A tougher crackdown on owners of heritage assets who block access but still claim inheritance tax relief has been promised by the Treasury. Ministers have assured the Public Accounts Committee that more details of exempted works of art will be included in upgraded computerised registers. A formal response to the committee's criticism of the scheme promised consideration of how to give more publicity to the conditional exemption scheme, including linking the Capital Taxes Office website with the Countryside Agency's site and others. Meanwhile the Earl of Leicester, president of the Historic Houses Association, claimed government proposals for greater public access to conditionally exempt chattels 'pose the greatest threat to this country's art heritage since the threatened imposition of the wealth tax 25 years ago'. He claimed to have received an assurance that the scheme will do all it can to respect the dignity and privacy of owners and take into account the security problems they may face.' In an address to the association's agm, Leicester also highlighted the threat posed by the removal in April 2001 of 'one estate election' enabling some stately-home owners to set building maintenance against profits from their estates. New proposals are being drawn up by the Historic Houses Association to give the owners of stately homes a form of tax relief on building maintenance. But the association fears it will be unable to agree details in time for full consideration by the Treasury ahead of the spring Budget. It means a further year of uncertainty for the owners of small to medium-sized piles which attract a modest income from tourists. The relief only benefited historic houses that still have large estates - and the relief was not restricted to those open to the public. More popular houses have sufficient income from visitors to set that against maintenance costs. Ministers want to ensure any new relief is targeted on those whose buildings are open to the public and keep buildings and contents together. The association's taxation committee chairman, James Hervey-Bathurst, played down the row over retrospective access requirements for those allowed to postpone inheritance taxes on works of art.
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