal charter.

Mr Talbot said that they had been granted rent-free accommodation at Burlington House because of the vital contribution they made to the sciences and the growth of Britain into a major power in the 19th century.

To back his case, he referred to the parliamentary speeches of 19th-century political luminaries such as Disraeli and Gladstone.

The dispute had come to court, said Mr Gaunt, because the Land Registry had refused to grant the government's freehold title to the property while the exact nature of the societies' occupation rights remained doubtful.

The quadrangle buildings occupied by the five learned societies were purpose-built for them in 1869-74.

But Mr Gaunt told the judge that, to resolve the dispute, he would have to look back to 1775 when Somerset House, until then a royal palace, was purchased from King George III, rebuilt and turned over to public offices.

The Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries of London were allocated rooms at Somerset House and, in 1828, The Geological Society also moved into offices there. The Royal Astronomical Society joined them in 1834.

Mr Gaunt argued that the societies that occupied rooms there had done so as "licencees, or tenants at will, of the Crown" and enjoyed no security of tenure.

The move to Burlington House was at first thought of as a "temporary arrangement" and the societies' legal rights to occupy offices there were no different than they had been at Somerset House.

Mr Gaunt is asking Mr Justice Peter Smith to formally declare the societies' right to occupy the buildings as "terminable by reasonable notice" - which he says would be 12 months.

The hearing, expected to last three days, continues.

Additional reporting by Strand News Service.

THE SOCIETIES

* Society of Antiquaries of London

* Royal Society of Chemistry

* The Geological Society

* Royal Astronomical Society

* The Linnean Society London

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