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National Trust wrongly accused of asset-stripping while government fails to keep its word

The Trust is negotiating endowments with the Treasury for five major country houses in its care

London

The National Trust has been wrongly accused of asset-stripping the 2,500 acre estate at the Tudor mansion Hardwick Hall in order to save the house (The Guardian, 24 September 1991). Martin Drury, Director of the Trust, explains, “The land around Hardwick is part of its endowment”. The Trust is therefore entitled to sell land in order to maintain the house, if it so wishes. He also pointed out that sales of the land for property development are subject to restrictive covenants. In other words the Trust must approve any building work that takes place.

But were the National Trust to sell all the land at Hardwick it would still not pay for the upkeep of the Hall. This is because Hardwick, along with five other so-called “deficit” properties never had an adequate endowment. When Hardwick was handed to the Trust by the Treasury in 1959 (after the Duke of Devonshire gave it to the nation in lieu of death duties), the Treasury promised to endow it, but never did. The National Trust is now negotiating with the Treasury for Hardwick and five other properties, Beningborough Hall (North Yorkshire), Cragside (Northumberland), Dyrham Park (Avon), Saltram House (Devon) and Sudbury Hall (Derbyshire), to be endowed over several years. The Treasury says that it recognises the problem, but it is not known when the endowments will proceed or how much money will be agreed.

The backlog of repairs to the houses totals approximately £9 million ($15.7 million). Most of this applies to Hardwick. In addition to expensive jobs like re-roofing, stonework repairs and re-leading all the windows in the house, the conservation bill for Hardwick’s contents is massive. The thirteen “Gideon” tapestries in the Long Gallery, bought by Bess of Hardwick in 1592, will cost a total of £1.2 million ($2.1 million) to restore. It takes 4,000 manhours to repair just one of them.

A recent survey revealed that if funds continue to dribble through from the Treasury at their present rate, it will take a hundred years to conserve the superb collection of Stuart and Elizabethan paintings, which includes portraits of British monarchs and the Duke of Devonshire’s ancestors. The National Trust cannot even get an English Heritage commitment to essential work which increase revenue to the houses: a sewage treatment plant which cost £90,000 to install at one house had to be paid for by the the European Commission. A Trust spokesman said, “It would have been a health hazard to visitors if we had not done it”.

Ian Bollom, the Trust’s Director of Finance, said, “We feel these jobs are necessary and that it would be wrong to use our normal income from subscriptions, legacies, appeals and so on when the government has already committed itself. It would be like asking people to pay their taxes twice. We feel we should direct our resources towards the 203 other houses to which the government is not commited”. Mr Bollom said endowment of the houses was “the only practical thing. Pretending they can be commercial doesn’t work unless you completely undermine them and turn them into theme parks—and even that can end in bankruptcy. We have seen this proved time and again.