Until recently, David Hodd was Countryside Operations Manager on Purbeck for the National Trust. He and his team had the privilege of caring for places like Hartland Moor, Studland Heath and Dancing Ledge. His original inspiration to work in conservation came from a childhood playing at Sharpenhoe Clappers and Barton Hills. David is now working as a consultant to make available his skills in combining the best in land management with building capability for communities to look after special places. As Bagheera he is getting cubs to read maps and earn naturalist badges.
The National Trust is not interested in conservation or has lost its way – they say. But is the Manchester United of the conservation world the club others love to hate, or is it risking relegation from the Premier league?
It’s important to grasp that the Trust was never fully aligned with Rothschild’s vision of nature reserves, despite being given Wicken Fen in 1899. But it was also not set up to acquire stately homes. National Trust founder and social reformer Octavia Hill wanted to “supply in some measure the healing gift of space”. Along with Hardwicke Rawnsley and Robert Hunter, she set up The National Trust for Places of Historic Importance and Natural Beauty. Conserving nature was to provide a cultural resource (“benefit for the nation”). Ecosystem Services, 100 years before the phrase was coined.
At its best, the Trust can be truly inspirational. I recently visited the Devil’s Punch Bowl, where the A3 has recently been taken out of the landscape. Only the Trust could make that happen (though nature did a less tidy road removal job at Mam Tor). And then there is the near re-wilding of Ennerdale, Wicken Fen, or fighting the challenges to Giant’s Causeway. More widely, rangers and volunteers regularly inspire communities to look after their local greenspace. This is normally done on a shoe string budget, on land that no one wants to tenant.
Now there is Open Access and HLS, the Trust has a problem. It is now relatively easy for any landowner to provide Benefit for the Nation. The Trust now needs greater ambition on much of its let estate if it can claim there is a distinct benefit in them owning it. Whilst we wait for the Trust to think and act big in making more space for both nature and people, here’s my advice to the Trust to build a more solid reputation amongst both nature conservationists and the public at large:
Grow Volunteering. Inspiration comes not just from the places, but also from the acts of conservation. Whilst the quantity and quality of volunteering in the Trust is commendable, compared with the number of members, staff or acres under the Trust’s care, volunteering is a much smaller contribution to the charity’s work than for the Wildlife Trust, and it is a drop in the ocean compared with TCV or the Scouting movement (see footnote). Surprisingly many staff think volunteering is a concern for other employees.
Look after more Greenspace. Whilst the Trust has “saved” much of the Lake District, the work saving Octavia Hill’s sitting rooms for the poor has barely begun. The Trust owns a handful of urban greenspaces. The Trust has been a bit more active with suburban greenspace – Bath Skyline, Box Hill, Clent Hills etc. The journey to these sites reinforces a notion that the Trust are over there and aspirational. Aloof, even. On the coast, Enterprise Neptune has been a huge success, and there is more work ahead. But our coasts were saved whilst urban heaths and downlands were neglected or destroyed. I hope the Trust will properly pick up Octavia’s work anew, and put the protection of our green sitting rooms firmly at the centre of the Trust’s work.
Looking After places should be part of the Outdoor Vision. Fiona Reynold’s vision for the outdoors has energised many in the Trust. But promoting outdoor recreation has got decoupled from looking after places. With no additional resources coming to the countryside – contrary to expectations – ranger teams are increasingly torn between a choice of conservation OR recreation. The strategic priority is clearly the latter. But the Trust has always been at its best when it balances both. Let’s see much more of a ranger’s time spent doing conservation work with communities.
KPI’s don’t help. Perversely, they lower ambition. 88.2% of the time, managers are preoccupied with showing that the planned score has been achieved. The indicator becomes more important than what it represents. Target culture needs shooting down.
In Hand is OK. Sometimes managing land directly is the best solution. It certainly brings the Trust closer to people, and that is invaluable. Be comfortable with that.
Get out More. Adrian Philips has said the Trust can achieve more through collaboration with partners. The Trust is notoriously introspective amongst its conservation partners. This is a problem of size, a landlord mindset, and of not having a consistent driving ambition to try better. I would like to see collaboration with neighbours and partner organisations the norm for every property. It helps put a perspective on just what the Trust does well… and not so well.