Director-General of the National Trust Discusses the Effects of the Pandemic
We knew from the outset of this crisis that closing our places for a sustained period would have a devastating impact on our income.
Towards the end of July, we launched a consultation with our staff that proposes significant changes in the way that we do things at the Trust. These changes are designed to help us withstand the crisis and changed economic conditions and, ultimately, to ensure we can continue to deliver our charitable purpose. We have been careful to ensure that our conservation and care for our houses and collections, gardens, nature and countryside remains central to our work.
‘These are challenging times. I fully understand why our people, staff, volunteers and supporters might be concerned that the proposals we are consulting on are going to have a profound impact on the organisation we all love. But the press coverage during late August, limited as it has been to concerns about our built heritage, is frankly misleading and so I wanted to take this opportunity to be clear what the reality of the situation is.
There is general acknowledgement that a £200 million loss this year is devastating – we cannot weather this storm. If we could, we would. Our income will fall significantly short of our costs for months to come, particularly when furlough ends. The Trust’s £1.3 billion of reserves, often referred to, are legally restricted to the use they were given for, for example the purchase of land on the South West coast. I cannot, and I doubt anyone would, want that money spent on people’s salaries.
Then the question comes about where the cuts should be found. As much as possible, we want to minimise impact on our core conservation work, particularly those at properties. Reductions in house and collections, gardens and countryside roles are significantly less than other areas of our conservation work in order to reduce the impact on our charitable purpose, whilst keeping as much skill and expertise in the organisation that our financial constraints would allow.
But the most damaging inference in the press coverage is that we are intentionally stepping away from our built heritage. I refute this. While I have been trying to highlight our work to fulfil the nation’s need of access to green space, this does not replace our commitment to built heritage. Our strength as an organisation is that we combine both. If anything, I am trying to reverse the decline in the proportion of people visiting the houses in our care.
Further to this, the notion that we will only be opening 20 of our houses is incorrect. When it is safe to do so, 95 per cent of our portfolio will open again. Some will be booked only but that will be a good thing both for experience and conservation.
Our spend to date is further evidence that our built heritage remains central to what we do. In 2019/20 our spending on property conservation projects reached record levels at £169 million, £20 million higher than the previous year. Major projects to conserve our built heritage have included the £6m project to re-roof Oxburgh Hall, the restoration of one of the Trust’s earliest tapestries at Montacute House, and the acquisition of an early painting of Saint Agatha for Osterley Park and House.
What we will be stopping is trying to do the same things everywhere. We simply can’t afford to do that anymore, nor does it do justice to the truly great collections we have. These I want to elevate not downgrade. That is why we are proposing to introduce curator roles at our most significant houses. It is why we have been investing in research so that we can, with real credibility, interpret the history we have been ignoring for some time and it is why we have been drawing on external expertise to supplement our own to great effect.
But we are proposing to lose some good people and I hugely regret that. People will understandably have views that we should lose x instead of y. It is my and my Executive team’s role to ensure the right balance of expertise across the whole of the organisation.
I love this organisation. All of it. And while these times are hard, I will be doing my best to retain the skills, knowledge and expertise we need in all areas, to take it into a future that I believe is still bright and hopeful.’
John Orna-Ornstein, the Director of Culture and Engagement at the National Trust, has also written a response to the recent stories in the press about the Trust’s vision for historic buildings. In this blog post, he discusses what the Trust is doing to care for these important places and collections.