The National Trust is a major force in countryside management. In part this is simply because of the very large and uniquely diverse area of land that it owns. The Trust provides employment for many (and work experience opportunities) and as well as the properties that are accessible on payment of an admission charge the Trust also owns very large areas of land that offer freedom to roam. The Trust is the largest landowner in the National Parks and owns very large stretches of some of the most beautiful coastline.
However what really makes the NT worthy of consideration separately from the other countryside conservation, heritage and amenity charities is the unique position of the Trust which has a number of Acts of Parliament which have been passed specifically to aid it in its work. Under the National Trust Act (1907) and the National Trust for Scotland Order Confirmation Acts 1935 and 1938 their holdings can be declared inalienable which means they cannot be sold, mortgaged or even compulsorily purchased by the government (without a debate in Parliament). It should be emphasised that not all of the land held by the Trust is declared inalienable, this is confined to the most important properties, in the case of the classic large country houses and their surrounding estates it is often the house and gardens that are declared inalienable while the surrounding farmland is not given that status (for reasons described below).
The knowledge that land given to the Trust is in effect protected forever is a principal reason why so many landowners have been willing to gift their land to the Trust, or in particular leave the land to the Trust when they die. With this benefit however also comes a major responsibility, once a property has been taken on by the Trust then that part of it which is ‘inalienable’ must be maintained by them forever and in order to do this the Trust must maintain a significant income. This in turn means that the Trust tends to operate a very strict acquisitions policy, one consideration being the potential ability of a property to raise revenue from visitors. Occasionally the Trust will sell of land that is not part of the inalienable core of a property in order to raise funds but generally this will be a last resort. Clearly not all property will be able to raise revenue directly, for example the cost of footpath maintenance in the Lake District runs to hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum but walkers pay nothing to use them. The debate over how the Trust should cover the costs of maintaining these lands is controversial especially given that the Trust’s origins lie in campaigning for open access to the countryside.
The need to raise revenue also means that quite a large proportion of Trust land is tenanted farmland with the main aim from the Trust’s perspective being the collection of rent to help support the costs of the larger estate to which it belongs. The extent to which these tenanted farms also fit with conservation aims and objectives is debatable and the relationship between trust and tenants is not always an easy one.
When the National Trust came into being at the end of the 1800s it was primarily to safeguard access to the countryside through the acquisition of 'open spaces'. Subsequently sites of nature conservation, historical and archaeological interest were acquired and over time there have been a number of changes in emphasis. This has been particularly noticeable as the Trust positions itself in relation to the ever increasing range of government agencies and other charities who have taken on care of land and buildings.
During the 1930s many of the large country estates in Britain were fragmenting and being sold off. In the years of the great depression many families could not afford the upkeep of a large estate and the 'old fashioned' houses were often impractical to run without an army of staff. Inheritance tax (death duty) for the rich was at 40% and therefore many families were forced to sell off part of their estate to meet this bill. Concerns were raised that the stately homes and country houses with their formal gardens and landscaped grounds that were such a typical aspect of the British countryside would be lost. The National Trust responded by undertaking what was essentially a change in direction and began the acquisition of these country estates. It was enabled to do so by the National Trust Act 1937 (and further legislation) which meant that a family donating their property to the Trust did not have to pay death duties but under the NT Country Houses Scheme could continue to live in the property rent free for two generations and thereafter at a market rent. In return the property would be, in part at least, opened to the public. As mentioned above the NT would need to meet the substantial costs of upkeep for any property they took on in this way and hence have tended to be very selective, normally requiring properties to include an estate capable of generating a significant income or to come with a large endowment towards maintenance.
As development pressures on the British coastline grew during the 1960s the NT gave protection of coastal land a high priority believing then (and now) that the planning system is too weak to provide adequate protection alone. Through 'Operation Neptune' fundraising has enabled the Trust to purchase over 700 miles of coast.
More recently, and especially since 2000 there has been a move towards the NT acquiring and protecting properties that reflect the lives of the 'ordinary' people. This has seen the Trust take on properties such as the childhood homes of the Beatles, John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney, in Liverpool; and the last surviving 'back to back' workers houses in Birmingham. This has not been without controversy as it is seen by some to be a long way from the original vision of the founders of the Trust.
The Trust traditionally preferred not to act as a pressure group trying to bring about changes in government policy (possible because of its privileged status), although it has always been able to exert influence not least because of the powerful political figures who have been supporters of the Trust. However as a major landowner and with a membership of over 4 million the Trust has potential to be a significant lobbying force and has begun to exercise this influence more of late, it has also recognised its responsibilities and power to effect change in public attitudes towards issues such as climate change. The proposed railway route HS2 will cut through the AONB of the Chiltern Hills and directly through the grounds of Hartwell House (this NT property is interesting in that it is one of three houses that are part of a new Trust venture – Historic House Hotels). The Hartwell estate is ‘inalienable’ and this will be an interesting test of how much protection this gives when debated in Parliament.
The National Trust (main website)
‘About Us’ including links to history of the Trust, how it is run, the annual reports, strategic plans etc.