Culzean Castle in Ayrshire will be a key priority for the NTS

NTS seeks to turn the tide

Rob Sharp, Issue 116/04, p11, 01.04.2016
In a bid to reverse a long-term fall in visitor numbers, the National Trust for Scotland will invest in a small group of properties, while making savings elsewhere
In a bid to reverse a long-term fall in visitor numbers, the National Trust for Scotland will invest in a small group of properties, while making savings elsewhere.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) will focus on developing key properties, including Culzean Castle on the Ayrshire coast and Brodie Castle in Moray, as it seeks to reverse a long-time decline in visitor numbers.

The organisation’s chief executive is Simon Skinner, who joined NTS from Aegon Ireland, an international insurance business. Skinner says the trust is reviewing its operations and will invest in six to eight properties over the next three years, as it seeks to make 10% cuts in running costs elsewhere.

“The priorities are a way of getting paying visitor numbers back to the position they were at four or five years ago, when we peaked,” he says. The number of paying visitors to NTS properties has dropped by 3% over the past 10 years.

While any decision over key properties awaits ratification by the NTS board, Skinner adds that investment would include bolstered interpretation, and the reinvigoration of their commercial and historic spaces.

“We can do a lot more than plastic laminates from the 1970s in the interpretation of history,” he says. “We can be more dynamic about making it an attraction, putting content into these sites that is relevant, engaging and fun. If we are true to that, there are a number of sites close to the major conurbations where we can get back footfall.”

In January, the NTS announced its plan to bring in £8m-£10m a year of additional income through efficiency changes, more paying visitors and members, and a rise in donations over the next three years.

Skinner highlights that the NTS has “lost opportunity both for income and to get people to spend money on our cafeterias and content”.

He says: “If paying visitor numbers continue to fall, in an environment where government grants are contracting, we are going to find ourselves not being able to balance the books.”

Skinner says his tenure at the NTS is time limited “to getting us to a position where we cannot just break even but have some revenue free”.

However, an article in the Prospect union’s Profile magazine last month highlighted concerns among NTS employees that the charity’s plans were “short- termist” and could threaten the organisation’s “core conservation focus”.

“Many members fear the restructuring plans and may see the NTS’s core conservation function become an ‘optional extra’,” reads the piece. “That, in turn, could risk its charitable status and eligibility for government funding.”

Retaining skills

In response, Skinner maintains that the charity is “absolutely retaining conservation skills, both at the centre and at the properties. It’s core to what we do and always will be.” Following a review period, staff will be notified of any changes to their jobs by early summer. While in January the NTS said that staffing levels at properties would be unaffected, Skinner does not rule out the eventual pooling of resources, such as maintenance provision, between properties.

There is also likely to be a reorganisation at Bannockburn, “which is now making a loss,” according to Skinner, “after more than £11m of investment between us and the government”.

Prospect negotiator Ian Perth says: “Prospect will do everything possible to defend employment levels at the trust. The NTS has committed to ongoing dialogue with Prospect throughout the restructure. While we note the financial position of the NTS, we want to ensure that, as a registered charity, the NTS treats our members fairly and decently.”
National Trust for Scotland in figures

Number of properties 129
Number of staff 540 full-time, 750 seasonal, 3,000 volunteers
Total income £46.8m (2014-2015)
Total expenditure £49.2m (2014-2015)
Visitor numbers 2.48 million (2014-2015)
Number of members 330,000 (February 2015)