Skip to main content

National Trust: 125th Anniversary

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maggie Throup.)

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to bring forward this debate on the National Trust in the year of its 125th anniversary, which is obviously coming to an end.

The National Trust is a fantastic British institution and an important part of our offer to international tourists. In many ways, the National Trust sets the benchmark for the high standard of our heritage and natural environment. Personally, I have a positive history with the National Trust, having served much of my apprenticeship as a Cornish mason on National Trust sites. It is that relationship, and the fact that I care about the National Trust, that brings me to the House this evening, along with the concern of many of my constituents.

I stand here to celebrate 125 years of the National Trust and to petition the Government and the National Trust to act to ensure that the National Trust does not lose sight of its core principles and charitable aims. It was this House that gave the National Trust its purpose:

“The National Trust shall be established for the purpose 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 is practicable) of their natural aspect, features and animal and plant life.”

I recognise that responsibility for the National Trust, in all its functions and as it discharges its duties, will span several Government Departments, but I am glad to see a Minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport present to respond to this debate.

It is time for the Government and/or the Charity Commission to review whether the National Trust is behaving in a way that is consistent with its purpose. I say that because I see increasing evidence of the National Trust appearing to reach far beyond what people believe to be its purpose and function, acting at times as a completely unaccountable body that can make impositions on lives and livelihoods without any right to reply or recourse, having no concern for how long it takes to engage, even when individuals and businesses seek proactively to engage and appease National Trust staff.

It is right, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I inform you at this stage that I have written to the Charity Commission to set out my concerns and those of many of my constituents. There is reason to be concerned and I hope to set out this evening a few examples of why concerns exist.

Constituents in west Cornwall raise examples such as the trust proposing that landowners carry out activity, including the erection of buildings, on land that neither it nor the owner actually owns; house sales either falling through or prices being dramatically reduced because of obstructive interventions and/or delays by the National Trust; constituents waiting two and a half years for the National Trust to finalise a covenant; businesses being charged levies in return for National Trust consent to developments on privately owned land; the trust appearing to favour the promotion of holiday accommodation over the maintenance of small but important farms along the Cornish coast; blocking efforts to install renewable energy solar panels on privately owned agriculture buildings; having a disregard for local sensitivities, listed building regulations and basic planning processes; embellishing covenants, leaving owners stating to me that their grandparents, who agreed to covenants in good faith, would turn in their grave; and refusing to take responsibility for assets that are unsafe for the general public.

Only this weekend, I was asked:

“Please could you ask the National Trust if it is still their policy to support small family farms? Or given their current financial crisis will they opt for the short term financial gain of holiday accommodation over the long term benefit of local employment and better husbandry of the land?

This is particularly important for your constituency where several National Trust tenant farmers have recently given notice to quit, leaving an opportunity for new, younger entrants into farming—an opportunity that the NT appears not to be taking.”

Should that be the case, it is completely contrary to the good work that the Government are doing through the Agriculture Act 2020 to support the introduction of fresh blood into farming and support the transition to younger generations.

Is it not time, however, on the 125th anniversary, to congratulate the National Trust on all the wonderful work that it has done—branching out to protect land and our natural environment as well—and understand that the National Trust, along with Government and all of us, are facing very difficult choices and challenges?

I welcome that intervention, and that is exactly my point—the National Trust is such an important institution, is so celebrated and important to the British way of life, our care and protection of the natural environment, that if we allow some of these things to continue, that good work could be lost—lost in translation, if not lost to the awareness of the public. Yes, this is a difficult time, but I have been an MP for just over five years and many of these issues were there long before I became an MP. I have worked hard, but have failed to address some of those very difficult issues with the National Trust. This is not—I am really clear with the National Trust when they give me a similar response—about the additional pressures that covid has inflicted on the National Trust.

I should declare that I am a member of the National Trust and have been for many years, but I have a very robust relationship with it in my constituency, because I think it is very important that some of the issues that the hon. Member is bringing into the Chamber tonight are debated transparently and openly. Nevertheless, I hope that we can get back to a time when my constituency had a million visitors a year coming to the world heritage site that the National Trust manages. We have seen the benefit of that tourism to my constituency, and to the local farmers and local businesses in the village of Bushmills.

I want to make it clear that the work that the National Trust has done around west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly—Cornwall in particular—is hugely important and valued.

In April 2020 I set up, with a councillor from Cornwall Council, a tourism recovery group, and the National Trust took part as a representative of many different organisations, all charged with trying to find a safe way to open up tourist attractions for people to return, as they did on 4 July. This is about identifying some of the concerns that constituents have, in order to address them, so that we can return to the core values and be reminded of the fantastic work that the National Trust can deliver through a huge army of fantastic volunteers across the United Kingdom. However, it is of great concern if the National Trust’s approach to increasing yield is to make as much money as it can, rather than protect and enhance small farms and support the fresh blood introduced into the sector.

A constituent that I have been in correspondence with for some time writes:

“We wanted to put solar panels on an agricultural shed on the farm as a way of reducing costs and our carbon footprint. The National Trust objected and prevented us from doing this.

The National Trust threatened me with legal action after we placed a temporary or moveable hut in a field for the summer months to sell ice cream from our own dairy cows, which we make on the farm. It is normal farming practice for a farmer to sell his produce in whichever way he deems the most profitable. To contradict themselves, the National Trust have ice cream vendors selling ice cream at multiple…sites all around the country, many of them rural beauty spots.

The National Trust reinvent the interpretation of the covenant as it suits them, as our family have found out on many occasions. In short, if it was okay to remove a rock or plough a field when the covenant was granted then it still is now, as the covenant’s wording has not changed, nor will it.”

She continues:

“This giant and powerful organisation is making uninformed, inaccurate and hugely detrimental decisions that are inconsistent.

Their interpretation is preventing small family farms from farming and could cause many of us to go out of business, as many farmers do not have the spare capital to litigate against such a huge organisation.”

Madam Deputy Speaker, if you wish to alter or extend your property, the local planning authority operates under strict rules and guidelines, the process is time-limited and the applicant has the opportunity to challenge the decision. If you happen to have a National Trust covenant on your property, sadly, the same transparency and accountability does not apply. The National Trust can determine whether the same improvements take place, with no clearly published process or procedure. There is no requirement for the National Trust to give reasons for its decision; it can take as long as it wants and there is no appeals process. For example, Cape Cornwall Club, a privately owned hospitality business that leases its 70-acre golf course from the National Trust, has taken 18 months to gain consent to pre-planning proposals to carry out much-needed improvements to the hospitality business—months and months waiting for responses to emails from architects, some of which were only obtained because my office intervened.

Now the club has got past that hurdle, the National Trust demands a new levy based on the improved value of the asset. No previous levy ever existed and no details can be found in the covenant. The owner wrote to me saying:

“The National Trust are trying to impose an undisclosed levy on any increase in the value of our freehold value once we have formal permission to complete the work and they also want us to pay for the surveyors’ valuation.”

In return, the National Trust said that

“as a condition of giving our consent, we require a monetary payment where our consent, substantially increases the open market value of the covenanted land. This increase is called ‘uplift’.”

The trust stated that its consent

“would add value to the property which you will benefit from when it is sold, in these circumstances it is only equitable that the Trust also benefits from this uplift having given permission for them”.

I really am not sure that that is appropriate or just, and I hope the Minister can look at that issue in particular. I would assume that it is for Government to apply taxes, not the National Trust.

Furthermore, other businesses have found the trust to be similarly unhelpful, despite the significant challenges, to which we have just referred, that businesses have faced this year. For example, the National Trust insisted on charging full rent on a hospitality business during lockdown and refused to negotiate any reduction whatsoever or even to negotiate a payment plan. The business was closed and had to return fees and charges that it had collected. The National Trust’s cold response in October this year was:

“As the restrictions were imposed by the Government, it is not for the National Trust as a landlord to be expected to credit valid rent/lease charges.”

The National Trust is not even prepared to discuss payment plan proposals. Instead, it has issued a final demand and intends to take legal action.

One of the earliest and most troubling examples of the National Trust’s approach to discharging its duties, which takes me right back to soon after I first became an MP, was the case of Levant mine. If anyone has the opportunity to go and see it, it is an amazing, historical, vitally important former tin mine, right at the far western end of my constituency. The National Trust’s approach in the case of Levant mine was to run roughshod over planning laws, local concerns and sensitivities in order to maximise income for the trust and in the name of health and safety.

The difficulty was that, as someone who learned some important skills about preservation and heritage while working on National Trust sites as an apprentice, I could see on visiting the site that the work carried out at Levant fell well short of anything that would previously have been accepted. The sad twist of this particular episode is that Levant mine saw the loss of 31 miners last century and many people, including descendants of those lost, hold a special place for Levant mine in their hearts. The National Trust’s approach to Levant mine resulted in many excellent, experienced local volunteers packing it in. Thankfully, much of the work has been rectified, but only after significant local objection, local expertise, which I was very grateful for, enforcement by Cornwall Council and intervention, including by my office.

The trust’s completely avoidable misdemeanours included installing unsightly signage and infrastructure on land that forms part of one of our most important areas of outstanding natural beauty. It sought to impose parking charges on land that does not belong to the trust. It intended to increase the car park in a way that was completely inappropriate, given its location in an AONB. It failed to secure building consent. It parked a coffee van adjacent to the place where the families go to remember the miners who died, and it erected poorly designed safety grilles and barriers of dubious build quality. Even today, I hear concerns about the lack of basic maintenance on this hugely important site.

During my brief time as a MP, I have found that the case load of National Trust-related issues is disproportionate to the many other issues that an MP’s office encounters. I accept that the National Trust has important responsibilities for huge parts of the Cornwall, and it does an important job for us. I have many more examples that I could give, but I will just mention one: Porthleven slipway. The beach is another beautiful place to visit if you are in the area, and it is owned by the National Trust. The only access to the beach is via a slipway that Land Registry records show the National Trust is responsible for. The National Trust does not accept that, and despite advice to rectify Land Registry records, it has decided not to. The slipway is dangerous and unmaintained. To me and many others, this is an abdication of duty by the trust.

As I say, there are plenty of examples, but instead I will turn to the Minister with four clear asks. Important comments have been made in the debate about the value of the National Trust, its service to our beautiful country and the opportunity it provides to attract visitors from overseas and to protect our beautiful natural environment. Given that, will the Minister look at the need to review whether the National Trust is acting in keeping and truly in line with its core principles and charitable aims? Will he consider the need for an ombudsman or similar pathway for people who believe that they have been treated wrongly or poorly by the National Trust to be heard and for the National Trust to be held to account? Will he investigate the practice of the National Trust in imposing charges and levies on landowners and businesses? Will he look at the need for an independent body or mediator to approve any proposed changes to existing covenants by the National Trust? Currently, landowners have no course of action other than to go through a legal route, and the cost of litigation is far too high, so they buckle under the pressure.

I am a fan of the National Trust. I learned important skills—ones that I may well need to fall back on at some stage in my life—by working on National Trust sites. I have huge admiration for the army of National Trust volunteers, who do incredible work across west Cornwall and around the country. I have enjoyed a good relationship with most of the National Trust—possibly not after this evening. I do not believe that the trust is rotten to the core, but there is certainly rot within the organisation. There is a need to review how it operates, to ensure that it can deliver on its primary purpose and charitable aims and continue to provide all the value added that it does to our country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this Adjournment debate and on highlighting issues that touch on his constituency and the wider powers of the National Trust. The trust is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and he is right to note its achievements, as have others, including the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). Having visited my hon. Friend’s constituency earlier in the year, I know that his part of the world is, indeed, blessed with beautiful landscapes, fantastic scenery and an amazing coastline. It has more than its fair share of heritage sites, including a world heritage site, so I recognise his interest in the overall heritage agenda and the National Trust in particular.

Before turning to the specific matters raised by my hon. Friend, I would like to join him in acknowledging the tremendous work that the National Trust has done over the last 125 years. When it focuses on its core function, which is managing the collection of historic houses, gardens and landscapes for the pleasure and benefit of the public, the work of the National Trust is often unsurpassed and brings enjoyment to millions of visitors and members. I include myself in that number, as I am a proud National Trust member, and I have spent many weekends visiting attractions in and around my constituency and the country in my capacity as heritage Minister.

Will the Minister include in his praise the fact that the National Trust is setting itself a progressive agenda, telling a history that might not always be as traditional as some traditionalists would like and a story that is more inclusive and includes Black Lives Matter, as is the case in the excellent exhibition in Dyrham Park?

Indeed; the National Trust, like many heritage institutions, has a responsibility to explain, but also to not lecture. That is a difficult balance that some organisations are facing at this moment in time.

On that point, has not the National Trust become preoccupied by the political polemic and flirted with a number of ideological causes that are far from its core mission of preserving and promoting Britain’s heritage through the houses and land of which it is the custodian?

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here longer than anybody else. He knows that the Minister has to finish responding to the first intervention before he can take a second.

It is nice to see even the Father of the House making procedural errors; it gives us all a bit of confidence.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) knows, we had a debate about this issue in Westminster Hall not so long ago. I think it would be unfair to characterise the National Trust as being preoccupied by some of the matters that he mentioned. The trust knows that some of the issues that it has talked about are a matter of public debate, and it is very important that it listens to its members, to Members of Parliament and to our constituents’ concerns. When the National Trust focuses on its core role, it does an excellent job, but it is sensitive and aware that it has —unintentionally, perhaps—caused offence to Members of this House and our constituents with some of the comments that it has made recently.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful; I was only trying to help the Minister as he replied to our right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). May I put on record that I completely disagree with our right hon. Friend over what the National Trust has done with regard to Black Lives Matter issues and slavery? I congratulate the National Trust on having an interactive exhibition some years ago showing what it was doing, long before it became fashionable to look to see what the past included. It would be kind to the National Trust for us to recognise that there is a variety of views on the Conservative Benches, and I will speak up for that. I also suggest that the National Trust writes openly to those who have contributed to this debate with its answers to each of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), because I am sure that it can deal with them in a way which will make everyone happier.

The Father of the House is right that there is a diversity of opinions on this issue and others. As I said, I have had many conversations with the National Trust. Where it has caused offence—and it recognises that it has caused offence and upset—I genuinely believe that that has been unintentional. It focuses very much on its core role. On my hon. Friend’s other comments about responding to our hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, that will indeed be one of the requests later in my speech.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that the National Trust has actually appointed someone to address the issue of “woke” within the organisation, and that is clearly a recognition within the trust that it has not got the balance right. As has been inferred by the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), a lot of work needs to be done, but we congratulate it on the steps that it is taking and look forward to working with it, hand in hand. I am looking forward to seeing how the Minister responds to the calls tonight for an ombudsman-type service into some of these issues, so that we can really ensure that the National Trust is the nation’s trust.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the National Trust endeavours to work with all stakeholders, who hold a variety of opinions, as we do in balancing the opinions of our constituents. I appreciate the comments that he made earlier praising the National Trust, as well as, quite fairly and reasonably, expressing concerns about its practices.

Order. I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that I have allowed a lot of interventions. The Father of the House arrived one minute late for the debate, so I have given him the benefit of the doubt. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was here at the beginning of the debate. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) arrived a minute and a half late. The hon. Gentleman came in 10 minutes after the beginning of the debate, so I do not really think he should be intervening, unless it is really serious for his constituency. I think he should do the decent thing and not intervene, when he came in 10 minutes after the beginning.

I would be happy to engage with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) after this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives set out his concerns about how the National Trust is run, so it might be helpful if I speak to its governance arrangements before coming on to some of the specific concerns he raised. The National Trust’s vision is to protect and care for places so that people and nature can thrive. To deliver this ambition, it is governed by a board of independent trustees chaired since 2014 by Tim Parker. The chair is supported by a team of trustees who bring expertise to the running of the trust and who are collectively responsible for everything that happens and for ensuring that the trust meets its statutory purpose. The trust is also a registered charity, regulated therefore by the Charity Commission, so the board has to ensure that its activities do not contravene its charitable purpose. The role of the Charity Commission is to ensure that charities further their charitable purposes for the public benefit, comply with their legal responsibilities and duties, and ensure that there is no misconduct or mismanagement.

Charities are independent entities, and provided that they act within the law and the terms of their governing documents, charity trustees have broad discretion to further the charity’s purpose in a way that they consider most appropriate. If they do so, the Charity Commission has no reason to intervene. Where charities are making decisions that impact on local communities, they must, as a matter of good practice, engage with those communities and listen to their concerns and the strength of local feeling to ensure that they are properly informed before making their decision. That area is, as we have heard, potentially an area of weakness for the trust, and it must consider the comments made today.

I set out these governance arrangements to emphasise the point that the National Trust is an independent body. It is independent of the Government. It does not receive any ongoing public funding for its work, and its activities are overseen by the board and the Charity Commission as regulator. This means that while I can debate with my hon. Friend where the trust can do better, I cannot direct or order such change. He suggests that an ombudsman might be better placed to oversee the trust. Ultimately, that is not for me to decide, but I can say that the issues he raises have been brought to the attention of the Charity Commission, which is considering them carefully. It will need to determine whether the trustees have acted in line with their legal duties and responsibilities. He will know that the Charity Commission itself is answerable to Parliament and can be called on to give evidence on its work before, for example, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

With regard to some of the specific issues raised by my hon. Friend, he expressed concerns about mismanagement, poor decision making and a lack of responsiveness by the National Trust in Cornwall, including its oversight of the world heritage site known as the Tin Coast, which includes the historic Levant mine. He says that some of his constituents have waited for as long as two and a half years for a decision on an issue. This is very troubling given the custodian role of the National Trust—the role it plays in many of our communities up and down the country. The National Trust owns significant amounts of land and properties in and around his constituency, and trying to find an appropriate balance of the needs of local residents, businesses, the economy and the maintenance of the historic environment can be fraught with difficulty. However, I agree that a good balance must be struck between those competing pressures, and that this balance must be established in conjunction with the local community.

My hon. Friend spoke about covenants, or conservation covenants as they are often known, and asked whether there could be an independent regulator to mediate disputes over these. Covenants have a long-standing history over hundreds of years of English common law, and it will be no surprise to him if I suggest that wholesale reform, if it is indeed needed, is perhaps a debate for another day. But in general terms, when a landowner wants to make changes on their land—for example, to construct a new building or to change the purpose of their land—they may need to ask for consent from the covenant holder. Obtaining this consent is separate from any planning, listed building or scheduled ancient monument consent that may also be required. The National Trust holds an astounding 1,760 covenants across 36,000 hectares of land, and many of these arose as a result of approaches by landowners offering covenants so that should their family dispose of the property at any time in the future, they would have the comfort of knowing that the trust would be able to protect certain aspects that they held dear about the land or property in question. They therefore play an important role in aiding the trust in its duties to conserve.

However, as my hon. Friend set out, covenants also give the trust a high degree of control over changes on covenanted land, and it is sometimes the case that the wishes of the occupants conflict with how the trust views its responsibility of conservation, as covenant holder. With this control and authority over land come different responsibilities, additional to conservation, such as listening to different views, understanding local concerns and explaining the decisions the trust makes, especially when these are complex and difficult.

It would not be appropriate for me to adjudicate or judge the merits of the case that my hon. Friend has described. The Charity Commission is the most appropriate and expert body in this regard and I do not want to pre-empt any decision it has yet to arrive at. However, allegations that the National Trust is not explaining its decisions or taking into account a wide spread of views are, unfortunately, familiar things that will resonate with many Members of this House—we have heard that this evening—as will the concern that correspondence is sent but replies are not always forthcoming, or, at least, not in a timely manner.

This way of working does not build the confidence of Members, who are rightly trying to represent their constituents, as is my hon. Friend. The trust must understand that, given the power it holds, it has a significant responsibility to work with local communities while conserving the land it is entrusted with. I assure him that I will raise that responsibility directly with the director general of the National Trust. But in the interest of balance, I should also point out, as have other Members, that I also hear of circumstances and occasions where the National Trust has very positive experiences with Members.

I know that the National Trust executive team will be alarmed and concerned to hear that they are not seen to be as responsive as they could be to some MPs and their constituents. But it is important to remember, on its 125th anniversary, that, overall, the National Trust is a conservation and heritage success story that we can all be proud of. In 125 years, it has grown from being a project pioneered by three visionaries who owned one building in Suffolk to being the largest member-based heritage organisation in Europe. We should celebrate that success, without ignoring where the trust needs to do better. It has the responsibility to listen and to explain its decisions to its tenants and neighbours. My hon. Friend has made his arguments powerfully and I am sure the trust will be paying close attention. I, too, look forward to hearing its response to his concerns.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.