Giving the National Trust the ‘bird’

The National Trust held its AGM on Saturday at Bath’s Assembly Rooms and members entering the building were ‘given the bird’ with a banner-waving protest by members of Extinction Rebellion.

The demonstration included Samba drumming and street theatre from the “Blackbirds” group.

The Trust – which apparently has more members in our city than anywhere else in the country – was being held to account for its links with Barclays Bank (which invests billions in the fossil fuel industry) and also opposing the NT’s support for a road tunnel at Stonehenge.

Paul Jackson

The meeting was followed by many members via Zoom and l am including now a report from Paul Jackson who was amongst those members viewing online.

His opinions and views are his and not mine.

“Over 400 people packed into the Assembly Rooms on Saturday for the National Trust’s AGM, with over four times that number attending online. 

This year, there was another attempt by an opaque pressure group calling itself Restore Trust to have its supporters elected to the National Trust’s ruling body. 

In the past, they have issued factually incorrect information about the charity and their main thrust this year was to try and throw doubt about its democratic process.  This was even though they themselves give evasive answers to journalists about their own funding and their links to 55 Tufton Street, home of far-right think tanks such as Brexit Central and the UK’s leading body denying that the acceleration of climate change is because of human activity. 

The suspicion is that Restore Trust’s ultimate aim is effectively to split the National Trust into two by making it focus on Heritage buildings, whilst maximising the income from the land that it owns (over 250,000 hectares), which would undo years of environmental work.  Their candidates and resolutions were defeated, although one came fairly close with over 40% support.  They’ll be back.

Together with others, this group questioned the National Trust’s decision about Clandon Park, which was gutted by fire in 2015.  The Trust says that the more it looked into the details of its restoration, the more it concluded that it would be better to preserve its shell as a ruin to demonstrate the stages it went through during its construction. 

It says this will involve the highest standards of craftsmanship and cost more than the £68mn it received from the insurers.  For those of us living in Georgian houses, maybe we should double -check our buildings cover!

Not much new was said about the Fashion Museum.  The roof of the Assembly Rooms is due to be repaired and, after other maintenance has been carried out, the main rooms will eventually have “exciting and engaging displays” to recreate the atmosphere of a Georgian Ball.  The basement will be used to tell us more about Bath in the eighteenth century but details are still somewhat vague.  Meanwhile, the nationally important collection there is being packed away, and the Fashion Museum will have to wait years for funding before it can re-open in the old Post Office building opposite Waitrose.

Also of local interest are the plans to build a tunnel for the A303 at Stonehenge, which could yet be a casualty of the current economic situation.  This was a government decision that the Trust supported, but only as a pragmatic compromise.  It has since been realised that the cuttings and other work involved would cause archaeological damage, but a resolution for the Trust to change its position failed to gain sufficient support. 

If the present plans go ahead, UNESCO has threatened to remove Stonehenge’s World Heritage Site status – which after the loss of Liverpool’s WHS designation because of a new football stadium, would give Britain the distinction of being the only country in the world to have lost two such sites. “

As, l said, Paul was watching from home so didn’t pass the XR demonstration. However, he did add the following comments about the protest.

“One of their issues was about Stonehenge, which I mention elsewhere.  The other was that the NT should sever its connections with Barclays, and their resolution was discussed but not passed.  Their point is that Barclays makes contradictory claims about reducing its carbon footprint whilst at the same time funding fracking and other fossil fuels, which nobody disagreed with – they appear to have been guilty of greenwashing.   

The issue boils down to the difference between two conflicting approaches: ethical investing (sever links, the XR stance) and impact investing (stay invested to lobby for change from within, the NT stance).  Both sides would agree that Barclays is heading in the right direction but it has a long way to go.  The NT would say that severing links would be counterproductive – the residual investors in Barclays would apply pressure to scrap the environmental agenda. By retaining the relationship they have more clout – they said that the NT works with other charities to press for change – the argument is really about the best way of going about it.

There’s also a practical issue.  Those speaking in favour of the resolution said that ethical banks were available, but in my view, they had no idea of the scale of the NT.  It claims to have 5.7 million members who in total contribute over £500 mn a year.  Moving that bank account would be extremely expensive and wouldn’t be glitch-free.

 Advocates named three “ethical” banks: the Co-op (which almost went bust not long ago because of poor governance); Triodos Bank and the Ecology Bank.  The last one doesn’t exist – I think they meant the Ecology Building Society, which last year lent only £40mn.  Triodos would be more viable – it’s a Dutch bank with less than £25bn of assets, but only a proportion of those are in the UK, and I doubt that it would have the systems to cope with a customer the size of the NT.

The resolution and protest was worth it for drawing attention to this issue, and the Council members seemed to sympathise with the concerns.”