Thursday, 2 July 2015

Viva the National Trust

The National Trust is one our country's most loved charities and yesterday I was having an NT day by visiting two of their much loved houses, Greenway and Coleton Fishacre.  Greenway is a stunning Georgian house set into the wooded hills overlooking the Dart river, just downstream from Dartmouth.  The best way to arrive as did my brother, father and old fiend John, is to take the ferry up river and get off at the Greenway landing.  This old house was the much loved home of Agatha Christie and was gifted to the NT by the daughter and grandson of Dame Agatha.  It contains much of the contents of the house as it was in her day. You can walk into her bedroom and still hear her talking (an old radio interview playing from a Roberts radio!).  Clever lot the NT. 

Brother Nick and I.  Am I shrinking?

Greenway House

Gardens at Coleton Fishacre

Then back on the ferry and off to Coleton Fishacre.  This was a home built in the 30s by a pupil of the great Lutyens for the famous D'Oyly Carter family (money made from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas).  It's set on the top of a valley that runs down to the sea.  The NT purchased the house in 1982 but not with the contents. They have spent years building up the inside to look like it did in the thirties i.e. all Art Deco, a period I particularly like.  But the real glory are the gardens. Formal terraces surround the house then the garden tumbles down to the sea. 
The NT is such a Treasure you can forget it's radical beginnings.  One of the key protagonists and founders of the Trust was Octavia Hill. 
She  was a social reformer, whose main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of cities, especially London, in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Born into a family with a strong commitment to alleviating poverty, she herself grew up in straitened circumstances owing to the financial failure of her father. With no formal schooling, she worked from the age of 14 for the welfare of working people.
Hill was a moving force behind the development of social housing, and her early friendship with John Ruskin enabled her to put her theories into practice with the aid of his initial investment.  She believed in self-reliance, and made it a key part of her housing system that she and her assistants knew their tenants personally and encouraged them to better themselves.  She was opposed to municipal provision of housing, believing it to be bureaucratic and impersonal.
Another of Hill's concerns was the availability of open spaces for poor people.  She campaigned against development on existing suburban woodlands, and helped to save London's Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on.  She was one of the three founders of the National Trust, set up to preserve places of historic interest or natural beauty for the enjoyment of all the British public and not just the few.  She was a founder member of the Charity Organisation Society (now the charity Family Action), which organised charitable grants and pioneered a home-visiting service that formed the basis for modern social work. 
Hill's legacy includes the large holdings of the modern National Trust some of which I saw today, as well as several housing projects that still run on her lines, and a tradition of training for housing managers.  I can imagine what Octavia would think of current government plans to seize charity assets for "right to buy"and so diminish the housing stock for the very people she campaigned to house. 
Peers have criticised the government’s plans to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants, saying that it could undermine charity legislation dating back to the 16th century.
The National Housing Federation, warned before the general election that the proposal would require a "fundamental rewriting of the agreement between government and civil society".
In the House of Lords Baroness Hollis of Heigham, who is chair of Broadland Housing Association, questioned the government’s right to "seize the assets of independent charities, given that it will have to unpick myriad overlapping laws that go back centuries".  It's worth repeating some of what she said.

She said that housing associations, most of which are charities, were framed by charity legislation dating back to the time of Elizabeth I.

"Housing associations are independent charities, many of which are a century old, financed often by gifts from local benefactors," she said. "Would we accept the government asset-stripping Eton or Winchester to fund academies? Perhaps the NHS would like the endowments of medical charities to pay for the drugs bill. Or perhaps we would accept National Trust assets being used to restore this Palace of Westminster."


What will the Charity Commission do on this? Back in 1947 when the government were establishing the NHS by taking over the thousand charity hospitals there was also a debate about whether to seize the endowments of those hospitals. The Commission intervened to stop Government and said they could not take over endowments that had been made to a charity by the donor in perpetuity.  They were successful and so we still have a wide range of excellent NHS charities who work to improve health and well being generally.  I  hope the current Commission will be equally robust in defending the principle that an endowment to a charity is sacrosanct and cannot be seized by the State. It would be a shocking precedent if the Government gets away with this.  Donors in the future, when they consider gifts, particularly of capital assets, might be wary if they thought them susceptible to a State grab. It would be a bit like the Government nationalising an historic NT house so they could mine underneath it!

Sunset at Hope Cove

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