Restore Trust, a private limited company, has once again attempted, unsuccessfully, to infiltrate the council of the National Trust with its slate of ‘anti-woke’ candidates. In the light of constant and often inaccurate rhetoric around the conduct of the National Trust, we put some questions to its director of communications, Celia Richardson.
Interview with National Trust’s Celia Richardson
National Trust council elections are now national news. How has that impacted you?
Well, more of our members are voting than ever before and that’s a good thing. Institutions with democratic structures need a healthy level of participation, and that’s what we are aiming for.
In the last three years National Trust members have become more aware than ever of just how important it is to make their views known, and many more are now taking part. But at an individual level and as a leader of a really good team of people whose job is to promote conservation and enjoyment of culture and nature, dealing with the tactics and some of the misinformation has been difficult and resource-intensive and not the best use of charitable funds.
Our social media people have to put up with a lot, and our media people have had to fight for a lot of corrections and apologies from newspapers. And some of the stories are confected or misleading. Like this week’s story that we have cancelled Christmas, which started at our AGM.
While they can just act as fodder for people who get involved in culture wars activity, they genuinely upset some people and erode their trust in organisations, and that’s a serious matter. Luckily public trust in the National Trust has been rising fast and awareness of the organisation has also been rising fast, particularly among young audiences and that’s something worth working hard for, so we always put in the effort in to correct misinformation.
Why do you think there has been such resistance to the 2020 National Trust report on colonialism and slavery?
There was a very strong response to the report, which we published during a very difficult time, in 2020. This included thousands of responses from the public, our staff and volunteers, academics, historians and media commentators. Their views have been quite wide-ranging.
We received many messages of support, but undoubtedly the report and some of the commentary and debate that followed it caused genuine concern for some people. And the timing of the publication was undoubtedly a factor. Some people have felt that looking at these aspects of history is not what they believe the Trust should be doing, as they believe our job is merely to conserve buildings. But research is part of that and it’s part of our remit and it’s part of our job to keep researching and adding to knowledge of the places in our care.
It is worth remembering why we published the report. To look at an aspect of history that is there in many of the places we care for. To look at the material evidence we have and ensure we take account of it and share it appropriately. To be transparent and factual about this.
It’s a good sign when the work of an organisation is of interest or value to people with a broad range of opinions. Our national institutions need scrutiny, and they also need healthy and respectful debate if they are to thrive and be handed on to serve future generations as they have served so many in the past and present. Unfortunately that’s not always a reality.
How do you balance the needs of small tenant farmers with the Trust’s policy of rewilding land?
We don’t have a policy on rewilding our land. Rewilding as a term means different things to different people and we want to be really clear about our approach to land management.
Nature-friendly land management and farming are not mutually exclusive. A healthy natural environment underpins food production and high-quality food is produced from nature-rich land. More than 80% of the 250,000+ hectares in our care is farmed in one way or another. Farmers are our allies and have a vital role in driving many of the changes that are needed and there are great examples of where this is working.
We’re exploring more ways to make all the land we care for healthier and more resilient, often working with farmers to put nature at the heart of it. This helps protect water and soil, capture carbon, create bigger wildlife habitats and provide public access, while making sure farmers can run successful businesses and produce great food.
Is the Trust using more professionals and fewer volunteers than previously and if so, why?
Volunteers are a huge part of the National Trust – we have been a volunteering organisation throughout our 128-year history and our staff and visitors are incredibly grateful for their contribution to what we do. Our chairman and trustees and council are all volunteers. Between them our volunteers donated an amazing 3.4 million hours in support of our work last year.
We continue to offer a wide range of volunteering roles, from maintaining parklands and gardens, to cleaning delicate collections, to helping our visitors connect with the history of our places.
We have a volunteer charter to make sure that we support volunteers to the best of our ability and that they get what they want out of their role with the Trust. Volunteers take part in an annual staff and volunteer survey and they are involved in our strategy-making process. Numbers can fluctuate and they did during the pandemic but we haven’t made deliberate changes to staff/volunteer ratios.
The National Trust is undoubtedly a valued and much-loved British Institution. Do you feel recent criticisms by Restore Trust and some outlets of the British media have undermined it?
No, independent research shows clear growth in public trust and one survey recently published showed that we are now second only to the NHS as a trusted institution and public trust has grown seven points in the last year alone.
It’s worth looking at those results. We will always have our critics and that’s healthy and normal, but I believe that a sense of jeopardy has been felt when people saw that the Trust being attacked on a more systematic level and that’s made them think.
Some commentators have taken an interest and pointed out the unusual nature and frequency of those ‘trouble at the National Trust’ headlines, especially in the long run up to our AGM each year. I’ve also been pleased to see political research that shows we are held in equally high esteem by voters across the political spectrum.
What damage could a Restore Trust slate ultimately do to the NT?
It’s so difficult to say. Their messages and aims have continued to change and this year they added the ‘Respect Britain’s Heritage’ campaign which had a very different feel from their previous output. Things keep changing and I don’t know what the long-term goals are. But any charity would be concerned about a private company using paid-for campaigning to get candidates onto its governing body. This is hugely unusual for the UK voluntary sector.
Where do you see the Trust in ten years’ time?
The National Trust is the second biggest membership organisation in Britain. I think its broad base of support will continue to grow, and its volunteer base will grow across the generations. Projects like the successful Castlefield Viaduct (sky part in Manchester) are likely to be replicated in other towns and cities as the Trust deals with unequal access to nature and green space, which became very obvious and an issue of greater national concern during the pandemic.
Public participation in things like our annual Blossomwatch campaign and National Festival of Blossom will grow. We will need to find new ways to fundraise to keep doing what we do in the great houses and other places we care for, but also rise to the growing challenge in protecting biodiversity and restoring nature.
Only a couple of generations ago, the National Trust and its volunteers fundraised to buy hundreds of miles of coast on behalf of the nations and that’s why we can all walk the coast paths of Devon and Cornwall and South Wales and Northumberland and so on. We need that scale of ambition in the future. That’s why an organisation with such a broad base of support and broad convening power needs to work hard to build and maintain public support and trust, and I’m very pleased to be part of it.
The Restore Trust is not going away. With the bizarrely excessive support of the Daily Telegraph in particular, and other media outlets such as GB News, they are likely to ramp up their campaign especially around festive periods such as Easter and Christmas and the run up to its AGM.
The strange fixation that some on the right have with the National Trust is in many ways a microcosm of the political atmosphere in the UK as a whole. Whether it’s the BBC, the police, the Church of England or the Trust, revered institutions which, during the 20th century grew to form the bedrock of our modern national identity are under a seemingly coordinated attack by representatives of the utterly misnamed ‘silent majority’.
The British people regularly show who the majority really is, and on Saturday they did it again at the National Trust AGM.