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Old January 21st, 2007, 09:46 AM   #1
The Olderfleet
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National Trust in Decline?

From The Age, 20 January 2007, p.5

Can we still place our trust in the keepers of Victoria's heritage?
ROYCE MILLAR, CITY EDITOR

In 50 years, the state's main preservation organisation has gone from the barricades to the boardroom

NATIONAL TRUST
MEMBERSHIP
1976 18,196
2006 11,773
FINANCE
2006 $1.3m deficit
STAFF
2001 80 (full time equivalents)
2007 66
VOLUNTEER HOURS
2001 89,055
2006 70,000

ALMOST 30 years ago, 10,0000 Melburnians rallied on the lawns of Rippon Lea mansion as part of a landmark campaign to thwart the Federal Government's compulsory purchase of the historic Elsternwick mansion.

They were heady political times and a young National Trust of Victoria was fired up, buoyed by a stirring of public concern for grand old buildings, parks and gardens. Then it turned its attention to the "Paris end" of Collins Street, where it cut its teeth on angry battles with developers.

Now, 50 years after it was founded in 1956, its heyday is past and the trust is in deep trouble. It has just posted its worst annual deficit - $1.3 million. Membership is on the decline, along with volunteer hours. Major attractions such as Como, Rippon Lea and the Melbourne Maritime Museum - home of the iron barque Polly Woodside - are shunned by tourists and locals.

Demoralised staff say the organisation lacks direction. Trust leaders have laid down their banners and turned corporate. "The need to man the barricades, to chain yourselves to bulldozers, has perhaps moved," says new trust chairman Graeme Blackman, a pharmaceutical company executive.

Last year the trust actively headhunted business people for a pared board, and the public face of the organisation, traditionally a high-profile elected chairman, is now the new chief executive, Englishman Martin Purslow.

But is the boardroom strategy likely to work? On the contrary, say some senior heritage figures, who warn a preoccupation with property management is sapping resources from the crucial role of advocating for heritage. They say the trust's declining public profile is alienating members and, therefore, income and energy.

"The trust no longer has a profile," says former chairman Randall Bell. "It made a name as an advocate. It touched people's hearts, minds and wallets because it had a bloody good mission that was worth following. It's lost its way."

The corporate approach is not completely new. A strategy launched six years ago to arrest financial decline, including the sale of minor properties and rationalisation of staff, is coming to an end. But rather than reversing a downward spiral, at best it seems to have slowed it.

Three years ago, in an upheaval sparked by internal rows over management of the organisation and the anti-wind farm campaign, Mr Bell and two senior supporters resigned.

At the time, Mr Bell called for radical reform, including offloading management of major properties, such as Rippon Lea, and a focus on campaigning. After Mr Bell's departure, then chief executive Stephen Hare promised a reversal of fortunes. But with things in even worse shape now, a chorus of criticism is growing.

However, the trust seems intent on running itself more as a business than a community organisation. This week it refused to release an auditor's report on finances to The Age. And Mr Purslow refused to supply contact details for Dr Blackman. Dr Blackman later confirmed that under the new regime, the chief executive would be the trust's mouthpiece.

"It's pathetic," says Mr Bell. "The trust is a community organisation and it needs a chairman who is a fearless spokesman and who is the full bottle on heritage issues."

Dr Blackman acknowledges he is there for his business - not heritage - expertise, and describes the corporate focus as "forward-looking". He is determined to improve the financial and membership stocks, but two months into his role he is not clear how this will be done.

While Mr Purslow, also two months into his job, has a professional history in heritage, he is new to the peculiarities of Victorian politics. He struggles when quizzed about his strategy and stresses that a survival game plan is to be developed in the second half of this year.

To some extent the trust is a victim of the times - and its own success. Where families once flocked to Como and Rippon Lea for weekend outings, the explosion of consumer and recreational options has left them mainly used for weddings and school excursions.

Victoria - Melbourne in particular - is awash with heritage properties, gardens and artefacts. Most importantly, heritage overlays are now an intrinsic part of the planning system. And with with developers more likely to boast doctorates than white shoes, planning disputes are more carefully managed than they were in the 1970s.

Dr Blackman says he'd rather talk than battle bulldozers on the 6 o'clock news. "The trust wants to work with (developers) to try and find solutions . . . that both parties can live with."

Critics such as former deputy chairman Reg Brownell, who also resigned from the board in protest in 2003, say that by continuing to manage loss-making properties, the trust is draining resources from its most important role as heritage advocate.

He says the trust must offload old properties such as Como and channel its energy into campaigning. "If you end up behind closed doors rather than confronting issues on the street, you disenfranchise the membership," he says.

Across the country, national trusts are struggling. Tasmania's has plunged into receivership. Is the Victorian division next?

Dr Blackman says the organisation has "exciting properties and a great stakeholder constituency". It remains to be seen whether, in such corporate speak, the roots of a revival, or even survival, lay.

SURVIVAL - THE BIGGEST HERITAGE BATTLE

MARITIME MUSEUM/POLLY WOODSIDE

Visitors in 1979: 91,217 and 2006: 28,620 (10 months only)

COMO

Visitors in 1976: 88,409 and 2006: 28,742

RIPPONLEA

Visitors in 1976: 85,359 and 2006: 35,638

OLD MELBOURNE GAOL

Visitors in 1976: 88,409 and 2006: 134,552
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Old January 21st, 2007, 03:11 PM   #2
Mr Magnate
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Would it be the same story across the rest of Australia regarding the declines?
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Old January 21st, 2007, 10:34 PM   #3
Aussie Steve
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That is why we have the Historic Houses Trust of NSW and not a very active Nat Trust in NSW.
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Old January 22nd, 2007, 12:37 AM   #4
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I still have membership in the NSW National Trust, along with about 25000 others. I think the NSW Trust could always do with more donations and members, but membership is stable and the Trust is far from struggling.
The numerous trust properties are in addition to the properties held by the Governments Historic Houses Trust.
The Trusts HQ on Observatory Hill , The S.H. Ervin Gallery and the Trust shop are great places to find reading on Sydneys history and architecture in general.
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