From Country Estate to Council Estate

From Country Estate to Council Estate

Jim Roberts reflects on a challenging year for the National Trust and dreams up a radical idea.

2020 is a year the National Trust will want to forget.

By comparison to its record-breaking 2019 when annual income reached £634m, conservation spending hit £169m and membership exceeded 5.6m,2020 has been an unequivocal nightmare.

When the first lockdown took hold, 80% of the 14,000 strong staff were furloughed and its entire portfolio of properties was closed to the public for the first time in its 125-year history.

Despite the commendable reopening of most properties between lockdowns under strict social distancing protocols, visitor volume and spending remained a fraction of those heady pre-Covid days and, over 1,200 permanent redundancies have since been confirmed.

As we look through the fog of lockdown 3, praying that the vaccines will deliver the promised exit route, the road back for the National Trust will no doubt be long and tough. The question is, was the National Trust’s business model pre-pandemic delivering optimum return or, does the pandemic and subsequent changing patterns of consumer demands and values present an opportunity to rethink and change?

One of the three founders of the National Trust, Octavia Hill, was a pioneering thinker and social reformer. In the years leading up to the Trust’s formation in 1895, Hill was a revolutionary landlord intent on improving the lives and living conditions of the working class and forging connections between nature and human health.

In recent years, under the stewardship of Hillary McGrady, the National Trust has worked hard to reconnect with its original values and purpose. Turning up the volume on the connection between the Trust’s built heritage, nature and people was a direct response to this. As was, focusing a spotlight on urban areas and the importance of better connecting those communities with open spaces.

Overnight, the pandemic shone an even brighter light on the importance of open spaces. Local parks and reclaimed spaces instantly became the focus of people’s daily activity. Those with less access to open space suffered more from physical as well as mental health issues. More alarming than this, however, has been the disparity in risk and outcomes of Covid-19 on those from more deprived areas and from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority groups.

Shamefully, the polarisation of our communities and the uneven distribution of wealth is reaching ever more horrifying lows as a direct consequence of the pandemic.

If Hill was alive today, I wonder how she would address such societal challenges, armed with a property portfolio amounting to 1.5% of England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, and including over 200 historic houses.

A radical idea, but one which I am certain Hill would have espoused, would be to convert some of the Trust’s estate into social housing. On the face of it, it sounds incongruous. Sacrilege perhaps. But, reaching back to the core purpose of the Trust, it seems to strike a perfect chord. Large country houses that were once built by and for the rich and famous, now being repurposed as homes for some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. The estates themselves could then develop and offer significant place-based learning, skills-development, and work-place opportunities for their new communities.

The impact of such a bold move would overshadow in an instant the traditional approach adopted for these historic properties, which tends to freeze them in time, providing a lens through which mostly the middle-classes can gaze back in history. In a single move, the National Trust could also offer back some recompense for the links that many of these properties had to Colonialism and historic slavery.

Many of the Trust’s country houses were re-purposed during the first and second world wars as hospitals or camps for prisoners of war. As Britain exits the pandemic, with large parts of its economy decimated and swathes of society jobless and suffering increasing physical and mental health problems, perhaps the National Trust could provide an equivalent response to our country’s latest hour of need. Could the National Trust reflect Octavia Hill's pioneering vision to become one of Britain’s most inspiring and influential social housing landlords?

Related Thinking.