It’s been an eventful six years for the National Trust’s Director-General Helen Ghosh, who’s announced she’ll be stepping down in April 2018. She’s been constantly bombarded with criticism from right-wing newspapers ever since her appointment in 2012. When she suggested that the Trust might soften its opposition to windfarms, the Daily Telegraph said she threatened to turn the Trust into a “Leftie pressure group”. When she said – incontrovertibly – in 2015 that there was a “perception” that the Trust was too middle class, she was accused of patronising supporters.
When she pointed out – correctly – that the NT had started life as a protector of open spaces as well as just buildings, and announced that the Trust would focus more on acquiring land, not stately homes, she was condemned as a politically-correct busybody (even though the Trust’s open spaces attract ten times more visitors than its houses). Other charges include spoiling country views with garish signage, scraping the barrel by buying up Agatha Christies’ former holiday home, ruining the interior of Ickworth House in Suffolk by taking out pieces of historic furniture and replacing them with brown leather beanbags, and intrusively asking volunteers to divulge their sexuality.
The Trust’s critics have even argued that the recent fire that devastated one of the Trust’s foremost eighteenth century mansions, Clandon Park in Surrey, was somehow the result of Ghosh’s lack of interest. “Is the National Trust to blame?” asked a nudge-nudge headline in the Daily Mail. Its reporter had tracked down Teresa Onslow, Auberon Waugh’s widow, who’d grown up in the house and now urged others not to hand over their stately homes to such a negligent custodian.
Then there were the Easter Eggs: last April the Trust was (falsely) accused of airbrushing the word ‘Easter’ from its annual chocolate hunt, prompting Theresa May to condemn the Trust as “absolutely ridiculous” (Kremlinologists pointed out that Ghosh – a former permanent secretary at the Home Office – is said not to have got along well with May when she was Home Secretary). And then this summer saw the rainbow lanyard saga. As part of a ‘Prejudice and Pride’ campaign – “political claptrap”, wrote Harry Mount in the Mail – the Trust had ordered staff and volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk to wear Gay Pride lanyards or else “step back”, only to then perform a sudden U-turn and announce that the lanyards were voluntary. The Trust “has been hijacked by a lethal combination of catastrophic dumbing-down, social engineering, rampant politicisation and intolerance of opposing views,” fumed Mount.
This criticism isn’t just from the right. A few months ago the Guardian, Observer and the Labour peer Melvyn Bragg lined up to criticise the Trust’s decision to outbid local farmers and buy a farm at Thorneythwaite in the Lake District (but not its farmhouse) for £950,000, £200,000 above the guide price. Bragg said the Trust is “a nasty piece of work”; others accused it of creating large farms in a landscape where small farms have been the norm for centuries, allowing farm buildings to become holiday homes, and even threatening a flock of 400 Herdwick sheep. “Had a billionaire bullied his way into this disgraceful purchase there would have been a deserved outcry,” Bragg lamented.
At the same time, George Monbiot has attacked the Trust’s support for the – seemingly uncontroversial – designation of the Lake District as a world heritage site, as sheep have reduced its mountains to “a treeless waste of cropped turf whose monotony is relieved only by erosion gullies, exposed soil and bare rock”. The Trust can’t win: accused of neglecting the Lakes’ tradition of sheep farming on the one hand, and complicity in environmental destruction by sheep on the other.
There’s no mistaking the hyperbole here: a lot of farmers have their own vested interests, and I’m sceptical when loudmouths like Bragg and Monbiot jump onto bandwagons without full knowledge of the facts. Ghosh may be a prickly sort (Trust staff consider her a lot more off stand-offish than her predecessor Fiona Reynolds, who had an impressive knack of talking to everybody when she visited Trust sites and remembering their names years later). But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and for the Trust. Like the BBC and the Church of England, the National Trust has become a convenient punchbag for right-wing newspapers whenever it displays any sign of dumbing-down, political correctness or smugness.
But some of the media’s charges are true. Over and over again, the Trust’s ham-fisted response to criticism, and its reluctance to explain what it is doing and why, turns small local disputes into national news stories. It could have avoided much of the controversy over Gay Pride lanyards if it had not bossily ordered staff and volunteers to wear them.
Over Thorneythwaite, the Trust’s press office was caught red-handed slagging off one of the critics, local shepherd James Rebanks, for playing “a cute game”. When Rachel Cooke interviewed her about the Thorneythwaite saga for the Observer last year, Ghosh only poured fuel on the fire: Rebanks, she claimed, was disingenuous as “He doesn’t farm full time.” Rebanks then tweeted that Dame Helen’s comments were “factually wrong, irrelevant and basically mafia tactics of trying to discredit someone through back channels by questioning their motives”. Cooke found that Ghosh’s manner was “….how to put this? – edged with condescension. Five minutes into our conversation, she tells me about her first-class history degree from Oxford, as if this alone should settle my mind in her favour.” Ouch.
On paper the Trust is thriving. With annual turnover of £200m and assets worth £1.13bn (including 778 miles of coastline, 250,000 hectares of countryside, more than 300 buildings and 59 villages), its easily the largest charity in the UK. It’s grown at exponential speed – 45 years ago the Trust had only 150,000 members, rising to 3.4 million by 2006 and 4.6 million by 2016. It’s still a deeply loved institution with lots of public goodwill (amidst all the criticism by right-wing newspapers, Buzzfeed recently assembled a listicle of 21 amazing things about the Trust).
I was a Trust member for 25 years until recently, and I still adore visiting its properties. But I’ve come to realise that any innovation or originality you spot has happened in spite of, not because of, the Trust. Visit more than one property and you immediately realise how homogenised they have become. Tickets being sold in a repro shepherds’ hut? Check. Second hand bookstall in a former cowshed? Check. Giftshop full of overpriced, chintzy merchandise? Check. Lots of pointless signage? Check. On a recent visit to Buttermere in the Lake District, Rachel Cooke was dismayed to see “a series of signs, presumably for children, about ghoulies and ghosties”. She’s right to be dismayed: rather than let landscapes and buildings speak for themselves, the Trust has a tendency to “over-interpret” them with too much patronising signage.
The Trust’s army of 60,000 volunteers is poorly deployed, resulting in chronic overstaffing. Within minutes of arriving at Kedleston, the Trust’s marvellous Palladian mansion near Derby, earlier this year I was hassled by volunteers three times to visit the second-hand bookshop and buy raffle tickets. The problem with the Egg hunt isn’t that Easter is marginalised, but that just about every Trust property is plastered with identikit Cadbury’s signage once a year.
I worked for the Trust for a few months in the annus horribilis of 2016. Pondering a management career in a charity I loved, I took up a frontline role at Lyveden, an Elizabethan hunting lodge in Northamptonshire left half-built since the death of its owner Thomas Tresham – a recusant Catholic and father of a Gunpowder plotter – in 1605.
In theory the lodge and its moated gardens were an idyllic place to work. But in practice there was a lot of tilting at windmills, passive aggression and distrust. I soon realised that Lyveden was a microcosm of all the problems the Trust faces. When I arrived I was solemnly handed a 194-page ‘Membership & Visitor Care Manual’: a comprehensive guide on how to do everything, I naively thought. No: this was just about how to welcome visitors and sign up non-members. Everything else had a tome of its own. “What would you do if the toilets were blocked?” was the only interview question I faced when shortlisted for a management job (clearly I had not read the plumbing manual closely enough: I wasn’t hired).
Working there had all the disadvantages of a big corporation but none of the advantages. It took months of negotiation to allow the chef to make his own scones (the Trust’s catering department wanted him to serve the same sort of cream teas as everywhere else). I was told it would take two years for Heelis (the Trust’s hi-tech headquarters in Swindon) to allow us to put merchandise relevant to Lyveden in the giftshop.
Thankfully I wasn’t chained to a desk, but when I did check my email inbox I always found a slew of directives to undergo pointless online training modules on ‘risk management’ and the Orwellian concept of ‘Values and Behaviours’. At the same time, head office hadn’t deemed us important enough to give us a till: amazingly, we had to cash-up and stock-take with pen and paper every day. And although I was running the visitor centre four days a week I was excluded from the site’s monthly ‘operations meetings’ on the grounds that these brainstorming sessions were for “heads of department only”: the kind of explanation you’d expect in an old-fashioned government ministry, not a heritage site with seven full-time staff.
This was a place run for the convenience of its managers, not visitors. Popular daily tours of the site had been cancelled as managers couldn’t be bothered to deliver them. In the five months I was there not a single school visit was arranged (they were discouraged on the spurious grounds that there was nowhere indoors for them to have packed lunch if it rained). The site’s greatest assets – its volunteers, mostly retired teachers with lots of energy and enthusiasm – were taken for granted. Elderly volunteers were only grudgingly allowed to come in for less than a full-day shift, and chastised for eating cake even when no visitors were around. Constructive suggestions were brusquely turned down: no idea was good enough to escape strangulation by red tape.
Rather like a primary school that obsesses so much about what Ofsted might think that it stops educating children, this National Trust property couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Managers drilled us to look out for the dreaded Mystery Visitor – a box-ticker who you could spot from a mile off – and cater for their arbitrary checklist (as a result visitors were bombarded with high-pressure sales techniques to sign up as Trust members just in case they were a Mystery Visitor in disguise).
I came across a few great managers, but too many were martinets who had migrated to the Trust from academia or the armed forces, and who struggled with the transition to Civvy Street. Rather than innovate they micro-managed, buried their head in the rulebook or hid in their offices, looking at spreadsheets. And there were just too many of them: inevitably they’d become busy fools, filling their time by creating unnecessary bureaucracy, undermining colleagues, or both.
Far from being “politically correct” this was an organisation that didn’t have the first idea about how to run a modern, diverse workplace. I have a minor disability and the final straw for me was the Trust’s refusal to make any reasonable adjustment for it, as the law demands. The Trust and I parted company, unhappily, and I haven’t been back to Lyveden since.
My experience shows that most of the Trust’s critics completely miss the point: the Trust’s problem is that it’s modernised too little, not too much. The Trust has become too big, centralised and arrogant: it’s simultaneously a visitor attraction operator, membership club, conservator, landowner, holiday lettings company, retailer, and pressure group. Paradoxically, its extraordinary breadth has stopped it from innovating. All at once it’s smug, patronising, and unbearably twee.
Its last two director-generals may have been women, but at heart the trust is still an old boys’ network overseen by control freaks. To be fair, the Trust’s notorious proxy voting rules – whereby the chairman could cast hundreds of thousands of votes on behalf of members who hadn’t bothered to fill in their ballot papers at the AGM –were adjusted after rows about foxhunting in the 1990s. But a mysterious “nominations committee” still advises members on who should be elected to the Trust’ council each year. In turn the council tries to tell members which resolutions to support and which to vote down. Even if they are carried, “the outcome is not binding and the National Trust Board of Trustees will usually discuss and reflect on the outcome of a carried members’ resolution,” says the Trust: members should know their place.
Rather than really grapple with the issues of climate change and transport infrastructure the Trust just ponders the symptoms: which part of the fence to sit on over HS2, whether to allow an eighteenth century temple to fall over an eroding cliff in County Derry or not, and whether the new A303 tunnel will harm the setting of Stonehenge, or preserve it.
So what should Ghosh’s successor – whoever he she or may be – do once Ghosh moves on to become Master of Balliol College, Oxford, next spring? I studied at Balliol at the 1990s and wish Ghosh well there, but I hope she won’t allow the college to drift as the National Trust has done in recent years. And I hope her successor won’t be tempted to retreat to a comfort zone of chintz and creamed teas to keep the Daily Mail happy. As well-off Baby Boomers keep on retiring, joining the National Trust and encouraging their children and grandchildren to do the same, there may seem to be no pressing economic need to change. But recent British history is full of cherished institutions that failed to innovate and entered a rapid spiral of decline: the Labour Party in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats pretty much everywhere, Woolworths and British Home Stores. The Trust has no God-given right to thrive and survive.
One big reason for all the silly-season stories in the conservative media is that the Trust isn’t giving them anything else to write about. Ghosh was only half-right when she pointed out that the Trust should be about landscapes more than country houses. She should have added that the Trust should also be as much about towns and cities as it is about the countryside.
Ever since it started in 1895, the Trust has been indelibly associated with the countryside, and the country house in particular. But its first acquisition was not a showhouse of the rich but a humble Sussex cottage, the Clergy House at Alfriston. Back in the 1870s the Trust’s founder Octavia Hill had built tenement housing for the working poor in Notting Hill, Lambeth, Walworth and Deptford: her first campaign was to save Parliament Hill – an open space just a mile from working-class Holloway and Camden Town – not a country estate.
In the late 1990s and early noughties the Trust made a lot of noise about its new urban properties: the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney in Liverpool, the Back to Backs in Birmingham, Ernő Goldfinger’s house in Hampstead, Sutton House in Hackney, and Southwell workhouse. More recently it’s made encouraging noises about working with cash-strapped local authorities to improve city parks. But no new urban acquisitions have been made in the last decade, and they remain a small minority of the Trust’s portfolio. And the Trust hasn’t taken on any urban parks: following a press release unveiling a “Future Parks online toolkit” the initiative fizzled out.
In 1895 there were no conservation areas, no listed buildings – indeed, barely any planning restrictions at all. As the V&A’s Destruction of the Country House exhibition in 1974 showed only too vividly large country houses were being demolished every year by the score right up until the 60s and 70s. A lot’s changed since then: heritage has become an industry, not a pursuit for eccentrics in tweeds. Historic houses that would have been pulled down forty or fifty years ago don’t always need the Trust to save them – they’re often in demand as hotels, conference centres, or as a home for foreign millionaires. If the Trust doesn’t step in, more and more are being opened up through the Historic Houses Association.
But the Trust still remains an overwhelming rural concern, just as Britain’s most pressing conservation challenges are to be found in town and cities, not the countryside. Public sector spending cuts, changing consumer habits and centralisation threaten thousands of historic buildings with closure, disrepair or disuse. In well-heeled areas people often step forward and find funding and new uses for these buildings, but in more deprived towns and cities like squalor can result. As Nick Broomfield showed us in his film Going Going Gone last year, even iconic buildings in big cities like Cardiff and Liverpool struggle to find sustainable new uses. Meanwhile, conservation areas in London are facing greater threats from developers than ever, the Trust’s former chairman Simon Jenkins has argued. But the Trust has little or nothing to say about this urban crisis. When it wasn’t defending itself from the Daily Mail, all the Trust talked about this summer was the restoration of Clandon Park.
When corporations get too big, they demerge. Why not charities and NGOs as well? Just like General Electric in the early 1980s – another bloated, confused bureaucracy – the National Trust should spilt in two.
Urban properties should be handed over to a organisation – let’s call it the Urban Trust – dedicated to towns and cities and finding a future for their civic buildings, High Streets and marketplaces. The Trust at present simply has too many volunteers, many of them forced to stand round waiting to check membership cards or sell a jar of chutney. Why not give them a real challenge: how to find sustainable new uses for pubs, libraries, town halls and courthouses. Almost immediately a new generation of volunteers – younger and more entrepreneurial – would come forward.
The Urban Trust’s funding could come from a pruning of the Trust’s umpteen tiers of middle and senior management (“layers mask mediocrity,” GE’s chief executive Jack Welch once said), and a temporary pause on new acquisitions in the countryside. At the same time, existing Trust properties should be given more autonomy and allowed to keep the lion’s share of their income from weddings, filming and the like, incentivising managers to think creatively about how to make the most of their properties, particularly during the winter months when many are closed.
Head office should be ruthlessly slimmed down. ”We don’t need the questioners and the checkers, the nit-pickers who bog down the process”, Jack Welch once said: that 194-page ‘Membership & Visitor Care Manual’ should be slimmed down to 20 pages or thrown away entirely. Lyveden should be free to bake scones and stock its giftshop as it likes.
Of course there’ll be an outcry from all the usual suspects. But it would be short-lived. The Trust’s current portfolio of properties should be freed up to innovate and experiment, not micromanaged by regional office and Heelis. Staff and volunteers should be encouraged to enthuse, inform and entertain visitors in their own way, not obsess about Mystery Visitors or follow a script.
Rather than more gimmicks like leather beanbags and rainbow lanyards, the Trust should take a radically new direction: it should urbanise. Shifting the National Trust’s focus away from the countryside and towards towns and cities would not be a betrayal of the Trust’s heritage. It would be a new lease of life – and a worthy return to its roots.
All photographs by Alex Grant