Looking after special places, for ever, for everyone.
Dame Helen, you are Director General of the National Trust. What is the National Trust?
The National Trust is an organisation that has changed a lot in the last one hundred and twenty years. Its purpose is to promote the permanent preservation of places of historical interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation.
What does this mean?
My point about change is that in every generation people have identified a different threat to which we have to respond. Our very early founders, for instance the most famous, a woman called Octavia Hill, was passionate about two things. First, decent housing for the industrial urban poor; so she founded a housing association. Second, that poor people needed access to green space. The earliest things the Trust bought were green spaces, spaces outside the town where people could travel to and be in the countryside. So in Southern England we own lots of land.
In the middle of the 20th Century, between the wars, in England the great country houses were being destroyed at an alarming rate, because of very high taxation on property and the fact that in many families the male heir to the property had been killed in the First World War. The then leaders of the National Trust, who were quite aristocratic, felt that they had to find a solution. This was the threat to which the Trust then needed to respond, so they made an agreement with the Government that the Government would write-off the tax bill if they gave the house to the National Trust. So we have now three hundred or so large country houses.
And do their families continue to live in them?
The arrangement with the owner depends on the deal done at the time. For example, Lord Sackville at Knole and the Dashwood family at West Wycombe Park had very generous arrangements. In a lot of cases representatives of the family still live somewhere in the house, and in others they have moved away.
Do people like to visit them?
We have 20 million visits a year to our houses, but 200 million visits a year to our countryside (insofar as you can measure its use). We own 250,000 hectares of land in the countryside, particularly in upland areas like the Lake District, Wales and Derbyshire. We own 700 miles of coastline, in order to give people access to walking along the coast. In Britain it is regarded as a human right to walk along the coast, so in the 1980s we launched a public appeal called Operation Neptune to raise funds to buy coastline. It is probably our most successful ever public appeal, because the British people love the sea.
How many subscribers do you have?
We have 4 million.
Their numbers are growing?
They grow by about 100,000 every year.
Probably the majority join because if they are members it is a very good deal, at £70 a year on average, to get into the houses for free and the gardens and park in our car parks. And about 30% are members because they really care about our cause. The importance of the cause to preserve beautiful places is felt more strongly by people as they go through life.
And after the War?
We continued to acquire country houses and started to acquire coastline as a result of Operation Neptune, but we also started to think more about how we could make what we do seem more relevant to ordinary people’s lives. So, some of the historic buildings we bought in recent years are not great country houses collapsing, but are more ordinary buildings, examples of houses that poor people would have lived in. We own in Birmingham three back-to-back houses of poor quality, small Victorian 19th century terraced houses, as an example of how poor people lived and we have recreated how they would have been. And then, in terms of historic connections, for example we bought the childhood homes in Liverpool of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, which are among our most popular properties. People love them and they are much visited and highly enjoyed.
And since you became the Director General, what are your major concerns?
Two things, the first is that I think about our founders and our core purpose, and I ask myself what examination mark would be given for what we have done over the last 120 years. And I think they would give us 8 out of 10 on historic buildings, though I worry that it may be true of the people of this country that people are increasingly disconnected from history, and that we should use our houses and present our houses in a way that makes people understand better how history has shaped the world today.
A good example of that is that we own the house of Benjamin Disraeli, a Victorian Prime Minister who was very much engaged with what was then called the Eastern Question, how you sort out relationships between Russia and Turkey. At his house I think we should do more to explain how the treaties and arrangements that 19th Century European statesmen made in the Middle East have an impact on what we see on the news now and shaped the events of today. We also have Churchill’s country house, Chartwell, and there we should show how Churchill helped to create the post-war settlement and the Europe we know today.
If we give ourselves 8 out of 10 on history, I think we should mark ourselves much lower on the state of nature in this country and biodiversity. Perhaps 3 out of 10.
In our countryside all sorts of species of birds and butterflies are disappearing, suffering catastrophic loss. 40 or 50% of their numbers are going, and some species that we would have thought common ten or twenty years ago have now more or less disappeared, species like the cuckoo. Species that people love are disappearing, like cuckoos and hedgehogs.
What about trees?
Many of our trees have been attacked by parasites and fungus. Some of that has to do with the globalisation of trade, but we need to find a solution. We are very worried about disease in our Ash trees, almost certainly imported by spores carried on the wind.
As an organisation we can do our bit to restore landscape and habitat for birds and butterflies and hedgehogs. And we can also, as we own a large amount of woodland, help find solutions to the problems of tree diseases. Over the next 5 to 10 years we will see if we can get ourselves a better mark.
Do you fight against fracking but defend wind turbines?
We argue against fracking because it continues economic dependence on fossil fuels and some of the environmental impacts are still unknown, so we wouldn’t allow it on our land. We are great supporters of good renewable energy and on our land we have some wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric schemes because we want to get 50% of our energy from renewables by 2020. But we do object to inappropriate, large scale wind farms or solar farms near the properties we own if we believe they destroy the natural beauty of the place.
You come from long Government experience as a prominent civil servant, how do you feel now running a charity?
One thing about it is essentially the same. All the time the decisions I make have the consideration which is: How to serve the public good? Of course, when you are in government, determining the public good is what the democratic government does, and the civil servant is carrying out that decision. Whereas here I can play a much more active part in deciding how we should benefit the public and have a greater freedom of action. But the size of this organisation (10,000 staff and 60,000 part-time volunteers) is very similar to the size of a Government department and so it has a lot of the challenges that running any big organisation has.
What has really changed in the National Trust in the last ten years?
In the last decade or so we have grown and our membership has at least doubled; it was one million in 1995 and now it has grown immensely. Part of that is because it has followed the trend of how people like to spend their leisure time. There are of course more interesting heritage attractions, but a large part of it is that people see us as more welcoming than we were. The biggest progress has been among families with young children. They can make a noise and run around in the woods and we welcome them inside the houses with games.
In other words, the British people are very attached to their patrimony?
Yes, they are.
Has Downton Abbey helped?
We were already very successful before Downton Abbey.
Do you run campaigns and make publicity?
We use our campaigns to send unexpected messages. So for example last year we ran a campaign showing children engaging with the countryside and playing in mud and on beaches, because the image of the National Trust are our historic houses and our tea rooms and we want to change our image, be less stuffy perhaps.
How do you invest?
Our turnover is £500 million a year and we generally invest, from the profit we make and legacies and activities, £150 million a year on conservation and investment in our big campaigns.
And how do you decide which new properties to acquire and which properties not to take on?
When the Trust makes an acquisition, we are making a commitment to look after something for ever. In almost every case we declare the place that we’ve acquired inalienable and this means that we can never sell or mortgage it, so we take such decisions very seriously. We therefore have a set of guidelines to help us decide which acquisitions we can consider. The main criteria for taking on a place are whether that place is nationally important (outstanding for its natural beauty or natural or historic interest) and whether there is a tangible threat to its survival if the National Trust did not acquire it, but equally important are whether the property will be financially self-supporting and whether the Trust is the most appropriate owner.
October 8th, 2014.
All images ©National Trust Images.