Early reflections on new transformation for the National Trust for Scotland @n_t_s

NTSfocused-and-nimbleThe National Trust for Scotland has announced that it is going to restructure and refocus its operations, following on from the launch of its new vision and strategy in 2015 and a consultation exercise with stakeholders and members. Initial details of this have been publicised on a new section of the organisation’s website, where the key challenges which the organisation faces are laid out, and the priority areas for its focus to reposition the organisation and create a sustainable future for it.

The NTS should not be confused with its bigger sister, The National Trust (which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland). It essentially undertakes similar functions and remit – acting as a significant non-governmental voice in the heritage and natural environment sector, owner and guardian of landscapes, historic sites and buildings, and steward of a historic ‘conservation movement’ developed from a philosophy which emerged at the end of the 19th century in England and coalesced in Scotland with the creation of the NTS in 1931.

It is a relatively small organisation, and the makeup of its property portfolio cold be argued, that whilst important, is somewhat more challenging that the Trust down south.  The landscapes and mountain ranges it looks after are often remote, and the portfolio of stereotypical properties (castles and historic houses) that the Trust looks after and opens to the public tend to be smaller, and located in areas which have extreme seasonal fluctuations in tourism, and smaller volumes of overall visitation.  The expectations if it are huge within Scotland.  It has not kept up with the changing requirements and expectations of visitors in terms modern tourism infrastructure and competitive heritage experiences on the whole, barring certain specific investments in sites such as the Robert Burns museum, and the revamped Culloden battlefield visitor centre and high-tech immersive Bannockburn experience.

To cut a long story short, the Trust has staggered from crisis to crisis in recent years, arising from spending beyond its means, not generating enough revenue, and suffering from the vagaries and challenges of operating in the Scottish tourism economy.  Despite attempting to remain (and succeeding to some extent) as a conservation thought leader, it has seen mission drift and lost its appeal for new members and diverse audiences to engage with a poorly articulated mission.  Like the Trust south of the border, it has also still had to fight against a stereotyped (and largely false) perception issue relating to class and attitude.

At the start of the current decade the organisation was at crisis point, with serious questions about the viability of the organisation as the money literally ran out.  It sold its headquarters building in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, and moved to open plan offices on the edge of the city; it began to review its property portfolio with a view to mothballing or selling non-core assets and land. A new Chairman, George Reid, undertook a fundamental review of mission and governance, and the relatively new Chief Executive, Kate Mavor, attempted to steady the operational performance.  The succeeding chairman, Kenneth Calman, continued the repositioning work, but by 2014 it was clear that the Trust was still struggling – and by then had assessed that it had a £47 million conservation deficit (the amount required just to get its estate into a fit state). The membership has been vocal throughout the period and there have been stormy annual general meetings and Trustee meetings along the way, debate raised in the media and even in the Scottish Parliament. Enter 2015, and a new Chairman, Moir Lockhead, and Chief Executive, Simon Skinner, with commercial backgrounds in transport and insurance respectively, are now at the helm, pushing forward the latest round of review, now emerging into ‘radical’ restructure.

Entitled, ‘Transforming the Trust‘, the Chairman introduces the plans by saying that a ‘long hard look’ has been taken at the organisation.  Over the past few months, the management consultants PwC have been investigating the organisation and advising on a restructure, and the emergent fundamentals are expressed as the need to deliver:

  • A decentralised model with decisions made locally;
  • An organisational structure with fewer layers of management;
  • More efficient ways of working;
  • Significant investment in key properties

It has also honed its vision and mission – with a timescale which recognises that as an organisation with land and property that are held for the long-term (as the NT would put it, ‘forever, for everyone’), it needs to think and operate with a long-term viewpoint. [This also implicitly recognises that there is a long road ahead to achieve sustainability and meeting the expectations of the mission.]


To some extent, there is nothing in this list which is unexpected or surprising, given the change in structures which have been seen at the National Trust over the past few years – with a move to professional consultancy teams providing expertise and advice at a local level, a nurturing of the relationship between the organisation and its audiences as one of participants in a civic and social conservation movement, and a focus on efficiency in business processes and financial performance.

What is surprising is the presentation of a possible organisational diagram (an ‘organogram’ in the management trade) which uses what will be very alien terminology for many.  This is an overtly corporate approach, and whilst similar diagrams litter the pages of business operational plans the world over, it is a radical shift and possible shock for an organisation that has struggled to understand its own management dynamics over a number of years – and does not do much to aid the much-needed public understanding of the structural changes to take place.  The language used is that of ‘change management’, which is recognised to be needed – but as an analyst of organisational forms and change within the heritage sector (and a NTS member to boot), this part of the communication about change I would argue needs some further finessing if it is to be engaged with properly.  The structure diagram is encountered first in the micro-site section dealing with the actions the Trust is going to take – followed after by the underlying intent around the need to engage with a ’cause’, to raise money, to demonstrate best practice in conservation, and to improve the visitor experience.  I would have done this the other way round – to try to get someone to understand organisational form (however interesting and important it is internally) is a challenge – and I would counsel the Trust to think through its external communications on the detail of structure and operations carefully.


The press reaction over the past couple of days has been interesting – The Herald has focused on industrial relations under the headline, ‘Union to stage talks on plan by National Trust to axe jobs’.  The Telegraph’s Scottish edition, whilst having a similar banner ‘Conservation charity to axe jobs in drive to cut costs’ focuses on the need to ‘deliver world class experiences’, and ‘”raise its game” in the expanding heritage market.’ The Times has focused on the leader of the organisation, under the headline ‘National Trust chief stakes Job on charity shake-up’ with analysis of the financial requirements, expectation that visitor experiences and conservation outcomes would be improved, and the comment from Simon Skinner on the future that, ‘If I’ve got it wrong, I suspect I won’t be here anyway.’  Further analysis over the coming weeks will be interesting to watch, as the scale of change will inevitably come under scrutiny.

For many years whilst working in Scotland, I sat on two of the Trust’s advisory groups – the Archaeology panel, and the Economic & Community Development panel; I was also involved at the time of the last Trust restructure in the Futures review group, undertaking scenario planning to understand possible future environments (political, social, economic etc.) in which the Trust would have to operate.  I have also undertaken recent work with senior conservation and policy staff on articulating ‘knowledge management’ requirements for the organisation.  I’m therefore fairly well acquainted with the workings, positive aspects and shortcomings of the organisation – yet again, there is much to explore here in terms of the interplay of heritage with management as a discipline and practice, picking up on a theme I blogged about yesterday. I wish the Trust well for its coming restructure, and I will be watching carefully to reflect further on the progress of what will be a fascinating and crucial organisational transformation.

Author: Ian Baxter

Heritage management / historic preservation academic at Heriot-Watt University; Vice-Chair of the Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS); Trustee of The Heritage Alliance. Obsessed by administrative histories of heritage organisations, heritage signs, and the design of site guidebooks.

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