Is the National Trust at War with its Tenants?

crossroads

 At a crossroads? The NT is at loggerheads with its tenants’ organization.

Photo credit: Emma Durnford, Getty Images

 

Trouble is brewing at one of Britain’s best loved institutions. Papers released last week show that the stage is set for a showdown between the Board of the 4 million-strong National Trust and the only organization exclusively representing the Trust’s tenants, at the former’s AGM next month.

In 2014 the Board decided to end 14 years of funding of the Tenants’ Association of the National Trust (TANT), saying that it was no longer appropriate to treat it differently to other tenants’ groups, and pointing towards fee-paying subscribers as the way forward.

Surely fair and reasonable? Not everyone thinks so and you can see why. TANT’s case is based on value-add. It’s great but challenging being a NT tenant they argue. Beautiful buildings but also frequently run-down and high maintenance. Also many properties are “working buildings”, being key parts of the Trust’s operational – and income generating – estate. TANT says they make sure concerns are raised and acted upon before they brew up into costly legal, regulatory or reputational problems. All for £15k a year (or around  0.0003% of the 2015 NT’s rental income.)

Oh this is crazy, you may be thinking. Even if this is imperfect, why try and fix something that is clearly not broken.

But there are other arguments. The Board’s position is that they are not providers of social housing, that there are other stakeholders, that TANT would speak with more authority if they did so on behalf of a paying membership.

Whilst you can see from the maths that each tenant would need to fork out only £3 a year to match the central soon-to-be-withdrawn funding, that is not the issue. Becoming a member-based organisation dependant on subscription income may be desirable in pure democracy terms but it is not cost or challenge free. Crucially, the overheads inevitably increase and the focus of the organisation as a service provider (delivering value for tenants and the Trust) is diluted by the distraction of having to organise to recruit and retain members.

The Trust have been quite cute here, offering assistance on an “in-kind” basis that could easily add up to more than the current annual grant. But the net result is the likelihood that the ability of tenants to raise issues and seek a non-fuss resolution will be reduced.

TANT claims a degree of bad faith here in being blocked out of the all-member Trust magazine, not being given any advice on independent fund-raising, and denying access to the addresses of tenanted properties. The Trust has issued a lengthy statement in support of their position

This fear is perhaps confirmed by the Board’s decision on who to support in the annual elections to the NT Council, which in turn appoints the governing body – setting aside the unfortunate all male, all white recommendations (hardly reflective or encouraging of diversity in the organisation!). One of those not supported for re-election is a senior officer of TANT (who happens to be a woman).

The Trust seems to me to be in a difficult position, vulnerable to the suggestion it seeks to be less accountable, inclusive and representative rather than more. This would be a shame because modern Britain needs the National Trust and the many things it does uniquely well more than ever.

So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in my 15 or so years as a Trust member: Vote at the AGM. After all there’s no point complaining that democracy doesn’t work or that change is impossible unless you use it to try to make a difference.

Details of the National Trust AGM are at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/agm-2016-booklet-.pdf

A version of this article also appears in the Independent

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