The National Trust has called for “healthy and respectful” debate ahead of what is expected to be an “impassioned” AGM later this month.
It comes as a dissident group that claims to represent around 6,000 of the trust's five million members, Restore Trust, is backing six candidates for election to the trust’s advisory council in order to “steer the National Trust back to its core purpose of looking after our heritage and countryside”. The 36-strong council does not have a governance role but is consulted on a range of issues.
Restore Trust was set up following the publication of the trust’s 2020 report on links to slavery and empire at its properties, which became the subject of a fierce backlash in the press and parliament and led to accusations that the charity had become politicised. The group’s aims include restoring the trust’s focus on conservation, aesthetic experience and an apolitical ethos.
According to a report in the Guardian this week, Restore Trust is using paid-for social media adverts to influence the election and has received substantial support in the rightwing press. Concerns were raised to the Guardian about some of the Restore Trust candidates’ extreme views on LGBT+ rights and the climate emergency.
In a blog this week, the trust’s director of communications, Celia Richardson, acknowledged “a surge of interest in governance” of the charity ahead of the AGM and called for a respectful debate. She wrote: “Some of the debate this year will be impassioned, no doubt. Who would want to debate issues without passion? A culture of respect is also paramount.”
Richardson refuted some of the trust's recent press coverage, saying “some stories about the trust have the so-called ‘woozle effect’ – when they are repeated so often they seem almost true by sheer volume of citations”.
The charity has been criticised by its former chairman for its handling of the slavery and empire research. Simon Jenkins, who chaired the trust from 2008 to 2014, wrote this week that the report was “apparently not subject to peer review or editorial oversight” and had been written in a way that was “bound to inflame some members’ feelings”.
But the author of the report, Leicester University professor Corinne Fowler, has refuted Jenkins' claims. She confirmed that the report had used peer reviewed sources by internationally renowned academics, including the Legacies of British Slave Ownership and East India Company at Home projects databases as well as academic articles.
In a statement, the National Trust said: “Our founders set out to protect and promote places of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation. That means we are for everyone. Whether you're black or white, straight or gay, right or left wing. The places and collections in our care are a common birthright and we're proud of this. But it means we deal with sensitive and sometimes symbolic issues, and it's right that we are open to public scrutiny.
“Our national institutions need healthy and respectful debate if they're going to thrive and be handed on to serve future generations, as they have served so many in the past and present. They must not be used as a punchbag, to divide people, or led by extreme views. Millions of members belong to the trust because they love our simple cause of conservation and the extraordinary places in our care. They are simply not interested in division.”
In addition to the council elections, Restore Trust is proposing three resolutions at the AGM, which takes place on 30 October in Harrogate. These are: that the trust should disclose in full the remuneration of its senior staff; that the membership deplores the loss of curatorial expertise at the trust; and that the membership deplores the recent treatment of volunteers and calls on the trust to deal with its volunteers in a thoughtful and respectful way.
In its AGM booklet, the National Trust board of trustees recommended that members vote for the resolution about remuneration transparency, saying senior pay is already fully disclosed. It urged members to vote against the resolution about volunteers, saying “the vast majority of our volunteers feel well supported and well treated” and “the purpose of this resolution is not clear, and the proposers have not responded to our request for clarification”.
The board also urged members to vote against the recommendation about curatorial expertise, saying that although job cuts were necessary in response to Covid-19, curatorial expertise was prioritised and the number of National Trust curators has doubled in the past five years.
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The article was updated to include a response from Corinne Fowler to the claims made by Simon Jenkins.