Guest Blog – Forever for what? How the National Trust can inspire more by making the most of conservation by David Hodd

dhlnkdnclr2Until 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.

Photo: Derek Randell

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.

Footnote: Figures from most recent annual reports or Charity Commission returns. National Trust 67,000 volunteers, 4 million members 5280 staff; the Wildlife Trusts 37,000 volunteers, 800,000 members, ?staff; RSPB 17,600 volunteers, 1.09 million members, 2110 staff; Scout Association 100,000 volunteers, 525,000 members, 260 staff; TCV 500,000 volunteers, no membership, 605 staff.


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14 Replies to “Guest Blog – Forever for what? How the National Trust can inspire more by making the most of conservation by David Hodd”

  1. Adding to David's important perspective, the Trust should seen in its own historical perspective, as well as the conservation "forever". When I worked for the NT as a Management Planner in the Lake District in the 1980s, it was so introspective and landlord led, that it was impossible to get it to think outside its boundaries, it let absolutely everything it could and recreation was a problem. Whilst conservation certainly had a higher profile than recreation, particularly by the great unwashed, the Trust wasn't particularly well informed or organised to do that job.

    Taken on that perspective, Fiona Reynolds did a remarkable job in challenging the status quo, and it took a lot of courage and energy for her to succeed as she did. That doesn't mean that everything is perfect and Helen Ghosh now has a different set of challenges.

    In commenting on the Trust's current and future priorities we need to see the distance that the Trust has travelled and help them focus on a mission that will stretch them and their resources, while building on the successes to date.

    The Trust have nothing to be complacent or self satisfied about, there is always a need for grit in the oyster to keep them focused on the whole mission. NT has a broader and better informed vision now than it did 20 years ago and those urban sitting rooms are a darn sight closer now than they were then.

  2. To be honest when it comes to nature conservation, the National Trust never pop in to my mind. When I discuss nature conservation with friends and colleagues the National Trust very rarely gets mentioned. When I read articles on nature conservation news online and in the papers and various other types of media the National Trust is hardly ever mentioned. To me personally they have always been a large organisation and significant land owner who's main objective is protecting built heritage then overcharging people to visit it.

    My point is that in reality I am sure that is not true but it has been my impression of the National Trust for a long time, why is that?

  3. Interesting point Sam, and before I first worked for the National Trust I shared that much of that view. However, when I started working for them on the South Downs in 1996 I realised that there is a lot more good conservation work their staff and volunteers do that is not noticed.

    A lot of Octavia Hill's"conservation agenda was to look after open spaces so that people can enjoy them. As Attenborough noted, you cannot protect what you don't first love. Do you think the Trust has been more active in promoting the enjoyment of nature in recent years?

  4. "Every species of British butterfly can be found on National Trust land".......I often think about joining the National Trust for this very reason - but then I always change my mind. A quick look on their Current Appeals page on their website shows me that they are more interested in saving historic houses rather than nature conservation. A look on the Wildlife Trusts` corresponding Appeals page is a lot more inspiring ! For the price of a years membership to the National Trust, you can join two local Wildlife Trusts (of which I do - I am a member of my local Trust, and the two adjoining one`s). Money much better well spent in my opinion...

    1. what does a member get for their money?

      I always used to remind my Rangers that one tank load of diesel is the cost of one family membership. It was a really good way of getting the very best value for money.

      You are right on appeals. Of the 10 currently listed on the pages, two are about landscapes (though another is for Mount Stewart garden). I am quite sure all the other appeals are really worthwhile causes.

      If the Trust are to achieve their ambition of 5 million paid up members, then they will need to win the hearts of the many millions like you who enjoy their open spaces, but see no benefit in supporting financially.

  5. In regards Adrian Phillips suggestion of the NT collaborating more and given Adrian Phillips is one of the 'founding fathers' of the European Landscape Convention, indeed the NT had a significant role in the conception of the ELC, my question to the NT would be why do they appear to have abandoned the ELC now it is ratified in the UK particularly the massively important statement for sustainable development and good planning that 'all landscapes are important'. When the NT campaigned with regards the NPPF and subsequently the language was disappointing in so far that the NT is not only introspective with regards discussion but also about 'place' - this is very far from its roots and helps further fragment the landscape which is actually playing into the hands of the present policy makers and the developers so dear to them.

  6. I support the National Trust and regard my annual sub as voluntary taxation as the Gubmint can't won't look after our Heritage but someone has to and although I don't enter the Houses although I could for no extra charge I think it was £88 for the year for me and Dearly Beloved which was an increase way above inflation but if we wanted to be indoors in old piles to gawp at old stuff the sub is way cheaper than pay-per but we don't so if they waste our money it's par for the course as most of our taxes are wasted anyway before and after we die and if I shell out a bit to help darn some curtains or something I am happy to do so and it salves my conscience slightly for my involuntary contribution to bombing people which is a side issue I know but what does trouble my head somewhat are the conflicts between the environmental cost of travel to gawp at things and the necessity of gawping at things in order to justify conserving them and whether enough people will want to gawp at the same things in the future and whether the commercial activity needed to ensure that gawping is sustainable forever is sustainable. For a Charidee.

  7. I am a NT member, but am considering this position. Most NT properties that I visit are lacking any real conservation effort... there is so much potential for wildlife and for education. My local NT sites include some SSSI land and there has been real damage within last 10 years and there is no sign of improvement or realising the full wildlife potential. But when you read NT literature they portray the organisation as one that treats wildlife conservation as a priority. Perhaps the south east region of NT is different to the rest of the country? Is there a consistent effort nationwide?

  8. David makes some valid points. Whilst not necessarily in defence of the current NT policies, I do think we need to be aware that the world of 2013 is quite different from the world of 1899. The density of our population, the politics of a struggling economy and the constraints of demanding EU legislation have all had an impact on our conservation objectives. We need to reiterate that 'conservation' is not the same as 'preservation'. By this I mean, our agricultural practices as well as our climate are changing and our wildlife is going to have to adapt, we should certainly be helping but there is an inevitability to all this and I think most staff and volunteers in the Trust appreciate this fact. The Trust is not a 'single issue' organisation and must balance all it's interests accordingly and it might be that the money needed to finance new conservation initiatives will have to come from the revenue generated from the 'stately homes'

    1. As you know Tony, the Trust are probably ahead of many conservation organisations on the coastal change / climate change agenda. The Shifting Shores campaign, like the Neptune campaign behind it is something quite special. But these messages require lots of acts of local engagement. This is an approach that requires less of the landlord mindset, less of the marketing days out head, and more of a charity working with its communities.

      Is there enough of that voice?

  9. An interesting article which makes some good points, most of which I broadly agree with.
    The 'Manchester United of conservation world’? Perhaps not, if football analogies are the order of the day then maybe Arsenal offer a more fitting likeness; brilliant at times but woefully inconsistent, under-achieving and over-frugal with way the way it spends its not inconsiderable resources (certainly where its conservation budget is concerned).
    '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'. Spot-on, whilst I appreciate that this is not easy when dealing with farms on full agricultural tenancies, I feel that the NT could do much more. Last year’s High Peak Moors Vision was seemingly a huge step in the right direction, hopefully the NT will turn this vision will turn into a reality, time will tell.
    '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'. Not any longer, the permissive access options were removed from HLS a couple of years ago; this was a shame but perhaps understandable given the pressures on the HLS budget.

    One thing you haven't mentioned is the NT's role in commissioning research and studies. In the last year they have produced some outstanding reports of a wide ranging nature; three that spring to mind are:

    - 'Natural Childhood' by Stephen Moss

    - 'Land stewardship in England post-2013: CAP Greening and Agri-Environment'

    - 'What's your Beef?'
    This argues points out the flaw in the narrow LCA-based method of assessing carbon emissions which ignores other key issues such as land-use and human-health. It’s well worth a read.

    I suppose it is easy to overlook the contribution that such reports/research can make to the conservation world and no-doubt this type of work will slip under the radar of the majority of NT supporters, would-be NT members or NT critics, unlike big restoration projects such as the Devils Punch Bowl, although in the bigger scheme of things they are much more important.

    1. Thanks Joe for some very pertinent points.

      The Natural Childhood campaign is perhaps the most important piece of work the Trust has engaged in for some time (personally I would rate it above even the planning campaign). It is exactly the sort of work I am calling for the Trust to do more of. It does not fit well with the Trust's current measures of success (primarily because pay back would not be for 20 years). At a local level, this gets translated as marketing "50 Things..". activities. this is a really good inspirational marketing campaign, but there is no room for looking after places on this list. And I know kids love scrub bashing as much as anyone else. Reconnecting with the Trust's original aim of urban sitting rooms is a very natural culmination of the Natural Childhood report. I know the trust have come a long way, they're changing day to day, so tell me, where do the children play?

  10. Hi David,

    You ask, "What does a member (of the Wildlife Trusts) get for their money ?" Well personally, being a member of three, I get peace of mind that I am helping to support wildlife on over 120 nature reserves in the Northwest, which include ancient woodlands, flower-rich meadows, dune systems, limestone pavements and wetland habitats. That is good enough for me. Other than that, I just get 3 membership magazines per year from each Trust.....;-)

  11. Before retiring I enjoyed Working Holidays for the National Trust, going away for a week & working with different people at many properties & areas with local rangers.
    Perhaps some people might like to help as well as give the money.
    Now I am retired I volunteer at my local property & still take part in Working Holidays.
    I see many forms of conservation & I enjoy the Great Outdoors even more.


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