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Future of the National Trust

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

I would like to make Members aware that this is my first time chairing Westminster Hall. I am sure we will all get along well.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of the National Trust.

Congratulations on your appointment, Ms Bardell; I am sure that we will give you no trouble.

This year is the National Trust’s 125th anniversary year. I start by paying tribute to the founding visionaries, benefactors, members, volunteers and staff who have made it the great mediating institution that it certainly is.

For the entire eight years of planning and execution, I was the Prime Minister’s point man for the United Kingdom’s commemoration of the centenary of the great war. I was immersed in the sensitive handling and portrayal of history and narrative. I think we did well, and I take particular satisfaction in helping to shed light on the part played by people whose contributions had been overlooked for 100 years.

Today is Armistice Day, so I shall recall particularly a truly remarkable exemplar whom we ensured played a big part in the commemorations: Lieutenant Walter Tull. As it happens, his likely last resting place in a plot near Arras has recently been discovered. I mention him in the context of some of the difficult things that I want to touch upon in this short debate. I do not want to be either misconstrued or misrepresented.

In my constituency, we have one of the trust’s principal possessions. Stourhead is about a mile from my home and we are frequent visitors, alongside tens of thousands, every normal year. Indeed, pre-covid, the trust had a membership that was gusting 6 million. It has eye-watering financial resources that would be the envy of most charities at this difficult time. It has international standing and an international reputation, and several countries actively seek to emulate it. So what is the problem?

The trust mission is clearly laid out in statute: to be clerk of works to a large wedge of our national treasures. There is evidence, however, that in recent years the trust—frustrated no doubt with that simple custodial function—has been interpreting its remit much more broadly. I submit that that requires scrutiny.

The key to the unhappiness expressed in recent times is contained within a collection of documents of varying status, some leaked, some published. The material, entitled “Towards a 10-year vision for place and experience”, is a blueprint for a different National Trust from that envisaged in statute in 1907 and in subsequent National Trust Acts.

That document might have been convincingly dismissed as a think piece had it not been followed by a series of supporting “Reset” documents. Taken together with the recently announced round of redundancies and reduction in access to small sites, it amounts to a dramatic change in direction—one that has alarmed the trust’s members, volunteers and workforce, and provoked a storm in the media.

Of particular concern is the proposed closure of smaller houses, I would say under the cover of covid-19. Those rather crudely referred to by the trust as treasure houses, including Stourhead, have always cross-subsidised those smaller properties. That has been the business model, which is commendable. We now find the properties that have been sustained by that model—for example, George Stephenson’s house in Northumberland—are being closed. It could be that they are closed permanently.

We also find that it is not receipts, per se, that are the problem, because the outdoorsy attractions appear not to be in the crosshairs. Rather, the issue is with buildings, particularly what are referred to as mansions. The trust says it does not want to close or repurpose its sites, but has to cut its cloth because of covid-19. But look at its reserves, as well as its access to a huge volunteer workforce, together with furlough and other assistance given by Government during this crisis, and ask whether the trust, faced with the inflexibility of covenants and reserves, has approached either the Charity Commission or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see what statutory or non-statutory mechanisms there might be to assist in freeing up funds in these difficult times, in order to support its charitable purposes.

On top of that, we have a hobnailed boot of a document called, “Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery”, which is considered sufficiently off-piste to attract the interest of the Charity Commission as regulator.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate on the National Trust. On his point about the report, what is wrong with the National Trust researching the history of the buildings it looks after? Historic Royal Palaces has just advertised for a curator to uncover its links to the slave trade. Is he suggesting that that organisation should also be subject to this kind of witch hunt by the Charity Commission?

The hon. Gentleman ought also to look at English Heritage’s 2013 publication on broadly the same subject. He may wish to compare the quality of that report with the National Trust’s report and form his view as to whether it is appropriate to associate some of our national figures with slavery, as the title of this particular contribution does.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is legitimate for organisations to explore history and present material in a balanced, measured and considered way. The judgment we all have to make is whether the National Trust has achieved that. I suggest to him that, against the standards of other organisations, such as English Heritage, the National Trust has fallen well short in that respect. Indeed, any reasonable appraisal of the material would suggest to me and many others a corporate culture at odds with its membership. I would argue that it is also at odds in important respects with statute that underpins the National Trust.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate; I also join him in offering congratulations to our new Chair.

The National Trust obviously employs a vast number of people in the Lake district; the jobs of many of them are now at risk, which is deeply concerning. It also owns a huge amount of land and acts as landlord to dozens and dozens of important hill farmers, who are essential in maintaining the heritage of our landscape. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Trust should do everything it can to act as a landlord that encourages succession on those farms, rather than turning the buildings into second homes or holiday lets? Likewise, does he agree that it should encourage the Government to make sure that, in transitional terms, the payments coming into the farming industry from January onwards encourage the maintenance of the family farm and not a move to ranch-style farming?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point; I feel sure that he is more expert on upland farming than I am. I would always encourage a landlord to be responsible, especially a big one, and in particular a massive one such as the National Trust. I would be distressed if it was tempted to sell off properties for them to be turned into second homes or holiday homes. That seems entirely the wrong thing for the National Trust to do, and I would argue that it is probably contrary to the 1907 legislation that founded it. The idea behind the National Trust is conservation, and it is difficult to see how selling off property in the way that he has just described would service that end.

Much of what we have had from the National Trust in recent times is entirely commensurate with the fears expressed by many that what it is doing, in its own terms and the terms of the leaked documents we have seen, is to “dial down” its role as what it calls a “major national cultural institution”. We see the corporate upper lip curling at an “outdated mansion experience” that is of interest only to what it calls a “niche audience”, which is apparently “dwindling”. It is a “niche audience” that was on the rise before lockdown and that is bigger even now than the population of the Republic of Ireland, but it is one that the trust’s clairvoyants anticipate will have moved on, as the trust seeks to

“flex its mansion offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in the future.”

I have “fun” every time I go to a National Trust property —that is the whole point of going—and it is not clear to me what “useful” means, but we do learn that

“Everywhere…we will move away from a narrow focus on family and art history.”

This has been pejoratively described as the triumph of the “trendies” over the “tweedies”. What it means in practice is that professional curator posts will fall from 111 to 80. There will be a new curator and it will not surprise right hon. and hon. Members to learn that that curator will be called

“curator of repurposing historic houses”.

But out will go actual curators—those internationally renowned experts and scholars, who are specialists in one of the world’s greatest collections.

I suspect that most of the membership, like me and my family, flock to National Trust properties to admire an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake—job done, and happy days. It is leisure, it is breathing space, it is succour for the soul and a welcome break from the remorseless hectoring about this and that, to which, as citizens, we are subjected day in, day out.

There are those, particularly on the hard left and perhaps within the trust’s hierarchy, who will say that an organisation makes a political statement every time that it does not advance an opinion—that silence is violence. But the National Trust needs to be a politics-free space, a great mediating institution, and not an organ for promulgating a particular world view, whether one sympathises with that view or not. That, surely, is the service that it renders to civil society.

My parents liked to drag me and my brother around National Trust properties when we were younger. Fifty years on, they all merge into a perpetual search for ice cream, but I do have one abiding recollection, and it is not some politically correct right-on narrative, misspelt on a piece of slate. It is inequality. Those great houses stand as silent witness to an unequal past. We do not need to be force-fed that by the trust’s high command; it is there and it is in your face. It is also plain to most visitors that the wealth required to throw up those mini-palaces did not often come from a post office savings account. Some of that money was highly questionable—some of it very dirty indeed by today’s standards and even by the standards of the day. But here we are in 2020, with the public—on whose backs, to a greater or lesser degree, those palaces were built—possessing them. That is a triumph and a restitution.

I mentioned that I did not want to be misconstrued or misunderstood, and it is therefore with trepidation and in anticipation of a wall of hate mail and trolling that I come to the document—the trust’s slavery and colonialism report. It is a catalogue of its properties that have some links to those subjects, but much of it is flimsy and tendentious. In 2013, English Heritage published “Slavery and the British country house”, which is a serious, thoughtful, measured contribution to a subject of significant public interest, in contrast with the National Trust’s colonialism and slavery report, whose title, which conflates two things as a common evil, gives the game away. The conflation gets worse because, wittingly or not, it by association diminishes towering figures in British history, notably Winston Churchill. The trust speaks of context, but where is the context for a man who, more than any other, stood against fascism, racism and antisemitism? The best that could be said of that piece of work is that it is plain shoddy. Otherwise, we are left to conclude that it is indicative of the trust’s corporate mindset.

Does my right hon. Friend share my confusion and that of lots of National Trust members about the fact that, only recently, the chair of the National Trust said that BLM is a

“human rights movement with no party political affiliations”,

when last month one of the leading lights in BLM, Lemara Francis, said that

“BLM is proud to be a political organisation”?

I think those words and facts speak for themselves. It is very important that those who associate themselves with a great institution such as the National Trust are very careful about what they say and the way they project themselves. They must not make themselves hostages to fortune, as I fear has happened in this case.

However, there is always hope. Faced with a wall of unhappiness, trust bosses have been back-pedalling, at least rhetorically, and that is very much to their credit. We are told that the leaked “Towards a Ten-Year Vision” was an initial draft, despite no such caveat being present in the original. The director general was at pains to reassure me about that when she spoke to me yesterday, and I note that her op-ed in The Daily Telegraph today uses similar terms.

We have to take the trust’s leadership at its word. It seeks a “reset”—its word, unambiguously stated. We have a good idea now of what is in its mind and where it is taking us. Given the trust’s statutory underpinning, that is not to be undertaken lightly or without wider public cognisance, so let us commission an independent review like the recent Glover deep-dive into national parks. Thus fortified with a refreshed set of marching orders, the trust that we all love can then chart a course for the next 125 years.

I remind Members that there have had to be quite quick changeovers between debates. You have antibacterial wipes on your desks, so I ask that you do your best to clean the microphones in your areas before you leave and when you arrive as we fight covid-19. I would like to call the Minister by 4.22 pm.

Thank you, Ms Bardell, for allowing me to contribute to this debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for bringing it to the House.

The National Trust has done immense work over 125 years. In its own words, its mission is to cherish the

“nation’s most significant cultural collection”.

It is, however, struggling. Covid has made that task harder, with falling membership and fewer visitors. Frankly, the membership has declining faith in the trust’s leadership, as evidenced at the recent virtual annual general meeting.

I wish the National Trust well. Its work is vital, but it really is not appropriate for a charitable organisation to become involved in politics. The chairman, in a recent letter to a member, chose to defend Black Lives Matter, describing it as a human rights organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) said. That is not a fair reflection of that organisation in its own words or by any routine or reasonable assessment. It is very dangerous for the National Trust to stray into that territory. It is not in line with its charitable purpose, as the Charity Commission made clear.

To remind hon. Members, the trust’s charitable purpose is

“to look after places of beauty”.

Beauty, because it is the exemplification of truth, is the most important thing to which we should all aspire. In beauty, we begin to have sight of the Lord. The National Trust is beginning to lose credibility, frankly, both with its membership and the public, because of misunderstandings about its purpose.

It is hard to know whether it was malign, naive, malevolent or just ignorant, but the defence by the trust’s chairman, Mr Tim Parker, was essentially that Black Lives Matter is not a party political movement and has no affiliations. That is a pretty thin defence if he is merely naive; surely he must know that political organisations are not all linked to parties.

Octavia Hill, who founded the trust and who came from Wisbech near my constituency in the Fens, said:

“We all want beauty... We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.”

The National Trust, whether gently or more loudly, needs to disassociate itself from some of the rather foolish things that some of its leading members have said. I hope that the Minister will tell us how much the review into colonial links cost, how many staff were involved, how much was budgeted, and how much public money was spent on it.

It is a genuine honour to serve under your maiden chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing the debate, and thank all those who have participated. No debate is complete without a quote from my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), so it was a pleasure to hear from him today.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire acknowledged, the National Trust is one of the largest and most respected heritage membership organisations in the world. It has more than 5.5 million members, welcomes nearly 27 million visitors to its sites each year, has around 9,500 staff and is supported by 65,000 volunteers. The trust’s first property was acquired in 1895 for £10 and is still open today, and from that, the trust has steadily grown. Today, it has 250,000 hectares of land, 780 miles of coastline and more than 300 historic houses and gardens.

Some 125 years later, the National Trust is still helping people to enjoy the country’s enormous wealth of heritage sites. The trust is, in so many ways, a hugely successful heritage organisation, but that does not mean that we should not ask serious questions about it or how it should be held accountable. As I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware, the National Trust is a creature of statute: it was formally created by the National Trust Act 1907, which has been amended several times since, and the organisation has evolved since Royal Assent.

The organisation’s vision is to preserve,

“protect and care for places so people and nature can thrive.”

To deliver on that ambition, the trust is governed by a board of independent trustees. The chair is supported by a team of trustees who bring expertise to the running of the trust. It is also a registered charity and is therefore regulated by the Charity Commission, which is itself answerable to Parliament. The board must therefore ensure that its activities do not contravene or compromise the trust’s charitable objectives.

I set out those governance arrangements to make one point: the National Trust is an independent body. It is independent of the Government and does not receive any ongoing public funding for its work, and its activities are overseen by its board and the regulatory Charity Commission. Of course, as I have said, the trust is a creature of statute, so although the Government could, in theory, instigate a review into the trust’s operations, for which some have argued, we would not be able to implement changes in the way that some have suggested. If the trust is found to have breached its charitable objectives, the Charity Commission, as the trust’s regulator, would be a more effective body to police that.

That does not mean that the Government are not actively interested in what the trust does or how it goes about its business. I gently suggest, however, that tasking a Government commission to look into the trust to solve its complex problems is not a realistic idea. If there were an appetite for it—both in Parliament and in Government—the statute could be reviewed to consider whether it continues to provide a suitable legislative framework. I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will agree that that should be done only as a last resort, but it is an option. There are many other avenues of influence to effect change, including debates such as this one.

Parliamentary interest can be extremely influential, and I am sure the National Trust will be listening closely to the views expressed today, as I am sure are members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who will also reflect on what has been said.

I understand the Minister’s remarks about the Government’s position, but surely asking the National Trust—at a time when it is laying off something like 1,300 staff—how much it has spent on the review, how many staff have been involved and what it has budgeted for a review of the link between 93 properties, including Chartwell, and colonialism is not an unreasonable question for a culture Minister to ask.

I do not think my right hon. Friend is understanding what I am saying. We do need to hold the trust to account and to ask it questions, but it is, after all, an independent body. We have many mechanism to do so—of course, we are doing so today. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that I will write to the National Trust. I will send it a transcript of the debate so that it can hear the strength of feeling expressed today and answer some of the questions raised. I repeat: it is an independent body, and we need to respect that.

Reports of the events at the National Trust’s annual general meeting suggest that some of its members are not impressed with some of the trust’s activities and direction. It was reported as being bombarded with complaints, with its members wanting it to focus on managing the beautiful houses and gardens, and not on the historical links to slavery and empire in its collection. The chief executive was reported as saying that the National Trust was still deciding how it will use information in the recent slavery report, and the Government will continue to take an interest in that.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has also made his views clear about the trust’s review of the links to slavery and empire in its collection. On 22 September, he stated firmly that the National Trust should focus first and foremost on protecting and preserving our heritage. He was right to highlight that as the trust’s chief concern, and he rightly pointed out that neglecting it will understandably surprise and disappoint people.

I hear the calls for a review or commission on the National Trust. As I set out earlier, however, I am not convinced that a commission is the most effective way to bring about the sort of change that right hon. and hon. Members would like to see. Given the current state of play, I believe that the best approach is to rely on the good sense of the board and its executives to heed and respond to the voices of its members, its army of volunteers, the general public, the media, the Charity Commission as its regulator, and of course Parliament.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire is aware, the trust is losing approximately £200 million of its budgeted revenues for this year as a consequence of coronavirus. It is having to draw on its reserves, though it is also making use of Government assistance, such as the furlough scheme. However, it is important for us to bear in mind that 80% of the National Trust’s funds are legally restricted, meaning they are not available to the trust to spend on running costs or redundancy.

The loss of funding has meant that, sadly, the National Trust has made 513 compulsory redundancies and 782 redundancies. As I understand it, the redundancies protect as far as possible the conservation and curatorial functions of the trust, and it has stressed that the changes do not alter its mission. I also understand that there are no plans to permanently close any of its properties. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire mentioned that he has heard otherwise, so I will seek clarity on that point.

For the reasons that I have set out, I believe the National Trust is a success story. One hundred and twenty-five years on from its foundation, it continues to serve the country by preserving the United Kingdom’s rich tapestry of heritage sites and buildings for the public to enjoy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire has argued, however, its future must be a focus, and it must focus on its core functions: to curate and preserve historic houses, gardens and landscapes for everyone to enjoy.

Although I completely understand the intent behind the National Trust’s decision to undertake a review of its historic houses, especially in this time of heightened awareness of discrimination, I think the National Trust will feel that the way that it was done was unfortunate. I accept that the trust did not intend to cause offence, but we must acknowledge that, for many people, it did cause offence. The trust must reflect on that and learn from it.

For over a century, the trust has focused on preserving and curating our great historic houses, gardens and landscapes for the nation. That is what it should focus on during the next century, too.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.