Stonehenge and the shrinking state

The National Trust has seen 41 Chancellors of the Exchequers since it was founded just over a century ago. In that time, we’ve seen the state grow, shrink back, grow again and now shrink back. The National Trust has kept growing in that time but, despite Simon Jenkins’ suggestion that the National Trust manages to be “a virtual state within a state”, the spending decisions of government directly affect our work and how we achieve our mission to look after special places for ever for everyone.

This week’s Autumn Statement and the associated announcements will perhaps have a greater than usual impact on the National Trust. The biggest long-term impact is likely to be from the continued squeeze on public spending. Under the Treasury’s plans for the next Parliament, the Office of Budget Responsibility forecast that government expenditure as a share of GDP will fall from its peak of 45% in at the end of the last government (under the 40th Chancellor since the Trust was founded) to 35% by 2019-20 – the lowest level since World War II (when we were on our 19th).

As Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, if “we move in anything like this direction, whilst continuing to protect health and pensions, the role and shape of the state will have changed beyond recognition”. We are already seeing impacts on how the Trust works with the state, particularly at a local council level. Specialists in planning, heritage and the natural environment are being lost. Front line staff working to look after parks are being shed and budgets cut. Local councils are looking to hand over historic buildings and monuments – sometimes setting up independent trusts to do so. If central government budgets continue to be cut, smaller departments like Defra or DCMS become less viable and could be merged.

The National Trust has been here before when there was a smaller state and changes in funding on this scale mean rethinking some of what we do. How can we support the recovery of nature if Defra either has no money or no longer even exists?

Who will stand up for the importance of local, everyday heritage if councils have no money and the civic organisations who worked in these areas have declined or face an ageing volunteer base?

We are starting to wrestle with these issues as we develop our new strategy for the National Trust. We’re looking at how, if the state withdraws active support for nature, we can work with other large landowners ourselves to do more at an ambitious landscape scale for nature and develop new sources of income to support less intensive forms of farming, including funding for ecosystem services like improving water quality. And we are also looking at what can be done to support urban parks through new income sources.

At the same time though as there are cuts to spending overall, we are seeing the prioritisation of spending on infrastructure in what’s left. Big infrastructure can be a threat to special places but it could also be used to safeguard them – as at Stonehenge where a long tunnel of 1.8 miles to take the A303 past Stonehenge got the go-ahead as part of the new roads investment strategy this week. Although the roads announcements overall have been criticised by many environmentalists, there are some positive aspects in the way that some funding will go on reducing the landscape impacts of roads with the Department for Transport looking to complete a retrofit of the main trunk network by 2040 to improve environmental outcomes and help it fit more seamlessly with surroundings. This, and other schemes like the National Grid’s Visual Improvement Provision project, should be the start of a new approach to infrastructure that works to ensure existing infrastructure works more harmoniously with the landscape.

Prime Minister David Cameron visits Stonehenge which will benefit from improvements to the A303

David Cameron visiting Stonehenge (Photo: Photo: Arron Hoare. Crown Copyright)

The shape of the state is changing. If we are to protect the places that matter to people – whether fantastic sites for nature or part of the long history that helps tell us how we came to be here – then we need to be much more careful how public money is spent so that it delivers not just in theoretical economic terms but for the things that matter to people and their environment. And organisations like the National Trust need to adapt. Our purpose (as set out in the 1907 Act – when we were on our fourth Chancellor) is to “promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation” of places of beauty or historic interest, and their natural features. As the state is reconfigures, the question now is: what does the nation need from us in the 21st century

Richard Hebditch, Assistant Director

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