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Country houses or hospitals? It is simply a question of priorities

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It was the Czech artist Karel Teige who coined the aphorism 'Buildings should be instruments, not monuments'. But that was in the 1920s when at least some people must have believed it. Were Teige to rise from the grave today, he would be appalled at the supremacy of monuments in the contemporary scheme of things.

In the 20th century, when giant dams were built, whole seas drained and the flow of mighty rivers reversed, no government would ever have approved a plan to reinstate miles of wetlands first drained by the Romans just to recreate a habitat for wild birds. But in the 21st century, you bet!

This is not to begrudge wild birds their first lucky break in 2,000 years. Rather it is an attempt to understand the mentality of those who oppose the introduction of latter-day prefabs as a means of fulfilling the housing needs of essential workers, while recklessly betting the heritage farm on the roulette wheel of conservation.

For everybody else the muchvaunted property ladder has turned into a snake, but not for them. If it is a Victorian country house of no accommodational use to anyone except the curator of a museum of Victorian country houses, then, of course, the National Heritage Memorial Fund will gladly hand over £17 million - more than three years of its income - to 'save it for the nation'.

If it is a production run of 25m 2steel frame prefabricated apartments for nurses to be delivered by truck and stacked up in a hospital car park, you can see the shaking heads and hear the sound of air sucked through teeth.We do not want to upset the delicate spatial arrangement of the district with peas-in-a-pod designs, do we? After all, Prince Charles is in charge of hospital design now.

When you think about it, the last few weeks have been a great time to be a conservationist, not only was 2,000 years of marsh recovery in East Anglia set in reverse but a 1928 parking garage in Soho was saved for the nation because it was the 'largest and best-equipped building for the service of the motor car of its day' (and certainly not because of its proximity to English Heritage's headquarters in Savile Row).

As for old Victorian country houses, I have written here before about the scandalous purchase of Tyntesfield, but not since the listing classes started their own World Cup victory dance over it. To be sure they do have a great deal to crow about, so much in fact that, from the quotes in the newspaper stories, it almost seemed as though some of their leading lights could still hardly believe that they had actually got away with it.

Of the estimated £24 million (the exact figure has not been revealed), paid by the National Trust to the 19 anonymous relatives of the mysteriously intestate Lord Wraxall for the keys to his high-mileage gasguzzler, all but £1.5 million came from other sources than the trust. Most of it from the largest grant ever made by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, an organisation which is not only awash with money but apparently has a 'fast-track'method of ransacking its own reserves in case of an 'emergency' like this one.At the same time, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport did her bit, whittling away at the commercial value of Tyntesfield - 'the vast sprawling mansion virtually unknown to all but locals' - by listing numerous internal features and raising its status from nil to parity with St Paul's Cathedral.

'Country houses are not just another building type in need of preservation, 'purred a leading conservation enthusiast, omitting to add that hospitals aren't either.

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