Reflections on a challenging year

Published: 06 November 2020

Last update: 06 November 2020

Blog post
This blog post is written by Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust
Hilary McGrady visiting Lyme Park, Cheshire, September 2020

In June, because of the pandemic, we agreed with the Charity Commission to replace our Annual General Meeting with a members' broadcast. Below Director General Hilary McGrady discusses the challenges of the last 12 months.

Firstly, I would like to say a huge and heartfelt thank you to our members. The vast majority of you have stayed with us and continued to support us through the most difficult year in our history, and this has made all the difference.  Members are our bedrock and our strength.

When we reopened across the summer months into autumn, we had more than 5 million visits, and so many visitors said how much they enjoyed returning. Many members have also been kind enough to get in touch and say how much you're enjoying our new members' hub on our website and all the at-home activity we're offering.

Since our last AGM it has been a difficult year for so many of us. This year, as the impact of the pandemic is still being felt, we are having to gather virtually. But however we do it, it is always so valuable to come together. Without our members and supporters, staff and volunteers, the National Trust couldn't begin to fulfil our work bringing nature, beauty and history to people's lives.

There have been many reasons why this year has been such a challenge. Closing our beautiful places to the public was heart breaking and the subsequent job losses brought on by the effects of the pandemic have been enormously difficult.

The members' broadcast on 7 November is a chance for you to say where you think we have gone wrong and where you think we have got it right. I welcome both perspectives.

There has already been a lot of debate about our report into the links between the places we look after and the history of colonialism and slavery.

Exploring and sharing the history of places we look after is part of our job and completely within our charitable objectives.

In the past we have produced research into the links between our places and women's suffrage, children's play and its evolution, memorial landscapes, and other themes that are common to our places and affect how we care for them.

The colonialism research explored the relationship between British colonialism, including Transatlantic slavery, and the buildings and collections in our care. It is does not make judgements about people or the places in our care but instead makes statements of historical fact.

The National Trust achieved Independent Research Organisation status in 2019 and as part of this we are committed to maximising the impact of our research to benefit society.

We will use the report's findings to research, interpret and share full and up-to-date information about our places.  We will integrate this information into our interpretation where and when appropriate, but it will not dominate nor fundamentally change how our properties are experienced.

Members and the media have challenged us about dumbing down or turning our backs on our houses. To be clear, there are no plans to permanently close any properties or reduce our commitment to the houses in our care.  Last year we spent three times more on houses, gardens and collections (£129m) than we did on coast and countryside (£40m). Government rules permitting, by spring we plan to reopen 246, very nearly all of our properties. While we will have less to spend because of Covid in the short to medium term, we expect the proportion of investment to remain similar.

Together, our places and collections rank among the nation's greatest cultural treasures. Our collections have national and international significance - they also belong in specific places with specific communities. That is what makes us so unique.

Cutting our cost base has been vital to ensure our future. We have been challenged about not using all our reserves, but the truth is we cannot use restricted funds - money given to us for a specific place or purpose - for the running costs of the charity. That would be wrong morally and legally.

In making the decision about where to reduce costs, we purposely minimised losses in those areas that are central to our charitable including care of our houses and collections and land management.  During consultation, we listened to the feedback and agreed that the cuts were too deep in curatorship, our work with children and young people and compliance and have re invested accordingly.

This weekend will be the first of the new lockdown period in England. I have read so many messages from people truly grateful that we are able to keep our parks and gardens open for them to enjoy the nature on their doorstep. We need nature and nature needs us to help protect it and to allow it to flourish.

At the National Trust we are custodians of so much that is great about England, Wales and Northern Ireland - art, architecture, history, landscapes, nature and wildlife. I am proud of everything we look after, and I am immensely grateful to the people who help us do it.

Thank you.