Many members have decided to walk away and leave the National Trust to its fate. They need to come back
The country house is one of the UK’s most significant cultural achievements, and the National Trust is the largest single custodian of this heritage. As the National Trust has become large and bureaucratic, focussing on increasing visitor and membership numbers and maximizing income, it seems to have taken its eye off the conservation ball.
Restore Trust was founded earlier this year by a few people concerned that, despite many examples of excellent conservation work, the National Trust is no longer focussed on its task of looking after heritage for the nation, instead neglecting its loyal volunteers. Our concerns have struck a chord with thousands of current and former members who have lost confidence in the Trust.
General Managers now run properties as businesses
There are many examples of failure to engage with communities. Tenant farmers feel that their concerns are being dismissed, with restrictive covenants on their land, and holiday cottages where there could have been homes for farming families. Meanwhile, Bonds Meadow in Devon and Clayton Meadow in Dorset, much-loved local wildlife habitats, are to be sold to housing developers, with no meaningful attempt to enable a transfer to the local community. Shute Barton in Devon, which provided valued opportunities for volunteering and local fundraising on its open weekends, has become a permanent holiday let.
Specialist curators traditionally controlled the care and presentation of properties. Tragically, the expert voluntary committees that used to advise specialist staff have lately been abolished, and the Trust has increasingly shunned this network of expertise. At the same time, numerous curators have been demoted or made redundant. It is doubtful whether these cuts have made significant savings: £19.8 million was paid out in redundancy payments in the past year. What is certain is that they have caused long-term damage by the loss of expertise and morale. We have heard heart-breaking stories of staff being humiliated as they are made to re-apply for their jobs and families forced to leave their homes on National Trust estates.
The Trust has evidently lost faith in the significance of its country estates as whole organic entities: house, garden, park and wider estate. In the infamous leaked report of 2020, Towards a 10-Year Vision for Places and Experiences, it was proposed to “repurpose” historic houses, and “dial down” the Trust’s role as a “major national cultural institution”. Three of the most recent senior management appointees come with no experience of country-house curatorship. The new head of gardens and parklands has a background in botanical gardens, but no experience of historic gardens or designed landscapes. Where there was once oversight of properties by curators, General Managers now run properties as businesses, increasingly being left to their own devices.
Meanwhile, the Trust has been distracted by an agenda of social campaigning
The National Trust has bought into the idea that properties must keep changing and should reflect the everyday experiences of visitors. Trivial and pretentious displays have been introduced, at the expense of the historic interiors that visitors have come to see. Clive of India’s rare silver Durbar set was allowed to be sold abroad when a not overly ambitious fundraising campaign could have secured it for the nation. The contrast between the Trust’s responses to the devastating fires at Uppark (1989) and at Clandon (2015) is striking: Uppark was beautifully restored, providing opportunities to retrain traditional craftsmen; Clandon remains under tarpaulin six years on, with no decision as to its future. Modernist re-designs proposed for Clandon three years ago were widely pilloried, but we have since heard nothing.
The loss of focus has led to serious physical neglect, damage and loss. Examples include water damage due to neglected leaks, thefts thanks to poor security, and overgrown gardens. The Sherborne Broadwaters, an 18th century Picturesque landscape, has turned into a weed-choked wasteland. Many properties have suffered from wear and tear while General Managers set targets to attract ever-more visitors. Meanwhile, the Trust has been distracted by an agenda of social campaigning. The notorious Interim Report addressed the important topics of slavery and colonialism, but did so in a shamefully unscholarly way, hindering serious discussion of heritage. The Trust could try harder to avoid contributing to modern day exploitation and environmental degradation around the world. Fairtrade tea and a limited amount of organic cotton is a start, but a wholesale move towards responsible suppliers of cotton products, coffee, cocoa and sugar and the elimination of palm oil and soya would signal that the Trust meant business.
Many volunteers have served enthusiastically for decades and developed a deep knowledge of the properties — yet they are rarely consulted over changes to the properties. We have been deluged by stories from unhappy volunteers. The sticking point can be as small as the timing of a shift or lunch break. In some cases, volunteers feel funds they have raised are used in ways they did not intend. Volunteers work behind the scenes on projects as diverse as steam engines and musical instruments, but rigid management structures inhibit their work and prevent them getting the support they need. Dedicated teams have seen their working hours sharply reduced and their work handed over to external contractors. For many volunteers, mandatory “inclusivity” training was the last straw. We have heard of one volunteer coming home in tears after she refused to take part in “bias training”, which involved “apologizing for the past”. Her past includes losing her two brothers in the war.
The Trust sees us as a threat rather than concerned supporters
Many members have decided to walk away and leave the National Trust to its fate. They need to come back. Houses and property given to the National Trust belong to the nation: that means that they are ours. We must not abandon them and allow them to become shallow tourist attractions or empty shells. We hope that disaffected members re-join in time to vote in the AGM this year. We are asking those who haven’t, to come back and make your voices heard with us in 2022. We need to make a positive difference from within.
We have put forward three members’ resolutions for the AGM. We are asking for full disclosure on remuneration, the consultation of volunteers on matters that affect them and for properly qualified curators to be in charge of decision-making at properties. We are also asking members to support six candidates for membership of a Council of 36. We have recommended a diverse range of candidates who do not agree with us on everything, and with whom we do not agree on everything. We are relying on them, if they are elected, to question and challenge, to hold the Trustees to account and not to go with the flow.
The management of the National Trust has been rattled and is throwing everything at this AGM, pulling in its own employees to shore up the vote, and seeing us as a threat rather than as the concerned supporters we are. The National Trust is scared and on the run when it should be proud and confident. We want it to go back to doing what it does best: to look after historic buildings, interiors, gardens and landscapes for the benefit of everyone.
The deadline for online voting in the NT AGM is midnight on Friday, 22 October. Our web address is www.restoretrust.org.uk.
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