Inside the National Trust’s Beeching Plan

August 24 2020

Image of Inside the National Trust’s Beeching Plan

Picture: National Trust

Posted by Bendor Grosvenor

Last week, The Times broke the story about the National Trust’s new restructuring and redundancy plans, causing controversy among members and the public. The Times coverage was based on two leaked documents. The first was entitled ‘Towards a 10-Year Vision for the Future’, and was written by the Trust’s Director of Visitor Experience in May this year. It signalled that the Trust's ambition was to 'dial down' its role as a 'major national cultural institution'. The second - 'National Trust to scrap its experts' - was a redundancy consultation document for the Trust’s curatorial department, dated July. This set out how the Trust would be making a significant number of its curators redundant, abolishing specialist posts like furniture, art and books curators. I wrote a more detailed analysis of what the documents contained for The Art Newspaper here.  

Now, based on further leaked documents and conversations with Trust sources at both senior and regional level, I am able to set out some further details of what the Trust’s plans entail for their historic houses. These houses, as one of the documents put it, are ‘where the cost of opening is greatest - and where we appeal to a narrow audience’*. The houses have therefore faced a greater burden of cuts than the Trust’s outdoor sites. 

The Trust’s strategy can be summarised as the Trust’s version of Dr Beeching’s infamous plan for British Rail in the 1960s. Beeching wanted to close the railway’s rural and branch lines, and keep open only the more profitable, inter-city lines. Similarly, the Trust plans to close or drastically reduce the opening of its smaller and medium-sized country houses, and only keep open continually its most visited - and thus most profitable - ‘treasure houses’. The Times reported concerns from Trust insiders that only 20 such houses would remain continually open.

In response to The Times’ stories, the Trust’s Director-General Hilary McGrady has repeatedly claimed that the 10-Year Vision document was only an internal draft document to provoke debate, or, as she put it on Newsnight, ‘a starter for ten’. It did not, she claimed, represent the Trust’s actual strategy. But this claim is not entirely true. 

The Trust’s new strategy for its country houses has been set out in a series of ‘Reset’ documents, which I have seen. They go alongside the redundancy notices outlining a new staffing structure. Most of these were dated late July, or early to mid-August, just two months after the Vision document was written. The strategy outlined in the Reset documents closely follows that in the Vision document. It is a signficant centralising of management and control across the Trust (which may account why I have been unable to find any cases of redundancy at 'Grade 2' director level or above). 

The key aim of the Vision strategy was ‘differentiation’, the ending of the Trust’s traditional operating model of having a significant number of its country houses open throughout the year. In these, visitors could conduct self-guided tours; you wandered round at your leisure. Rooms would generally be manned by volunteer stewards, often highly knowledgeable, always dedicated. 

But the Vision document suggested ending this ‘one-size fits all’ approach. It proposed different categories for its houses; ‘Treasure’, ‘Classics’, and so on. ’Differentiating the offer is a priority’, it said, ‘[and] is the big enabler of the changes that will follow, so we need to focus on moving this forward quickly… creating a much more flexible and low-cost approach to smaller mansions’. ‘That means’, it went on, that ‘we have to move away from the assumption that all houses are presented as country house former homes. We’ll still have some of these, but they’ll be very clearly signalled as ‘traditional’ experiences for specific audiences. Many, however, will be repurposed…’ The re-purposing allows for houses to be used as event spaces, and ‘commercial operations’, and will require ‘less on open display’, and ‘a major change in collections presentation and storage: without this’ - the document concluded - ‘we’ll be unable to flex our mansion offer’.  

The word ‘differentiation’ features heavily in the Trust’s new Reset documents. In fact, it underpins the Trust’s new country house strategy. ‘Differentiation is something we’ve talked about doing in the Trust for many years’, begins the Reset Differentiation document, written by the Trust’s Director of Culture and Engagement. (Although despite differentiation being so important, it is not something the Trust was keen to discuss, either internally or externally, for it concludes; ‘We’re not publishing the data or numbers for individual properties; as well as some of it not being information we’d want to make public, it’s not practical or desirable for us to run a consultation on that level of detail’.)

The Trust’s new differentiation plan follows the broad categories set out in the Vision document. For the biggest houses, the Treasure Houses, the Trust has said opening arrangements will remain broadly as they are now; open for most of the year, with self-guided tours. However, even here, I have seen documents relating to individual Treasure Houses which make it clear that opening times will be reduced, with shorter opening hours each day, and fewer rooms open for visitors. 

In the next house category levels, such as ‘Classics’, the Trust says it is ‘committed to 363 [days of the year] opening at all places’. But here again this commitment only extends to ‘car parking and access to countryside or parkland’. Opening of the house itself ‘may vary’. For all smaller houses - which the documents say ‘are currently making an operating loss’ - entry will be through guided tours only, which must be pre-booked. Guided tours save the Trust money, because fewer staff and volunteers are needed through the house. Some of these houses will only be open ‘for just a handful of days/weekends a year’, according to the House Opening Reset document. For many houses, the ‘house offer [will be] reduced to three or four main spaces used to present highlights of the collection’. A new post, Curator of Re-Purposing Historic Houses, will help find new uses for those rooms and properties that are deemed suitable for other uses.

There is one very important point to make here; nowhere in the Vision or Reset documents have I seen a single mention of access to historic houses for those with disabilities. Guided tours can present a serious issue for those with disabilities; those with hearing impairment, sight difficulties or mobility issues can find it an issue to keep up with the volume and pace of a guided tour. Another important issue is how guided tours can impact those with autism, who may be easily affected by sensory overload, or having to follow a specific pace and narrative. It appears maintaining physical access has not been considered in the Trust's new differentiation model.

Because the Trust will not make further details of its plans public yet, I have not been able to compile a list of those properties earmarked for permanent closure, or re-purposing. Local press reports have identified properties such as Peckover House in Wisbech as being ‘mothballed’, a curious decision as it's just the sort of urban historic house which might be used to appeal to new audiences. The Reset documents state that ‘a handful of houses at larger properties where we can’t justify the cost… should not re-open as a visitor offer’, and also mention 17 smaller but unnamed properties which will not re-open, because they ‘cater for low numbers (the average is fewer than 16,000 visitors a year’. To further save funds, on cleaning and conservation, The ‘Collections & Interiors’ Reset document sets out plans to ‘Rationalise’ (for which read, reduce) loans and displays - as explicitly recommended in the Vision document.

The overwhelming sense one gets from the Reset documents is how much the strategy is driven by money. This is no short-term plan for getting through the immediate Covid crisis, but a long-term strategy a significant part of the Trust has been keen to implement for some time. I've been told that, in essence, the '10 Year Vision' document was in fact up to three years old. The new strategy contains no sense of maintaining access to houses and its collections for its own sake, that is, the purpose they were given to the Trust in the first place; ‘to promote the preservation of places of historical interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation’. Or, as the Trust’s founder Octavia Hill put it, ‘forever, for everyone’. The differentiation strategy, and the house categorisation which underpins it, is based on visitor numbers and whether houses make an operating profit. 

Many other heritage and arts organisations - including the Trust until now - use funds from their more popular venues to subsidise smaller ones, preserving the whole for its own sake. Historic Royal Palaces, for example, relies on the Tower of London as its cash cow. The National Trust, however, seems to want to make individual properties stand or fall on their own merits, having no concern for the whole. If the Trust had done its best over the last decade to properly value and promote its historic houses, I would have some sympathy with this raise-the-white-flag thinking. But it hasn't.

Moreover, it is hard to see how explicitly ending the model of easy and uniform entry will, in the long-run, be successful in achieving the Trust’s key ambition of increasing accessibility. The new strategy creates so many instances of what the retail trade calls ‘threshold resistance’; the small but significant barriers to entry which put people off entering a shop. In the Trust’s case it may be the doors literally being closed through reduced opening times, or the need to pre-book, or (in my opinion the ultimate disincentive to visit) the dreaded guided tour, which can be a significant challenge for families with young children. 

Focusing on the profitable elements of an organisation, and closing down the rest, rarely works. The Trust should remember the greatest beneficiary of Dr Beeching’s similar approach to the railways - the car.

I’ll be writing more in coming days on further aspects of the plans, including financial and staffing. If you have any opinions or documents to share, in strictest confidence, my email address is on the about page.

* I think it's interesting the Trust - always sensitive to demographics - has used the words 'narrow audience' here, rather than 'smaller audience'. 

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