The Society of Antiquaries has gone public about its eight-year struggle with the UK Government over escalating rent rates, in a bid to remain at its home in New Burlington House in London’s West End.
The educational charity has been at the purpose-built property for more than 140 years, but its future at the building is increasingly uncertain as a result of soaring rents, which have risen by 3,100% since 2012.
The society's wing of the government-owned building houses thousands of artefacts, books and works of art, including three of the earliest copies of the Magna Carta and The Lindsey Psalter, a 13th-century Book of Psalms that is a national monument of English medieval art.
The charity has warned it may be forced into the “unthinkable but looming scenario” of selling items from its collection to fund a move to an alternative premises if it cannot find a more affordable arrangement.
The society launched a public campaign this week in an effort to “bring the government to the table in a constructive way” to secure its future at the building, which also houses four other learned societies and the Royal Academy of Arts.
The rent increase is an unforeseen consequence of a 2005 tenancy change that saw the learned societies of Burlington House move to a leasehold agreement whereby rent would rise slowly to a market rate over 80 years on a non-profit basis.
However, from about 2014, a change in government accounting policy meant the building began to be treated as an investment property. At the same time, the market value of property in the West End – by which rates are calculated – soared, pushing the society’s rent from £4,800 a year in 2012-13 to £150,000 a year in 2018-19.
“The market rate has gone off the graph to what anyone thought it was in 2005 – at the time it was perfectly modest but clearly it’s unsustainable for us to pay rent at the current rate,” said the society’s president, Paul Drury.
Drury said that instead of paying annual rent, the society was offering to pay a premium for a long-term lease on the property, but that government had not engaged in “meaningful discussion” on the issue so far.
“The government knows that within two to five years we’ll all be priced out and the building can go on the open market,” he said. “We couldn’t keep this confidential any longer. We’re like a boiled frog – our reserves are being run down.”
Drury said the prospect of having to sell items from the society’s collection filled him with “absolute horror”.
In a statement, the society said: “Without resolution, relocation represents a major threat to the continued existence of the society in its current form. Leaving Burlington House would require the prohibitively costly process of replicating the infrastructure to house its unique collections elsewhere, while moving fragile historical items en masse is a huge and extremely costly undertaking in itself.
“As a self-supporting charity, the society is under enormous pressure to raise funds for alternative premises to house its precious collections where they would remain safe and ensure they are accessible to academics, students, and the public.
“An almost unthinkable yet looming scenario is that the society may have to sell items from its collection to fund new premises in order to appropriately house the rest of its artefacts.”
The charity says the government would lose 44 times what it gains through the current arrangement if the society were forced to relocate. This is based on a recent accounting survey that found it generates £5.4m in public value every year.
Drury said: “Finding a resolution to secure our home at Burlington House would allow us to keep our precious collections intact and further enhance our value to the UK public and research community.”
Supporters of the campaign are invited to write to their MP, and post on social media using the hashtag #SocAntiquaries.
A statement from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The Society of Antiquaries currently pays around 30% of market rent for its premises in New Burlington House, and won’t start paying full market rent until 2085. The current lease was agreed in 2005 by the then government and the learned societies following an unsuccessful High Court challenge by the societies for ownership of the building.
“Despite this we’re sympathetic to the societies’ position and are exploring whether there is a solution that can deliver value for taxpayers and help the societies to remain at New Burlington House.”