Is it time for a National Trust of Wales?

September 1, 2017 2 Comments

Plas Newydd

There was a time when the National Trust was invulnerable and beyond criticism.  Its aims are so obviously virtuous, and the experience of visiting its sites so rewarding that anyone bold enough to question its ethos or ways of working would have been seen as eccentric.  The Trust is still one of the most popular of organisations, with over two million households as members and over 22 million visits recorded in 2015-16.  Most people regard it as a Good Thing.

But times have changed.  Criticisms in the press and other media are commoner than they were.  They generally concentrate on the Trust’s policies and activities, and seldom question its governing dogmas and assumptions.  Often the carping seems to me wrong and partial.  But there is a strong case for taking a cool look at the National Trust and what it does.  Particularly, I’d suggest, if you come from a Welsh viewpoint.

What’s called the ‘National Trust’ is actually a charitable body covering three nations (or maybe two and a half): England, Wales and Northern Ireland (since 1931 Scotland has had its own, independent National Trust for Scotland).  The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, to give it its full title, has a long history.  It was founded in 1895 as a not-for-profit association, though it later acquired statutory powers.  From the beginning it was a thoroughly establishment organisation.  Its founders, Octavia Hill and her friends, though influenced by the radical tradition represented by William Morris, were embedded in the power structures of English society.

James Lees-Milne

At first the Trust concentrated on buying open spaces, like Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, and endangered houses.  The focus on large country homes and gardens came later, in the mid-20th century, at the prompting of James Lees-Milne, an influential official of the Trust.  Lees-Milne, a society hanger-on, gossipy snob and friend of the Mosleys.  He  had a special mission: to come to the rescue of aristocrats ‘suffering’ through the imposition of inheritance taxes.  The Trust would buy their houses, with the distressed residents allowed to continue living in comfort in them.  A reaction set in to this elitism in the 1960s, and open spaces made a comeback, especially when Enterprise Neptune was started as a programme to safeguard key stretches of the coastline.  But the Trust has never succeeded in shedding its exclusive character or upper-middle class image.  Hunting with hounds and shooting grouse are still allowed on Trust land.

Helen Ghosh

Its most recent Director General, Helen Ghosh, a former senior civil servant, was well aware of the problem that the first part of the Trust’s motto ‘for ever, for everyone’ was truer than the second.  Her attempts to counter them, though, seem to have been maladroit. Forcing staff and volunteers to wear LGB badges was always going to infuriate Daily Mail readers, core Trust members.  Complaining that National Trust houses had ‘too much stuff’, and wanting it cleared out, alienated almost everyone.  And stripping down the Trust’s website so that virtually no useful information can be found on any of its properties was hardly to best way to combat elitism.  In March 2018 Dame Helen will leave her job to become Master of Balliol College, Oxford – a much easier posting, I should think.

In Wales this class baggage the Trust carries has always looked like a heavy weight.  It’s meant that the Trust has often been seen a rather alien organisation rather than a natural member of the Welsh family of voluntary organisations.  It’s not helped that the ability of Welsh people to influence the Trust and its policies has usually been low.  I looked through the current membership of the Board of Trustees and the Council, the Trust’s two governing bodies.  Not one of the twelve Trustees has an obvious Welsh (or Irish, for that matter) connection, and there seem to be no more than two or just possibly three Wales-based members of the 50 or so Council members.  The Trust consistently treats Wales as a ‘region’, along with South West England and other areas of England, and not as a separate nation.

In my own experience the National Trust always seemed to lie outside the usual ambit of organisations concerned with safeguarding the natural and historic environment of Wales.  It was always the body ‘not at the meeting’.  My only direct encounter with the senior team of the National Trust, in Swindon over ten years ago, reinforced this impression strongly.  The Senior Director and his colleagues simply couldn’t comprehend why Wales had its own characteristics and traditions which the Trust should respect, or why the Trust might not always be regarded with universal love in Wales.

I should stress that I’ve always found the staff and volunteers who work for the Trust within Wales unfailingly committed, knowledgeable and helpful.  It’s their ultimate masters who cause the difficulties.  Interestingly, the Trust has a record of paying poor wages, and satisfaction levels among Trust staff, at around 58-59%, are lower than you might expect.

My other impression from the Swindon encounter was how preoccupied the senior team were with money – as opposed to, say, values and beliefs – as the prime organising principle of the Trust.  Time and again they drew attention to the ‘subsidy’ of the Trust’s Wales operations by money from England.  Their main priority for Wales was to secure a substantial increase in income generated there.  (Total Trust income in 2015-16 was £522m, an increase of £28m on the year before.)

The focus on maximising income and increasing commercialisation have had an effect on the Trust’s customers.  Membership now costs £64.80 a year for a single adult; a family needs to pay £114.60.  These are large sums for many people in Wales.  The Trust is coy about how many members it has in different areas, but I’d be very surprised if most members are not concentrated in southern England, and that relatively few live in Wales, where incomes are lower and where National Trust properties are fewer.  Visiting Trust properties as a non-member can also be expensive.  It costs a family £27.50, for example, to see the house and gardens at Plas Newydd.

Some of the Trust’s tenants have suffered too. They have recently been faced with huge increases in ground rents on long lease properties.  And in other ways the Trust gives the impression of caring more about cash than conservation.   Charges and conditions for photography in Trust properties, for example, are outrageous.

Barafundle Bay

What of the National Trust’s assets in Wales?  Most people would say that the Trust’s major contribution has been in its purchases of important habitats and landscapes.  Critical parts of Snowdonia, for example, and the 157 miles of coastline that made the Wales Coast Path more possible than it might have been.

The Trust’s buildings portfolio, though, looks much less satisfactory.  Wales suffers its share of ‘Lees-Milne’ syndrome, with a fair number of ‘gentry bail-outs’, like Powis Castle, Erddig, Penrhyn Castle and Plas Newydd – with Tredegar House and Dyffryn added recently (essentially, bail-outs of impoverished local authorities).  Most of the other buildings are located in rural Wales, in accordance with English Trust prejudice.  Almost half of the counties of Wales have no properties at all: Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Tâf and Torfaen.  As a result the Trust’s range of properties almost completely fails to include industrial buildings, so important a part of the country’s built heritage (the two exceptions are Dolaucothi and Aberdulais).  This creates a serious problem, too, for membership and visitor numbers, since so many people in Wales don’t live within easy reach of a Trust property.

It’s not only industrial buildings in Wales that are ignored by the National Trust.  Take that quintessentially Welsh public building, the chapel.  Amazingly, there is not a single chapel in the Trust’s list – and no plans, as far as I know, to acquire one, despite that fact that many fine chapels have closed and become derelict in increasing numbers within the last decade (Capel, the Chapels Heritage Society, estimates that one chapel closes every week).

Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant

Or take vernacular buildings, arguably more important in Wales because of the comparative dearth of architect-built structures.  The only Trust example is a very fine one, Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, but there could surely be more.  It’s interesting that it was the Snowdonia National Park, and not the National Trust, that recently took responsibility for Yr Ysgwrn, Hedd Wyn’s house, and restored it so well.

Putting all these considerations together, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the National Trust is badly out of touch and out of sympathy with the needs of Wales and its heritage.  The patrician, hard-to-shift culture of the Trust, as I’ve suggested, is one of the chief reasons.  Another is that it’s grown into a too large and remote an organisation, with (despite its statutory duties) almost no answerability to society, and an occasional habit of behaving dictatorially.  In a debate in the House of Lords in September 2016 it was criticised bitterly by Lord Patten on these counts:

… the National Trust seems to have developed a new line in what can only be called autocratic and out-of-touch behaviour, whether towards farmers or cricketers. .. Just listen to what we have seen in the last four weeks. As far as farmers are concerned, there was the gazumping of local farmers in the Lake District, who were all at an auction to bid for a very delicate, upland hill farm area [Thorneythwaite Farm in Borrowdale] where they have long been active as the last, rather fragile link with our traditional farming heritage, and very welcome low-cost custodians of our man-made landscapes. Up pops some agent of the National Trust, bidding hundreds of thousands of pounds more than any chartered surveyor would suggest the land was worth as farmland, with all the casual insouciance of someone waving the cheque-book of a land-accumulating Ukrainian oligarch.

..  the largest private landowner in England and Wales is largely run from London, though with an army of volunteers to whom I pay tribute.  It is unregulated.  Some people—not me—say that it is out of touch and remote from time to time. Perhaps that is a matter of the simple scale of the National Trust and how large it is …

Devolution and local accountability are increasingly part not only of regional rhetoric, but of regional reality. So perhaps it is our fault and that of another place that some key issues have not been addressed, and in particular that legislation does not accommodate reasonable demands for a regional or local voice to be heard within the National Trust, whether that voice is of the paid-up member or simply of the interested or disinterested outsider who might be affected in some way, such as a tenant.

Lord Patten was scathing about the ‘block vote’ wielded by the Trust at its Annual Meeting, and reported the view of some that ‘the inner circles of the National Trust are becoming a bit too close to a self-perpetuating oligarchy for comfort’.  He suggested the Trust might be broken up into ‘a series of regional trusts’.

Has the time come, then, not to fragment the National Trust completely, but to create a National Trust for Wales – a separate Trust better attuned to the needs of Wales, better able to gain the affiliation and affection of Welsh people, and better able to look after our built environment?

There would be drawbacks.  The ‘subsidy’, the net flow of money from England to Wales, undoubtedly exists.  On the other hand a National Trust that was truly part of Wales could achieve much more.  Free of its social class incubus it could appeal to people the current Trust is unable to reach.  It could gain more members, and more volunteers.  It could attract more people to its sites, at lower prices.  It could begin to correct the imbalances in its ownership of buildings.  It could work more freely and naturally with partner organisations within Wales.  It could be more democratic, open and accountable in its operation.  It would feel much closer to the people who live here and able to respond to their needs.  A National Trust for Wales – or better still, a National Trust of Wales – would be positive step towards caring better for our collective past.

Comments (2)

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  1. Julia Edwards says:

    Both my daughter (with specialist/ academic interest in costume history) & my father father,( who occasionally attempted to access the extensive ‘libraries’ in NT properties) , both dispaired of the organisation. The Trust seemed unwilling to cooperate and share its extensive collections of costume & books with researchers.

  2. Chris Edwards says:

    Well said, Andrew. I have long felt (at best) ambivalent about the Trust, for all the reasons you give and, I suggest, a few more.

    Each “property” – the Trust’s choice of noun is revealing – is distinctive, yet presented with a dull corporate homogeneity. The green paint, ubiquitous acorns, scones in the café and tea-towels in the shop suggest the Trust is more concerned with its own brand than the cultures of the sites it looks after for us. What the Trust no doubt calls the “visitor experience”, the procession from gravel car park through to tea in cellar or outbuildings, is bland and predictable.

    The legacy of Lees-Milne pervades this “experience”. Houses have been fossilised as they were when “the family” departed, often right down to 1930s magazines in the drawing room. “The family’s” story is told, and we are expected to care, regardless of whether they were of any historical significance. In some cases (Mottisfont Abbey, for example) “the rooms as they were when the family lived here” have been largely recreated, as the Trust admits.

    The Trust does, of course, have a magnificent collection of artefacts of many kinds. Sometimes there is a strong case for preserving these in the building for which they were acquired or intended – the paintings in the Petworth Gallery might be a good example. But often there is not. Each house’s miscellaneous collection of Chinese vases, portraits, stuffed animals and so forth merely repeats what we well know about changing tastes over time. If the Trust loosened it’s obsession with provenance and family, and considered its artefacts as a single collection, it could curate world-class interpretive exhibitions. It could also turn some of its buildings into glorious galleries to show these exhibitions – and borrow, acquire and commission new work to show alongside them.

    I hope Helen Ghosh writes revealingly about her time at the Trust. I sense she wanted to fight the old dragons, but couldn’t slay many.

    Your proposal for a National Trust of Wales feels absolutely right.

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