Like the monasteries, the National Trust has long since strayed from its purpose. It’s time for reformation or dissolution
This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
It’s very easy to claim the other side have started a culture war. That while what you’re doing is right, reasonable and well-established, what they’ve started doing is antagonistic, incomprehensible and unprecedented. But sometimes it’s true, and obvious who has started what and why. Especially when there’s an act of parliament setting out your purposes in the first place.
That is the case with the National Trust:
“The National Trust shall be established for the purposes of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as practicable) of their natural aspect features and animal and plant life.”
So say the various Acts of Parliament which, since 1907, have propelled the Trust beyond mere charitable status and into the East India Trading Company of British heritage, whose great houses were brought into being by private enterprise but were long ago taxed into their hands by the Treasury.
There were shades of opportunistic Anglo-Irish gentry setting fire to their houses for the insurance money
The National Trust’s purpose may be clear and broad, but in order to fulfil it, it’s been made the bloated recipient of generation after generation of intentionally confiscatory, targeted taxation designed to force landowners into impossible debt, leaving them with no choice but to give up family homes “for the benefit of the nation”.
Mafia-like, from the 1930s to the 1970s government after government invented further strictures, bending the custodians over a barrel and offering to make all the pain go away if you just give us your grandparents’ legacy; we’ll even let you live upstairs, if you’re quiet.
But having taken the work of others into their care, they are not doing justice by them. Such are the unambiguous abuses of its mission and its manifold failings that it is now time for this once-noble institution to be reformed or dissolved.
Constance Watson [The Critic, June 2021] has written movingly about what happened to the home her ancestors built and which went up in flames on the Trust’s watch. Whatever liability or culpability there was there for the Clandon Park fire — and people’s houses do burn down — all that the Trust’s curial creatures did next is on them. There were shades of opportunistic Anglo-Irish gentry setting fire to their houses for the insurance money and living it up on the proceeds. For with the lolly duly banked, restoration, à la Uppark, was not the order of the day.
Instead the Trust aims to indulge itself with a modernist, white-box-and-glass gallery and flexible events space in the blackened shell of Clandon, maximising profitability for the “asset”. Though the Trust acknowledge that the gardens were left completely unharmed by the fire, they are nevertheless including a “contemporary” redesign of the grounds as part of the restoration. Hardly acts of preservation.
Of course, they argue that permanently obscuring, modernising, or destroying some of the historic property they have been tasked to preserve is justifiable if they use the profits from said destruction to better preserve the rest. By this rationale, they’d be justified in selling, demolishing or redeveloping half of all their properties, so long as they then invested the profits into preserving the other half. It’s psychopathic business logic, of the sort we are too familiar with thanks to the copy-and-paste civil service aristocracy who now run all institutions identically, with no apparent qualifications beyond the lifelong accumulation of wealth and/or power.
Tim Parker, who’s just resigned as chairman, had the same role at the Post Office while they were wickedly persecuting subpostmasters over supposed fraud (in fact IT failure); Helen Ghosh left her position as director-general in 2018 to run Balliol College, Oxford; previously she was permanent secretary at the infamously institutionally incapable Home Office. This is the ignorant, complacent, uncultured, bureaucratic establishment that has primly taken the Trust to its present sorry place.
The National Trust has exploited the coronavirus pandemic to purge the historians and the arts specialists from their ranks
This management pedigree was on full display when the Trust unveiled, mid-Covid, its “Ten Year Vision for Places and Experiences”, proposing a “revolution” to do away with the “outdated mansion experience”, which appeals to the wrong “niche audiences”, and instead to “re-purpose” their properties; no longer “preserving and presenting the English country house as a distinctive part of our national heritage” (the literal, legal purpose of the National Trust, remember), but re-developing them as “public space in service of local audiences”, renting them out as events venues, and “moving objects or taking them off display where needed to make spaces more flexible and accessible”.
In this context the plans for Clandon Park make perfect, bleak sense. This unveiling was followed by about 1,300 redundancies, and a massive reduction in curatorial positions, art and historical expertise. Just as they’re exploiting the fire at Clandon to build a marketable, contemporary events space, they have exploited the coronavirus pandemic to purge the historians and the arts specialists from their ranks. Instead there will be a new “curator of re-purposing historic houses”.
The years 2017-2019 were devoted to the Trust’s “Challenging Histories” programme (you will not be surprised to learn in which direction history was challenged). And this ideologically-motivated agenda is coming back for 2022. Challenging, re-purposing, deconstructing history: whether or not these are worthy or important endeavours, they are, like their treatment of Clandon, unquestionably the polar opposite of preservation. The Trust’s justification for this failure to fulfil its function is one of supposedly positive social change, but the Trust is far from being an ethical organisation.
Though they have attempted to laugh off Charles Moore’s recent Spectator piece on their workplace “atmosphere of fear and bullying” (“we were flushing someone’s head down the toilet … please excuse us, we’ve got to pinch someone’s lunch money”, they crowed on Twitter), just weeks earlier they’d been ordered by an employment tribunal to pay £50,000 to a former worker for unfair dismissal, harassment and discrimination. They weren’t joking about that on the social media.
The National Trust isn’t just about visitor experiences and employees, of course. They are the largest farm owner in the country, with an impressive rental portfolio to boot. In 2017 the tenants of about 300 of their residential properties had rents increased by up to 10,000 per cent (you read that correctly), with one 87-year-old leaseholder reporting an annual groundrent rise from £148 to £15,000.
In 2016 they infamously forced out local farmers who wanted to maintain a historic agricultural business at Thorneythwaite Farm, overbidding by £200,000 above the given value to purchase the land, and then breaking up the farm by refusing to purchase the farmhouse or outbuildings, destroying a working, historic, organic community in the process.
This year the Trust chose to reject a bid from the local community to buy Bonds Meadow in Devon to maintain as a nature reserve, instead selling the greenbelt landscape to a property developer. Complaints from National Trust tenants about bullying, harassment, unethical and improper behaviour have reached such an extreme that last year the MP for St Ives, West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Derek Thomas, called for a full review in Parliament, expressing concern that the Trust “is acting as a completely unaccountable body that can imposition lives and livelihoods without any right to reply or recourse, taking no concern for how long it takes to engage even when individuals and businesses are seeking to proactively engage and appease NT staff”.
The justification for the Trust was always that without it swooping in and saving the day, the houses and landscapes it cares for would have been lost forever (neatly avoiding the fact that the crisis facing the properties was usually not one of mismanagement, but of overt government policy; like a Soho gangster inventing a debt and then graciously accepting the deeds to the shop in return). This questionable, inconsistent strategy of all-but-forced seizure has always been vindicated as the only way to ensure “the permanent preservation” of nationally important property.
But if it is now acceptable to have these buildings and landscapes altered and developed for the sake of profitability, changing fashion and personal preference, then why were they taken out of private hands in the first place?
This abhorrent catalogue of immoral business practice is spearheaded by bland establishment figures
If they don’t need to be permanently preserved after all, they could’ve remained with the original families (themselves inextricably twined with the very heritage value that justifies conservation) who could have simply been obliged to invest money that would have gone in estate tax back into the buildings and landscape, or been privately sold on tax-free under a similar arrangement, with government support to ensure appropriate conservation and the strict protections in place that all listed buildings have.
For over a decade the National Trust has consistently indulged gangster-capitalist attitudes towards their holdings and responsibilities as a landlord, regularly and demonstrably bullying tenants, visitors and employees alike, alongside mass redundancies and exploitative policies which run contrary to their fundamental purpose.
This abhorrent catalogue of immoral business practice is spearheaded by a tired, faded Who’s Who of bland establishment figures with no specially relevant qualifications or expertise in heritage, casually trampling working class livelihoods and pensioners’ qualities of life, whilst posing smugly for photos at fundraising events and enjoying bottomless expense accounts with no apparent accountability.
Their tenure has pioneered a role not of preservation, but of alteration and profitability, with moralistic motivations to influence culture and promote an agenda they believe to be socially desirable. This is not what the Trust exists for, and not what it has been given vast, unearned wealth to do; it has never been appropriate to unlawfully pursue this overt change in purpose without an Act of Parliament legitimising it. The Trust as it is must reform or dissolve. There is no third way.
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