The new Director General of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady, has told the BBC that the charity needs to be more radical, taking a different approach to conserving the buildings and land that it owns. So here’s an idea. Let’s turn the National Trust into one of the country’s largest providers of affordable housing for hard-working families.
The National Trust was founded in 1895 with the aim of preserving some of our country’s grandest old houses, often when the families that owned them had fallen onto hard times.
And it has since gone from strength to strength. It now owns some 300 historic buildings, 800 miles of coastline and numerous gardens, nature reserves and other parts of our most cherished landscapes. Indeed, the National Trust is now the nation’s largest private landowner.
It holds a special place in our hearts. But it holds a special place in our laws, too. Because the National Trust was in 1907 given the status of a statutory corporation, meaning that its powers are defined by an Act of Parliament, like the BBC, the Civil Aviation Authority and Transport for London.
And since the passing of the National Trust Act 1937, the charity has been able to accept the gift of country houses, with endowments in land or capital, free of the inheritance tax liabilities that had previously resulted in many country estates being broken up.
The National Trust currently has 4.8 million member, including me. Last year, over 24 million people visited National Trust properties. And together with donations, legacies and income from its various activities, the National Trust generated in 2017 total income of well over half a billion pounds. It now has net assets valued at £1.2 billion.
Compare this with my friend Dave*. Dave was born and grew up in a small town on the south coast of Devon. He works down at the harbour, looking after visiting yachtspeople in the summer and repairing the many moorings and landing pontoons in the winter. He’s also a member of the town’s volunteer lifeboat crew, regularly dropping everything to head out to sea (often in atrocious weather) to help people he doesn’t know at their time of greatest need.
Dave currently rents a small house on the edge of town, which he struggles to pay for. He’d like to one day buy a house, but he knows that he’ll never be able to afford one in the town. He’s faced with the choice between living a precarious, temporary existence in the place where he belongs, or upping sticks and starting afresh somewhere cheaper. And even then, rising house prices mean that he may soon not be able to afford to buy anything there, either.
And Dave’s not alone. I know dozens of individuals and families in exactly the same position, priced out of the housing market in places that their families have called home for generations. And I’m sure that there are many more.
This is where my plan for the new, radical National Trust comes in.
Many of the National Trust’s properties, over two hundred of then, are houses. Some of them rather large houses. And a lot of them come with substantial outbuildings and copious amounts of land.
I know from my own experience that these houses are well looked after by a dedicated team of National Trust employees and a vast army of caring volunteers. Well, not so much looked after as, well, preserved. Preserved as they were either when they were last lived in or when they were handed over to the charity.
This is great if you’re interested in the interior decoration habits of the early twentieth century landed gentry. But for everyone else, they’re quite often simply a bit boring. Sterile. Dead. The place you go because the in-laws are visiting, it’s pouring with rain and you can’t stand to sit around at home for a moment longer.
So let’s do something different. Let’s take each of these grand old houses and turn it back into a house again. And not just one house, but lots of houses. Let’s convert these old barns, outbuildings and stable blocks. Let’s build (sensitively) new hamlets on these acres of parkland.
Let’s create hundreds – nay, thousands – of individual apartments, cottages or other self-contained housing units that can once again reverberate with the sounds of people working, children laughing and dogs waiting excitedly for their evening walk.
And perhaps more importantly, let’s make these new homes accessible to those who need them, not just to those who can afford a second one.
I can’t help but think that this idea would find particular favour with Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust. Having experienced first-hand the precarious nature of human existence when her father’s financial misadventures plunged her family into bankruptcy, she used a series of properties in London (purchased for her by the radical thinker John Ruskin) to establish affordable rented housing for the working poor. She then went on to expand her social housing enterprise, attracting investment from wealthy backers in return for a proportion of the rental income received from tenants.
What we have achieved before, we can surely achieve again.
Using its unique range of properties, a bit of architectural flair and an intelligent combination of things like longer tenancy agreements, shared ownership, local ties (meaning that buyers/occupiers have to come from a within a particular geographic area), industry-specific occupancy conditions (they need to work in a particular sector, such as agriculture), affordable rents and other options, the National Trust really could bring about a revolution in the way we think about housing.
And a revolution in how in we think about our historic properties. Because there can be no greater tribute to the grand old houses of our past, than to bring to them new life as the homes of our future.
* This isn’t his real name, but he does exist. I just don’t want to embarrass him.