Eduard de Loë en Joop de Jong Eduard de Loë en Joop de Jong Sacha Ruland

“We don’t want to be the ones to turn out the lights”

In Culture
Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Wednesday, 30 October 2013 10:45
What is it like to live in a castle in the year 2013? Like a fairy tale – or just really expensive? Eduard de Loë and his three brothers grew up in the Mheer castle in South Limburg. Today he lives in the German district of Kleve, on an estate he inherited when he was three years old. De Loë is one of the owners who participated in a recent UM study on the conservation of historical estates in Limburg.
 
The Dutch government proclaimed 2012 the Year of the Historic Country House. The aim: to raise awareness of historical estates in the Netherlands, and to call attention to the conservation of this important cultural heritage. With more and more owners struggling stay afloat financially, this was considered all too necessary.

The Province of Limburg and the Limburg House of the Arts therefore commissioned a study into the major issues faced by the owners of these sites. The research was led by Joop de Jong, programme director of the MA Arts and Heritage and board member of the Limburg Castles Foundation. “There are over 50 estates in Limburg, most of which are in private hands and occupied by the owner”, he explains. “Then there are those now used for catering and tourism, such as the estates managed by the hotelier Camille Oostwegel. And a number are owned by organisations like the Limburg Landscape Foundation and used as museums or offices. What seems clear is that the present grant schemes and licencing regulations are far too complicated. And the decentralised approach, which leaves the individual municipalities to implement policy, is not working well.”

Costly property
 

De Loë couldn’t agree more. The Mheer castle has been in the hands of his aristocratic family since as early as the 14th century. When his father moved there from Germany in the late 1950s, the castle was in an abominable state. “He spent 50 years restoring it, partly with grants but largely with his own money. If we’d had to finance it fully from our day-to-day income, the castle would have been a ruin right now. As for the future, we have major concerns about how we’ll continue to finance the property. I have three brothers; all of us have jobs and do this as well. We spend far too much of our already limited time dealing with regulations of the different authorities.”

  “Our research shows that almost all owners put in a great deal of free labour and their own money into conserving their properties”, says De Jong. “The main problem is that this costs much more than it’s worth. The annual maintenance costs for the buildings as well as the gardens are average around €100,000 per year. At most25% of this is covered by grants. The owner is the largest backer, and has to cough up the remaining 75% himself.”
 

Napoleon

At the Mheer castle, some of the outbuildings are rented out, the grounds are leased and part of the main house can be hired for receptions or dinners. But all this is just a drop in the ocean, and doesn’t come close to covering the real costs. As De Jong explains, “In the Netherlands and Flanders, many estates were split up under the Napoleonic law of inheritance, because they had to be shared among all children. In Germany – with the exception of the Rhineland – the Napoleonic law was less strictly applied. Because estates were passed on only to the eldest son, they didn’t have to be chopped up into pieces.” De Loë: “This was part of Napoleon’s attempt to reduce the influence of the landed gentry. The consequence is that today, it’s easier for estates in Germany to be self-sustaining than those in the Netherlands.”
 

Family tradition
 

If the property is such a burden, why hold on to it? “It’s the family tradition, and it’s quite an emotional thing”, says De Loë. “The house has been in our family for centuries and my brothers and I don’t want to be the ones to turn out the lights. Even as a child, I was aware that a castle is also hard work. I had a wonderful childhood here, playing everywhere and building huts with my friends from the village. But we were also always aware that it doesn’t come free. My mother landscaped all the gardens herself; we had no landscape architect. My father was also always busy with the fruit farm and forestry, and later running a riding school and breeding horses. Always busy and always worrying about the next leak. But every time I come here, I also see how beautiful and unique it is.”
 

Benefits and burdens
 

Clearly, one doesn’t get into castles for the money – passion for cultural heritage is just as important. In addition to their cultural and societal value, however, historical estates do have economic value as well. “The presence of these historical estates doesn’t only cost the government money; it also generates money”, says De Jong. “I’m not just talking about income from recreation and tourism. Research in the Netherlands shows that the property value of homes and other real estate in the vicinity of a historical estate is 15% higher than the average. And that in turn has consequences for the government’s revenue from property taxes. Our research shows that you need about €5 million per year to conserve the 50 or so historical estates in Limburg. Since this is an investment that the government also benefits from, why not use part of the revenue to compensate for some of the conservation costs? But that’s not what happens. Instead, owners are punished with higher property taxes and all sorts of fees. It seems to me at the very least an unfair distribution of the benefits and burdens. Many people profit from the presence of a historical estate – local residents, tourists and the authorities – but few contribute to its maintenance and conservation.”

“If you want to do a particular restoration you have to apply for a permit. That costs money, of course, and you also have to pay for all sorts of expensive study reports. There are grants that cover some of these costs, but all they do in effect is help you keep pumping money around”, explains De Loë. “And this whole circus of pumping money around just results in wasted money”, adds De Jong. “You’re better off lowering the property value, the fees and the VAT rate for maintenance, and ensuring that as much as possible of the available money goes directly towards the conservation costs.”
 

Continuity of policy
 

So what does the Province plan to do with the recommendations made by De Jong and his team? “Our report was well received by the Province, and Noël Lebens from the Provincial Executive is keen to find out which of the recommendations can be adopted. He wants to figure out how we can put a stop to the adverse effects of the decentralisation of policy implementation. The Province also wants to engage in dialogue with the owners and managers of historical estates to identify, now and in the future, what the problems are and how best to address them.”
“Continuity of policy is a big problem”, says De Loë. “Every time we get a new coalition, hard-won schemes just fall to pieces again.” According to De Jong, “The best guarantee is therefore to ensure that the owners are not dependent on grants – and thus on politics – but rather that their properties are self-sustaining.”
 

The report ‘Conservation of historical estates in Limburg: A comparative study of the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany’ (in Dutch), by Francis Carpentier, Rebecca Hollewijn, Joop de Jong and Marion Plieger, can be requested via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  

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