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Updated: Aug 19, 2022

A parable, designed to provoke thought.

It is one of England’s largest landholdings.

Several estates, untold acres, numerous fine houses with countless other properties, both residential and commercial; home to tenants, employees and the great variety of trades, businesses, charitable and private activities such dynasties sustain.

With origins, and indeed some ruins, dating from long before the Norman invasion these historic estates are held in great affection even, perhaps especially, by those whose access to them is only as retainers, volunteers or, as for most, tourists.

That is something of an irony, for, in truth, the evolution of such a massive holding is largely the fruit of the loyalties, endeavours and commitments of thousands of such ordinary men, women and children over countless generations. (Albeit mingled with good fortune and a few doses of mendacity). And yet, for almost all, personal engagement, much less ownership, is today limited to servicing the places’ endless needs, or damp bank holidays standing admiringly behind velvet ropes and “keeping off the grass”.

But it is all an illusion.

Unimaginable as it seems amongst the endless tracts of land, the beautiful gardens, magnificent stonework, treasures and finery, the apparently invulnerable empire formed by these estates is in deep, deep trouble. Only with the greatest reluctance have the various trustees, beneficiaries, owners and interests finally approached a national Trust to rescue them. And only then has the real seriousness of the situation been revealed: it is too late.

There is not enough money.

During the due diligence process, it was rapidly realised that, even adding the proceeds of the realisable assets to whatever funds all involved could spare, the Trust were unpersuaded there was a viable endowment. Even though the offer was, by any standards, a huge amount of money, it still did not approach the long-term liability of taking on so many listed, historic, or simply old buildings. To the Trustees’ mind, however prudently they managed the situation, there were too many buildings that simply would not pay for themselves, due to their amenity, poor repair, location or unsuitability to be repurposed for new uses.

The Board of Trustees sadly concluded that raising any significant sums by further disposals would be so mired in difficulty as to render it of only limited benefit.

Despite those problems the Board did not yet feel able to reject such a tempting proposal. They publicly acknowledged that it was, probably, quite literally, a “once in a lifetime” possibility. For months the Board pondered whether other sources of funding could be found? After some investigation, it was found that the major sources of potential funding seemed to be largely earmarked for new schemes and innovations- too little could be depended upon to meet day to day costs on a sustainable basis.

What ultimately has made it impossible was an array of other factors.

The Trust, like all charities had to consider its reputation and it concluded that the scope for public indignation, if it were thought to have in any way mishandled the bequest, presented too high a reputational risk. Dealing appropriately and sensitively with numerous objections from multiple interests was simply beyond their ability, in fact, the Trustees could not think of any third-sector group with the resources for the task.

The Trustees recognised that the heritage sector will, for the foreseeable future, remain controversial. What was once accepted unquestioningly as a proud part of the nation’s DNA is being revisited by critical voices. Causes “on the wrong side of history” face existential threats, and even demands for reparations, confiscation of supposedly misappropriated assets and the like.

This particular potential bequest was no exception. The “offer” had indeed become increasingly unfashionable and even reviled, among growing numbers, for what it was said to represent.

A Trustee commented that it would be negligent not to note that the estates’ ownership management had brought many problems on themselves. In her view, they were a group inevitably detached from the realities of “normal” life and so, for example, delivered a series of PR gaffs. Unable to resist meddling where it was not needed, yet failing to grasp the big decisions required to stave it off, their custodianship had been ultimately responsible for the present crisis.

In the Trust’s experience causes with embedded leadership were difficult cultures to change, particularly when the management had no real insight into what they had done. The previous owners’ conviction that, despite their failing stewardship, they still knew what was best for their legacy and the attendant reluctance to cede control would threaten the long-term sustainability of the asset transfer.

A survey of what were perceived to be the properties’ key stakeholders was commissioned by the Trustee with the HR remit. In outlining the findings, he said that the review revealed a worryingly demoralised staff. In stark contrast to their predecessors, who had enjoyed highly respected and secure roles, many were now confronted with evident (if unspoken) jeopardy to their jobs. Most felt that at best they might be retained but with much less attractive conditions and more onerous demands. A significant number felt their mental health to be affected and a greater proportion that their productivity was reduced by the uncertainty. Those who had previously worked on a voluntary basis had also lost confidence and felt undervalued. That the numbers of volunteers was in decline was significant.

In the Board’s view the low retention rates and doubts about the ongoing commitment of the critical human resources were too uncertain for them to want to proceed further.

One final consideration caused the Trust great anxiety.

Via “social media” allegations had come to the attention of the Safeguarding Lead that generations of the benefactor family and many of their employees had committed appalling acts of abuse. It was apparent that existing legal claims had been mishandled and more were coming in, with the extent of the potential liability presently unknown. Her view was that the board should consider it a systemic issue. The trustees were unanimous that if they acquired the assets they would feel conscience-bound to assume full liability for these unquantified risks and would do so whatever the (further) reputational risk to the Trust might be.

While expressing their profound concern for the survivors, the Trust would not take on further obligations which it might not be able to meet properly.

So, in a statement read to the media the Chair of the Trust said,

“We are honoured to have even been considered for taking on this bequest. It is our clear decision, however, not to proceed.

“Whenever we are asked to consider such a proposition, I ask myself one question. It is, “would I want my daughter to inherit this legacy?”. To me the answer is clear. I would not want my child to take on the burden of bankrupt estates with a financially unviable future. I wouldn’t like her to have to contend with management it will take decades to reform. And I wouldn’t want her to try it all without many key stakeholders or amidst unquantifiable future threats. What I would not want for my child I do not want for the Trust because I love the Trust like a child.

“The Trust wishes these generous donors every success in finding an alternative solution.”

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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