Government set to create massive new heritage charity to compete with National Trust, Wildlife Trusts

Today’s the day Chancellor George Osborne revealed the latest government spending cuts.

George Osborne (c) M. Holland
George Osborne

As usual, we were softened up by horror stories, and as it turned out, they were not far wrong. Others will have their say on whether, say, the loss of a further 144,000 public sector jobs is a good way to stimulate economic growth at this juncture. The news that made me sit up concerned English Heritage, the government body which manages the historic built environment of England.

The BBC reports today that “English Heritage has been given £80m in the government’s Spending Review”. Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said: “The new £80 million investment for English Heritage is fantastic news and recognises the vital importance of the historic environment to our national life.” Who can argue with that? Well, watch me try. This windfall is in fact a part of a process to transfer English Heritage to the charitable sector, and I have some big problems with that.

There’s a bit more detail available, although it’s all pretty new stuff. English Heritage is to become a charity by 2015. The new charity will manage the National Heritage Collection, which includes Osborne House, Stonehenge, and many other monuments and artefacts: as English Heritage does now.  Statutory English Heritage responsibilities such as listing buildings will remain government funded – it’s hard to see how they couldn’t be. The new English Heritage charity will have, in the words of the official EH statement: “more freedom to generate greater commercial and philanthropic income”. And the ultimate purpose of all this? The government currently contributes £22m annually towards this work. Government funding for the new “National Heritage Protection Service” will be be reduced after 2015, eventually to nothing.

Continue reading Government set to create massive new heritage charity to compete with National Trust, Wildlife Trusts

Is the National Trust venturing beyond its borders?

The National Trust: one of Britain’s largest landowners, with a membership numbering a stunning 6% of the population of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Big posh houses – yes, quite a few. But also a massive amount of very well-managed countryside, open freely to the public at no cost to the taxpayer. That’s right, it’s not part of the government, it’s a private charity. Pillar of the establishment? Perhaps not any more. The Trust might just be going back to its radical roots with a new and very different policy initiative.

Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve (c) Cat James

The Ranger’s former workplace, Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, owned by the National Trust

When The Ranger worked for the Trust some time ago he had the task of jealously guarding the borders of his properties. With great regularity some bright spark would turn up and see if the National Trust was going to sponsor the local roundabout, help rebuild a house, lend a hand with some recycling project, donate something to someone-or-other, object to a planning application, sign a petition… you get the idea. Always the answer was ‘no’. ‘No, non, nein, our interest stops at the borders of our properties. You may have mistaken the National Trust for your local council: go and bother them’. People were often surprised and affronted that the apparently green and cuddly National Trust seemed so negative and inward-looking. But there were two good reasons for this attitude. Firstly, when it comes to actually giving stuff away it is a legal necessity – if a lot of people have put money into a tin you’re shaking for some particular cause, they might be displeased if you just take that money out and give it to some other thing you like the sound of. That’s why charities are not usually allowed to do that. Secondly, in matters of influence it’s a matter of survival. You need to ensure that what you put your name to really counts, otherwise you’ll end up advertising Dettol. If people learn that you are willing to lend your support to too many things your word ends up counting for nothing. Anyone working in the public sector can confirm this: with finite resources you have to draw the line somewhere, and in the case of the Trust they chose to do literally that at their boundaries. So it was a great surprise when The Times front page thundered:

National Trust to block green belt desecration for new homes (The Times, 3 November 2007)

In an interview with Trust chairman Sir William Proby, the Times reported him as saying that the National Trust would would buy up land or development rights on land to save green fields. In a subsequent speech to the National Trust AGM Sir William said:

What is happening to the countryside? Inch by inch, year by year its redeeming, restorative qualities are being eroded. Bypasses spawn developments filling in the ground between road and town; motorways suck vast shed-filled industrial estates in their wake… We are not against progress, nor do we hark back to some mythical golden past. We support the needs of all citizens for decent places to live and we know that some development must happen. We do recognise the need for some development and we are doing our bit to encourage new housing developments that can be done in an environmentally sensitive way… But the sheer scale of what is being contemplated now goes way beyond this. As an organisation uniquely placed to take the’long view’, we fear the consequences of the irrevocable destruction that is already underway. Surely this is a debate that we have to enter, as our founders and generations of supporters would wish us to do ” to protect the beauty and integrity of our green spaces for all of us.

What an extraordinary departure. The detail of what the National Trust intends to do is yet to be fully seen – as is always the case, it takes its time before doing anything. Having the advantage of not being a political organisation, it does not have to work to anyone else’s timetable but its own, which is very long. But another side to the Trust is that when it sets itself a task, it will set to with an implacable determination that is very hard to resist in the long run. It may take a little while to filter through, but it will come. This AGM speech marks a change in the fundamental position and practice of the Trust. It is taking sides on a matter which is not directly to do with its own properties: and one which quite obviously necessitates annoying people. The National Trust has deliberately set itself up to take a stance against over-development, and hence the government. It is perhaps no coincidence that this announcement comes shortly after Gordon Brown, with his long-professed enthusiasm for economic development and dislike for planning restrictions, has entered 10 Downing Street. It may be a quiet rebellion that has been simmering behind the scenes – Sir William did say to The Times:

We haven’t seen much evidence of government responding to what I am talking about. In fact, we feel the opposite and that the juggernaut is proceeding… It is legitimate for people to be concerned about their local environment. They should have a chance for their voice to be heard. Too many genuinely public-spirited citizens are being unjustly tarred with the Nimby brush.

That sounds a little like a call to arms. Trust managers long retired, who employed The Ranger long ago, would be tugging their beards and shaking their heads at such folly – the Trust to go out and get involved? ‘No, we never got involved’. But now, it seems, they will.

The National Trust: the canary in the mine

The National Trust is having to rethink its strategy because climate change is affecting hundreds of properties and stretches of coastline, the Guardian has learned.

So goes the leading paragraph in the Guardian’s story on the National Trust’s response to climate change. Like many newspapers, the Guardian loves to see a U-turn, or, failing that, a ‘rethink’. But in this instance they are either dead wrong, or years out of date – which is a sin of similar magnitude to a journalist. The National Trust has for many years been at the forefront of work to accommodate rather than fight against the effects of climate change. Whilst some are still convinced that ever-more sophisticated and expensive engineering solutions will be the answer, the Trust is used to taking the long view – after all, they are supposed to look after their assets ‘for ever, for everyone‘. Where they differ from many of those of us who wax lyrical about the virtues of sustainable thinking is that the NT actually do put this principle into practice, and have been quietly doing so for many years (see this article from 2003, or the remarkable tale of Birling Gap in 2001).

Birling Gap

Their policy is quite clear:

…our policy now favours adaptation, to give us time and space to change with the coast and work with the forces of nature…

The NT show this commitment in ways that few can emulate. As the owner of about 10% of England’s coastline they are faced with a huge number of individual decisions to make on coastal defence which, together, add up to one big decision. Other landowners would do well to heed the advice of the NT, and to learn from its willingness to experiment and to take practical action.