National Trust for Scotland to give up control of historic properties

SCOTLAND'S largest conservation charity will have no option but to hand over the running of sites across the country, its chief executive has warned.

Kate Mavor of the National Trust for Scotland said the vast majority of its sites and properties were running at a loss and admitted that the trust could not afford to carry out the extensive repairs and refurbishments needed at many of them.

NTS had been "living beyond its means" and millions of pounds would almost certainly have to be raised through public campaigns to safeguard the future of key sites once a full audit of the trust's estate is carried out, she said.

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Ms Mavor was responding to key findings in a scathing review of the trust by former Holyrood presiding officer George Reid, which has urged it to concentrate on a "smaller core portfolio" of properties to help put its financial troubles behind it.

But Ms Mavor, whose board has fully endorsed Mr Reid's report, insisted there was no intention of selling off sites that had been entrusted to NTS and was adamant that no closure plans would be brought forward in the foreseeable future. Instead, the trust would look to hand them over to other organisations to run, or form new partnerships with local authorities, trusts and charities.

• NTS analysis: There is now an opportunity to look afresh

NTS runs 130 attractions and historic sites across Scotland but just 12 of these are fully "endowed", meaning the trust has to pay for repairs and maintenance out of its own funds for the remainder.

However Mr Reid – whose report delivered a damning verdict on NTS's "byzantine" management structures which have "gridlocked" decision-making – insisted he was not advocating the trust selling off any sites of "heritage significance". The key challenge facing the organisation was the unknown cost of maintaining its vast estate in future years, he said.

Mr Reid said it was realistic for community groups and trusts to take over the running of long-established NTS sites and that there should be no barrier to the trust selling off property holdings of no historic significance, such as woodman's huts, sheds, steadings and byres.

He was called in by NTS last October after a 13 million black hole led to the shedding of 45 jobs and the mothballing of four sites. A grassroots revolt forced the trust to scale back earlier plans to close 11 sites and shed 91 jobs. Members were also furious that NTS had decided to sell off its headquarters in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square without consultation.

Mr Reid's report warns that NTS has been balancing its books by spending historic legacies, selling assets and delaying vital project work, and said its current financial planning was "unsustainable". He pointed out the trust had no complete record of its property interests and no idea how much needed to be spent on major sites over the next few years.

His review urges the scrapping of the trust's long-running ruling council – which has 87 members – and the election of a new 15-strong board next year.

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Ms Mavor said the entire heritage sector in Scotland was facing huge challenges in the face of the predicted public spending cutbacks and that it was inevitable heritage bodies would have to share resources and services. She added: "We have an absolutely huge portfolio of properties, we are the third biggest landowner in Scotland but there is a huge gap between the amount of money that is coming into the trust and the costs of looking after everything.

"We fully recognise that the trust cannot conserve the nation's heritage entirely on its own. We therefore fully support the review's proposal of partnerships with other bodies.

"We will need to work a lot more with organisations like Historic Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage and other partner bodies so as to share liabilities and the costs of running sites. There is no choice about it. The trust has been living beyond its means and that has to change.

"The issue of endowment is absolutely key. The trust has inherited a huge number of properties without receiving any financial assistance to run them."

Ms Mavor said work was under way on a detailed review of NTS's estate, which Mr Reid insists should be subject to external examination, with early estimates expected to be produced for the charity's 2011 AGM next September.

Mr Reid insisted its core properties were likely to remain under its stewardship. He said: "You can pretty well tell what that's going to be – the great properties, the ones of unique natural significance, the ones which have a real place in community and national stories."

But he added: "That does not mean you sell everything else."

Mr Reid said the "biggest surprise" of the review process was that he was unable to obtain a print-out of all NTS assets.

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"There was no single inventory," he said. "Different departments held different information, to different standards, in separate databases and filing systems. What was even more concerning was the written submission of the trust's leadership Team to the Review, which read — 'The cost of maintaining the estate is unknown'.

"I have some sympathy with the former board member who wrote to me saying that there has been 'too much sentiment and not enough financial sense' in some of the acquisitions over the years."

Mr Reid said he found the way the trust was being run was "confused and uneasy" and said its governance structure was "rooted in the 1930s".

Bill Fraser, spokesman for In Trust For Scotland, the campaign set up to fight last year's cost-cutting measures and the "undemocratic" way the organisation was being run, gave a cautious welcome to the findings.

He said: "His revelation that the trust had no complete inventory of its properties and moveable assets comes as a shock but no surprise in an organisation which had been poorly led for some time. Members and volunteers continue to be concerned about the whereabouts of assets at certain properties. The root of the problem with the trust was the unwieldy management structure with 187 trustees combined with an aggressive management style by the leadership team."

Culture minister Fiona Hyslop said she hoped the report would be a "catalyst for change".

As well as its 130 sites, the trust is responsible for 16 islands, seven nature reserves, four battle sites, more than 50,000 artefacts, and some 78,000 hectares of coastline and countryside. NTS currently has 456 full-time staff, as well as 755 seasonal workers.

Recommendations: Leaner and meaner: the key points mapping out the future

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• The existing NTS Council should become the Board of Trustees and thereafter be the sole body for the general control and administration of the charity.

• The number of trustees should be cut from 87 to 15 to give the organisation strategic direction.

• Executive directors (senior management) of the trust should no longer be trustees.

• The Board of Trustees should be elected by April 2011 to implement the new reform agenda.

• Trustees should hold office for four years, with the possibility of a further four-year term on re-election.

• The current council and board should appoint a transition committee to manage internal arrangements between next month's AGM and the election of the new trustees.

• A new mission statement is to be agreed with members to emphasise the trust's core conservation purpose.

• An audit and a full property portfolio review of the NTS estate should be carried out.

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• No decision should be taken on the sale of any part of the estate, other than properties of no heritage significance, until the property portfolio group reports back.

• A five-year plan should be drawn up to ensure the trust works to specific, attainable, relevant and time-bound objectives.