Job cuts and shake up as National Trust reels from £200m pandemic loss

Peckover House in Wisbech Picture: Ian Burt

Peckover House in Wisbech Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

A shake-up at the National Trust - which owns Peckover House in Wisbech and several others in Cambridgeshire - could change the way we enjoy our heritage.


Anglesey Abbey. Picture: NATIONAL TRUST IMAGES/SHANNON HOGAN - Credit: Archant

Some 1,200 staff face redundancy at the trust, which says the pandemic cost it £200m. Consultation with those whose jobs are at risk begins as a leaked internal briefing calls for radical changes including a review of opening arrangements at its 200 historic houses.

They include Anglesey Abbey, Houghton Mill, Wicken Fen and Wimpole Estate.

The trust’s director general insists 95pc of properties will reopen when it is safe to do so, but visits to some will need to be pre-booked.

Wimpole Estate. Picture: NATIONAL TRUST WEBSITE

Wimpole Estate. Picture: NATIONAL TRUST WEBSITE - Credit: Archant

An internal briefing paper called Towards a 10-Year Vision warns: “The disruption to our work programmes created by lockdown has brought forward the need to create a clear long term vision for our experiences. We’re faced much sooner than we thought with some tricky choices about which activities to stop, start and continue.”

The paper, produced in May, claimed the trust presided over an “outdated mansion experience” which served “a loyal but dwindling audience”.

It says the trust should “dial down” its role as a major cultural institution, shifting its focus from historic houses to become “a gateway to the outdoors”.

Wicken Fen. Picture: NATIONAL TRUST

Wicken Fen. Picture: NATIONAL TRUST - Credit: Archant

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It also suggests putting part of the trust’s collections into storage to free up space.

“We need to be much clearer about the places where we can begin changing our approach to collections display moving objects or taking them off display where needed to make spaces more flexible and accessible,” the paper says.

“A major change in collections presentation and storage: Without this we’ll be unable to flex our mansion offer to create the more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in future.”

Houghton Mill. Picture: NATIONAL RAIL

Houghton Mill. Picture: NATIONAL RAIL - Credit: Archant

Asked what the proposed changes might mean for its properties in East Anglia, the trust declined to go into details. It said it could not discuss individual properties because it was in a consultation process and any changes were currently simply proposals.

MORE: Archaeological dig uncovers Anglesey Abbey’s past

In a statement, it said: “The National Trust expects to lose up to £200m this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and at the end of July the charity announced proposals that are expected to result in 1,200 job losses across the organisation.

Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust. Pic: National Trust

Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust. Pic: National Trust - Credit: Archant

“We have reviewed every aspect of the charity and we propose to make savings in almost every area of activity.

“We aren’t making public the detail of numbers of job losses in specific work areas or places because at this stage these are proposals and are subject to consultation.”

The trust said it wants to move away from a “one-size-fits-all, standard visitor model”.

Oxburgh Hall, one of the National Trust's Norfolk properties Picture: David Harper

Oxburgh Hall, one of the National Trust's Norfolk properties Picture: David Harper - Credit: Archant

It added: “This will give greater flexibility to general managers to make the most out of the place they are looking after, and it isn’t at all about closing rooms to the public.

“We’ll encourage them to consider the best approach for each house, taking into account its size, location and character, so we can offer different but equally engaging experiences.”

Some 13pc of the workforce is at risk at the trust, whose website states: “It’s the dedication of our 10,000 employees that makes it possible for us to fulfil our core purpose.”

UEA-educated art historian, writer and broadcaster Bendor Grosvenor wrote the number of curatorial posts would be “drastically reduced”.

He added: “According to consultation documents, a third of the central curation and experience team will be made redundant. The trust owns 13,683 paintings - but there will no longer be specialist paintings curators.

“Nor will there be books, furniture, decorative arts or sculpture curators. I am told of similar reductions at both a regional and house level.”

Mr Grosvenor said it was hard not to see the cuts as “one of the most damaging assaults ever seen on the UK’s art historical expertise”.

The trust has more than 5m members. Heritage activist Ivor Rowlands, who chairs a group campaigning for the trust to invest in refurbishing the Guildhall of St George, which it owns in King’s Lynn, said: “It’s a great shame that so many people will be losing their jobs, whilst at the same time volunteers are not being deployed as they were previously due to the pandemic.

“The NT has an obligation to make its properties accessible and open for people’s enjoyment as well as preserving them for future generations.

“There has been lots of talk of the NT focussing on its ‘non-country-house’ assets and trying to encourage participation from socio-economic groups that are not typical visitors to NT properties. St George’s Guildhall ticks this box.

“I find it difficult to understand how the NT can be sitting on such large cash reserves and yet not use this to help manage its way out of the current situation.”

Hilary McGrady, the trust’s director general, said on its website: “These are challenging times. I fully understand why our people, staff, volunteers and supporters might be concerned that the proposals we are consulting on are going to have a profound impact on the organisation we all love.

“There is general acknowledgement that a £200m loss this year is devastating – we cannot weather this storm. If we could, we would. Our income will fall significantly short of our costs for months to come, particularly when furlough ends.

“The trust’s £1.3bn of reserves, often referred to, are legally restricted to the use they were given for, for example the purchase of land on the South West coast. I cannot, and I doubt anyone would, want that money spent on people’s salaries.”

Mrs McGrady said she refuted claims the trust was stepping away from its built heritage. “Further to this, the notion that we will only be opening 20 of our houses is incorrect. When it is safe to do so, 95pc of our portfolio will open again. Some will be booked only but that will be a good thing both for experience and conservation.”

It is not yet clear which, if any, of the trust’s Norfolk properties will become open only for pre-booked tours in future, or if their collections will be removed from view.