Neil Oliver row may provoke honest debate about National Trust: Lesley Riddoch

The National Trust for Scotland has hit the headlines again – and not for the best reasons.

TV presenter Neil Oliver

Just as its TV advertising campaign was urging Scots to help fill a £2.5 million emergency funding gap, its president, Neil Oliver, became embroiled in the scandal surrounding historian David Starkey, whose “so many damn blacks” comment in an interview last week prompted him to quit several academic posts.

Beforehand, interviewer and Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes had tweeted; “I will have to resist the urge to tell [Starkey] I love him.” NTS president Neil Oliver shocked many by adding; “Tell him I love him, by all means.”

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Starkey’s fall from grace was rapid. Publisher Harper Collins said they wouldn’t publish further books with the historian because of his “abhorrent” views. Former Chancellor Sajid Javid said Starkey’s “racist” comments were a “reminder of the appalling views that still exist”.

Yet Neil Oliver’s provocative, “Tell him I love him” remained online. Was that acceptable for the president of NTS?

Adverse reaction on social media made clear that Oliver’s presence as its figurehead would inevitably hamper fund-raising efforts, and not just among Yes supporters, many of whom quit in 2017 when the Coast presenter described the prospect of a second independence referendum as “cancerous”.

NTS cannot afford to have lost donations and un-renewed memberships as it faces a £28m cash shortfall from Covid lockdown property closures. And Neil Oliver himself is probably fed up being the subject of so many complaints. Both factors presumably lay behind yesterday’s surprise NTS statement that “Neil Oliver has chosen not to seek renewal of the role of the charity’s president with effect from September, following completion of a three-year term…as intended.”

This represents a huge turning-point for the charity. Every NTS president had been a male hereditary peer since the charity’s inception in 1931 – until Oliver was appointed in 2017, proving that NTS has quite a track record of ignoring changing public opinion and that it had invested a lot in choosing the TV presenter as their first non-aristocratic figurehead.

But is the presence of a contrarian and politically Marmite personality as the face of NTS really the biggest difficulty facing the charity right now – or just the most controversial? In June the charity announced plans to restructure by making 417 staff redundant and mothball most properties till 2022. But a group of volunteers has launched an online petition demanding that the Covid survival plan is ditched and completely reviewed. The “boots not suits” petition points out that the plan makes 75 per cent of grassroots staff redundant whilst HQ staff, at least five of whom are on six figure salaries, mostly remain in place. The volunteers claim that none of the four general managers face redundancy, nor any of the 13 commercial consultants, and only five out of 50 administrative staff. In contrast half the housekeeping staff will be redundant, along with 25 out of 34 rangers; all learning staff and only 54 visitor services assistants will be left out of 249 (though half of their managers/supervisors survive).

Are these the right priorities? As one volunteer put it; “If NTS wants to refloat, it needs the grassroots far more than HQ staff.” But then, the charity already knows that. There have been four reviews of NTS in 17 years, the most significant undertaken in 2010 by former Presiding Officer George Reid, who concluded that NTS governance was highly expensive in staff time, duplicatory in effect, bureaucratic in delivery, uneasy about change and lacked a single inventory of what it owns, a total cost for maintaining its estate or a strategic plan. A new chairman and CEO with commercial backgrounds in transport and insurance were appointed in 2015 and produced another review which recommended a decentralised management model and fewer layers of management. But the “survival plan” published in June seems to reflect very different priorities.

So, what’s the right path forward? It might first require some honesty about the past. NTS was formed in the 1930s as a way for landowners to mitigate the impact of death duties and other land taxes which saw one fifth of Scotland’s land change hands between 1918 and 1921.

Polite society was concerned that stately homes and country houses with formal gardens and landscaped grounds – “classic” aspects of the British countryside – would be lost. So the National Trust started acquiring these country estates thanks to legislation which exempted families donating property from payment of death duties, let them continue to live there rent-free for two generations and thereafter at a market rent in return for opening the property, even partly, to the public.

With a wheen of dukes, barons, earls and lords, not to mention truly unique archaeological remains, NTS has amassed more than its fair share of artefacts. Do they all need saving and which are truly special to the whole nation? As Tom Devine notes in The Scottish Nation: “The opening of great country houses to the public, mass tourism and the popular addiction to nostalgia have enabled aristocratic families to act as guardians of the nation’s heritage and to personify symbols of an enduring link with the glories of Scotland’s past.”

So, let’s take a minute to disentangle public worth, heritage and the accidents of inheritance to really rethink the future of NTS Scotland. Could some properties be run by local communities? Under 1937 legislation, many NTS properties are “inalienable,” meaning they can never be sold without parliamentary approval, which complicates asset transfers and private sales. But in 2013, the trustees of the Burrell Collection got special approval from Holyrood to vary conditions in William Burrell’s will so that some of his collection could travel abroad. Inalienable obstacles can be overcome – if the will exists.

Neil Oliver’s unexpected impending departure has thrown NTS into upheaval. But it can still be a “good crisis” if this provokes some honest and vigorous debate about which assets to retain, the best way to run them, how to shift assets to community or private ownership and what legislation is needed to reshape NTS.

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