Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Turmoil in 'The National Trust for Scotland'

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has been in financial difficulties for quite some time. I take an interest in it because I have been a member for most of my life - since I was about 12 I think - so that means for around 45 years; in my earliest years I funded my membership subscriptions out of my pocket-money as no-one else in the immediate family was (or is) involved or particularly interested, although my parents were quite happy for me to join. Indeed I made my first ever trip outside the UK at the age of around 15, completely on my own, on an NTS 12-day cruise and was on another cruise with them some years later (when I was already living abroad, but back in Scotland on holiday). More recently I have been a member of the Higland Members' Center, based in Inverness, since soon after I came back to live in the UK about 15 years ago after a career spent mostly elsewhere. So I have a lot of personal history and sentiment invested in the NTS.

I have believed for many years that the fundamental problem is that the NTS over many years, and under many of its previous Chairmen and Chief Executives has taken on more properties or land for management, without adequate (or in some cases any) endowments to help fund their upkeep and maintenance, than was sustainable in the longer term and resorted to special appeals (to members and government/lottery etc) to assist. The motives were undoubtedly good - that the importance of the property/land concerned for Scotland's heritage was of such importance that they had to be saved. There was also, in my view, a certain personal vanity involved to ensure that certain of these acquisitions could be associated with the names of the then current Chairman and the management team (see even the NTS news report linked to further down this page where the President, one of the 'old guard', continues with this kind of thinking in his eulogy to the Chairman's announcement she is standing down). Added to that was a very top-heavy management based on 'the great and good' of Scotland's charitable and conservation bodies, without much care and attention to their selection on the basis of their strategic management skills, which in my view were (and perhaps still are) in some cases sadly-lacking. To sum up 'glory now rather than longer-term fiscal stability'.

Something had to change. I think, but am not absolutely certain, that the current Chairman (Shonaig Macpherson), like her predecessor (whom I met on a few occasions), have genuine management ability and has been trying to take the drastic measures necessary to put the NTS back on a sounder footing. But for a venerable (although not that old - it was founded in the early 1930s) institution this has been a very painful experience - job cuts, closure of some properties that cost a lot to run and had few visitors. So now we have the news that Ms Macpherson will not seek to renew her contract when its current term expires in September 2010 and that a search is starting now to find her successor (the report in the NTS website is here).

I heard Ms Macpherson being interviewd on the BBC Today programme last week, when it was announced that members had tabled a vote of 'no confidence' because of members' dissent at the drastic cuts she has put in place. I thought she stood up for herself pretty well, in the face of some pretty tough questioning, and I did not and do not believe that a lot of the criticism of her is justified - she was brought in to help resolve a difficult and unsustainable structural financial position (more money going out or required to be put aside in 'reserve' than is coming in on a regular/permanent basis) and she has been doing what is required, whilst managing to get membership numbers to continue to rise to their highest ever levels. This is a painful exercise and I understand that members' protests have already led to some properties being given a 'reprieve' (which the NTS can ill-afford) from closure. I understand the frustration of many members with what is happening, but I think their anger is mis-directed at Shonaig Macpherson and I hope wiser heads at the AGM will not carry the motion of no-confidence. My own ire is directed at some of the former members of the board of management of the NTS and at certain of the current members there, too, who seem to me probably to be acting as a 'rearguard movement' for the old ways that got the NTS into its current mess.

In any case I hope the NTS can identify a suitable successor for Ms Macpherson - whoever is chosen will find that a lot of work remains to be done, to build on an improve what she has started whilst trying to balance the sometimes contradictory pressures coming from a part of the membership and board of management.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen some of the arguments and what was going on but had little to say as I tend to just pay my membership as a hope it helps with Scotland's treasures. It must be difficult in these times to run organisations such as this, though from what I have seen this year they do a very good job of the actual properties. However it does seem to regard itself as being a bit of a National Treasure.


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