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Our vision for places and experiences

Written by
Image of Hilary McGrady
Hilary McGradyDirector-General, National Trust
Hilary McGrady, Director General of the National Trust at Sutton House, Hackney, London
National Trust Director-General Hilary McGrady at Sutton House, Hackney, London | © National Trust Images/John Millar

​​There have been recent stories in the press about the vision we have for built heritage in our care, and experiences at these historical places. Hilary McGrady, Director-General, has written a response to shed light on what we're doing as a conservation charity through the pandemic and beyond for built heritage and historical collections.

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 over the last few days, 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.

I don’t think I need to rehearse the financial challenge we are facing as there is general acknowledgement that a £200 million loss this year is devastating. But there does appear to be a view that we should just weather the storm. We cannot. Our income will fall significantly short of our costs for months to come, particularly when furlough ends. We simply cannot batten down the hatches. If we could, we would. We are and will continue to use the reserves available to us. Approximately 80 per cent of the £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.

A view of the roof of Oxburgh Estate taken from above, looking down over the scaffold which covers part of the roof as part of a major roof restoration project
Roof restoration at Oxburgh Estate | © National Trust Images/Ian Ward

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 the Trust’s earliest tapestry at Montacute House, and the acquisition of an early painting of Saint Agatha for Osterley Park and House.

Two conservators rehanging the Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon Tapestry in the Dining Room at Montacute House after four years of conservation work, with the full tapestry visible against the wood-panelled wall
Conservators rehanging the Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon Tapestry at Montacute House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

What we will be stopping is trying to do the same things everywhere. We simply can’t afford to do that any more, 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.

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