NEWSMAKER: Trouble at the trust - Sir William Proby, Chairman, The National Trust

John Plummer

Sir William Proby has been chairman of the National Trust for less than a month but already he could be forgiven for fleeing to one of the charity's 19 castles and pulling up the drawbridge.

The trust is under siege from outside and within. The troops are being marched in less than harmonious unison to Swindon and an external review group has criticised the way the organisation is run and the way it elects its leaders. If that weren't enough, other heritage charities have been lining up to take a kick at the trust for accepting £2,000 to allow the Uffington White Horse to be temporarily defaced as part of a stunt for TV show Big Brother.

While the White Horse row has washed away as quickly as the ink that caused it, the move to Swindon and the governance review will rumble on for at least another two years. Proby, 52, is keen to present himself as a steadying influence who will steer the charity's 4,000 staff and 38,000 volunteers to calmer seas.

"The trust has been going through a period of rapid change and needs stability," says Proby, who describes himself as "a safe pair of hands".

He describes Lord Blakenham's review governance report as "masterful".

The report is fulsome in its praise: Lord Blakenham describes the trust as "a hugely successful organisation" in his first sentence. But it was the bad bits that attracted most attention: in particular that members perceive the ruling council to be "a circle into which they cannot break" and that the system of granting proxy votes to the chairman arouses "deep suspicion".

Proby is as selective as the media in sweeping over certain aspects.

"I like to think of the report as looking forward rather than looking back," he says. "Our governance hasn't changed for 40 years, so it was time to look at it. Some of our practices could be improved.

"I don't want to get involved in the debate on the merits of proxy voting, but I believe the proposed changes will be welcomed by members."

Proxy voting has caused deep wounds and led to allegations by Conservative peer Chris Patten that the trust had become a "self-perpetuating oligarchy".

Ironically, council members, some of whom owe their status to proxy voting, will decide at this year's AGM whether or not the method will be abolished.

All Proby will say from a personal perspective is that he believes the recommendation for change is "a positive thing".

Charles Nunneley, the previous chairman, used proxies to help to elect pro-hunting Conservative MP Nicholas Soames and TV chef Clarissa Dickson Wright on to the council at the last AGM. The strengthening of the pro-hunting faction was interpreted as further evidence of the trust becoming more politicised. Proby, master of Elton Hall, the family home in Northamptonshire for past 350 years, insists the charity's stance on hunting remains neutral, although neutral means it continues. "I enjoy hunting on my land just as the trust does on its land," he says. "There is a long tradition of hunting in the countryside. We will have to wait and see what the Government decides. It's not the trust's role to be on a crusading mission either way: we will obey the law."

When the trust, which was formed in 1895, underwent its last governance review in 1971, it had 152,000 members and an annual budget of £2.4 million. It now has more than three million members and spends £251 million a year.

But the decision to turn its back on one of its own buildings has generated considerable anger. The National Trust is synonymous with its magnificent home in London's Queen Anne's Gate. By 2005, all but around 15 staff will have departed to a business park in Swindon.

It will mean switching neighbours from the Foreign Office to the Great Western Designer Outlet Village. But the symbolic harm pales next to the loss of skilled staff who have decided life in Wiltshire isn't for them.

The move was announced last year and is expected to be complete by 2005.

The erosion of personnel has been gradual but damaging.

The marketing and communications teams, with the exception of one or two staff, will transfer to Swindon. So will the strategy team. The policy team and photo library, plus a skeleton staff from the conservation directorate will remain.

Swindon was chosen because of its proximity to the trust's other regional offices in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. "I've come in late on in the process. I haven't seen anybody particularly upset by it. On the whole, reaction is positive," says Proby, who will remain in London.

Besides staffing issues, the move has other dangers. There is the RSPCA factor, whereby creating a plush new building for staff will provide an easy target for discontent and the highly sensitive Swindon factor. Whatever the town's merits - and the communications team is trying hard to push them - some people will always think the trust should be based in London.

Proby describes Swindon as "a courageous choice". He adds: "Swindon has its critics but the trust will bring a lot to the area. It's a brave decision because we're not planning to build a classic country house. It's going to be a great place to work as well as presenting a good image."


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