The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty is a bit bogged down just now. It finds itself embroiled in an unholy row over an allegedly pro-creationist display at the new visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway. It’s said that it came under financial pressure from Democratic Unionists in government to do the deed. After all, they did input £9.25 million of public money to the project. Although there’s now some grudging backtracking, the damage to reputation is done, with most of the impact felt in England among outraged members here.
We can take away two lessons from this. The first is that opinions vary, so let’s accommodate that diversity. Opinions regarded as normal in Ulster may not be so normal elsewhere – but the Trust cannot extract itself that easily from goings-on in its most distant province. It isn’t a federation of regional trusts – within the UK only Scotland has its own, fully independent National Trust – but a single entity. That means a central organisation, based in Swindon, that is nominally accountable for all of the Trust’s actions (and so has to suffer all of the indignant mass resignations). Might it be better off breaking up? It might well be. The Scottish and non-Scottish trusts have an agreement to recognise each other’s membership cards, so visitors need not see any diminution of their experience. What they would see is regional organisations much better attuned to regional priorities. Instead, the Trust, like the Coalition, has been hammering its regional offices, pushing small decisions down to local level while centralising all the big ones. Any sense of cherishing distinct regional identities has been eliminated through ruthless application of an increasingly inane corporate image.
The second lesson is that we are seeing, more and more, that independent charitable status is nothing of the kind. The Trust has been given a New Labour makeover in recent years, dumbing down, reaching out, and pulling its regions into line with the Prescott zones. First the East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria regions went. And now Wessex too, swallowed up in, you guessed it, ‘The South West’. Charities are the ideal vehicle for politicians, a shock absorber that distances policy makers from policy deliverers. In a traditional government department, the Minister is responsible for every detail – and is expected to resign if it’s not right. Give a grant to a charity though and different rules apply. You still claim the credit if the policy works. But you can blame the charity if it doesn’t. With post-democratic Britain fast regressing towards the 17th century, there’ll be plenty of this ‘Big Society’ hands-washing and arms-lengthing. Charity – things for which to be grateful, yuz zur, not community – things enjoyed as of right – chimes with the mean and haughty spirit of the age.
How, in a truly decentralised, democratic, community-focused society, does natural and cultural heritage get organised? One answer is that local councils do it. They’re responsible for archives and libraries, and sometimes for museums and country parks. But they’re also under enormous pressure at the moment. Small unitary authorities, or even larger ones with just one or two big attractions to manage, will look for better ways to use what managerial talent they employ. Two Welsh councils have recently brought in the National Trust to manage things for them, handing over the presentation of Dyffryn Gardens, near Cardiff, and Tredegar House, near Newport. Under Thatcher, councils gave things away to the Trust for nothing. Now it’s all done with much greater caution on both sides, councils retaining the ownership but outsourcing the management.
The Trust can provide economies of scale that councils, whether small, poor, or never that enterprising anyway, cannot hope to achieve. It also provides access to a huge marketing system. Council heritage struggles to raise visitor numbers because it costs so much to let folk know it exists. Organisations like the Trust, or English Heritage, have handbooks, websites and networks of contacts, all deploying information arranged in standardised formats for ease of comparison and implying certain levels of accustomed quality. All of this is driving the move out of local control.
But with economies of scale come diseconomies of scale. English Heritage and the National Trust now attract criticism for being just too standardised, too bureaucratised and too little interested in the idiosyncrasies of place. There has long been a view in Wales that it should have its own National Trust, to match CADW, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage. So why not regional heritage organisations within England, perhaps combining the relevant parts of EH and NT, to achieve economies where these would most make a difference through eliminating overlap, while avoiding the worst of giantism?
The specific case for regional organisation is that heritage is the raw material for tourism. We still, despite everything, have regional tourist boards, even if they’re no longer called that. There are two very good reasons why, and why the Coalition’s desire to eradicate regions altogether is such rubbish. One is that itineraries can often be arranged for two- or three-centre holidays that cover a regional scale. Anything larger and the travel between centres starts to eat into and erode the holiday experience. Windsor-Bath-Salisbury. Wantage-Athelney-Winchester. Expand that to the English national scale and it becomes exhausting. The other reason is that tourist promotion isn’t just about selling England to the Americans or the Japanese. There is a domestic market as well, in which Wessex is competing with Cornwall or the Lake District for holidaymakers from Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester. A Wessex identity carried right across the heritage and tourism sectors, internationally and domestically, and taking in transport too, would offer powerful synergies.
These are synergies the London regime is determined to frustrate because anything, even wrecking our prosperity, is better than conceding that England cannot be run on exactly the same lines as Celtic countries a fraction of its size.
Over its first century, the National Trust got very good at what it does. But where should it stop? Is it part of its conservation remit to commission modern art, provide affordable homes for locals, or plug renewable energy? Thinking holistically, all these things have their place but a conservation charity cannot make priorities of all of them. Holistic thinking has to be the role of the community as a whole, acting through its democratic local and regional institutions. And that may mean a much more hands-on approach from those bodies. The Trust will always seek out new ways to maximise income to spend on its core objectives. So it’s not the Trust’s fault if its cottages get let at the market rate and our villages are taken over by retired and weekending Londoners. There are things the Trust gets ‘wrong’ because it has to. Those are the rules Parliament has made for it. But the first opportunity that comes with a decentralised, democratic, community-focused society is the opportunity to re-write the rules. And if that means the Trust as we know it today isn’t around to mark its second centenary then so be it.