With income from legacies falling, the National Trust is relying on democracy and shopping to boost its coffers. The risk is that, as the formula brings in new supporters, it will alienate the conservative and elitist 'auntie brigade'.
If the fact that the average British male can now be confident of seeing his 75th birthday might have been expected to bring a smile to the face of Ian Bollom (he being both male and British), mention of falling mortality rates actually palls its features in unexpected gloom. This is not the result of any personal world weariness on Bollom's part, but of his job. For the past four years, Bollom has been finance director and head of strategic planning for the National Trust. Where others see joy in the prospect of long life, the NT's numbers man sees commercial misery.
It would, perhaps, be unkind to suggest that Bollom wishes the Trust's members dead, but it would not be altogether untrue. 'You've only got to look at last year's accounts to see what's happening,' he says mournfully. 'Our income from legacies fell by more than £4 million between 1994 and 1995, an 18% drop. As people live longer, they are setting more and more money aside for the provision of long-term health care (and so are less well off when the end does eventually come). And it looks likely to be a continuing trend. A survey we commissioned from the Henley Centre suggests that the decline in the legacy market is certainly going to continue until 2005, and perhaps even beyond that.'
Since - legators being notoriously unobliging folk - NT members seem unlikely to buck demographics, the finding of alternative sources of income has of late come to be viewed as a matter of urgency. In 1995, a mere 14% of the Trust's overall income of £151 million came from legacies, with membership fees (30%) and returns on investments (14%) making much more significant contributions to the body's coffers. The drop has led to a noticeable change in the way in which the NT runs its business. Where the name National Trust once evoked a guileless world of oak-leaved car badges and historic house oven gloves, the air at 36 Queen Anne's Gate now reverberates with phrases like 'performance-related' and 'profit ratios'.
One key preoccupation in this change is a redefinition of what might, in these vulgar times, be called the Trust's brand image. Anyone who has dipped into the memoirs of James Lees-Milne, the man most responsible for shaping the post-war NT, will know the problem. Old Etonian aesthete, friend of Oswald Mosley and unreconstructed snob, Lees-Milne's books conjure up a not altogether likeable world in which impoverished aristos are saved from eviction from their castles by the timely arrival of National Trust funding.
This image of the Trust as a sort of Robin Hood for the double-barrelled is, as Bollom points out, an entirely misleading one, but it is an aura that has nonetheless stuck. 'It's all terribly confusing for the public,' he says. 'I remember giving an interview to some newspaper at Stourhead once, and talking to the journalist about how hard-up we were while sitting on this enormous gold peacock thing. I could see just what he was thinking.
What people don't realise is that the National Trust has an incredible talent for magically transforming assets into liabilities.'
With a background in the construction business and receivership work for Price Waterhouse, Bollom must occasionally muse over the ironies of this talent. On the one hand, he is called upon to oversee the kind of portfolio for which other finance directors would happily sell their grandmothers: landholdings the size of Leicestershire, with 245 Titian-filled stately homes and 25,000 lesser dwellings sitting upon them. A bit of divesting here, a touch of restructuring there and it is easy enough to imagine the distant tinkle of money flowing in.
There is a flaw in this happy picture, however. 'Ninety per cent of our assets are inalienable,' says Bollom. 'The whole point of the Trust is that it should own its property forever. We can't mortgage or sell anything, and we can only dispose of assets with parliamentary permission.' These stately poisoned chalices are also expensive to run. In the NT's current five-year plan, more than £210 million has been set aside for the upkeep of crumbling piles, £58 million for Hardwick, Knole and Petworth alone.
Debt? Bollom shakes his head. 'When I worked for a plc, I could borrow money from banks. No bank in the world is going to lend on inalienable assets, so we have to work on a real-time basis.' All too real, indeed: at the moment, the Trust's reserve ratio - the length of time it could survive if its volatile income flows suddenly dried up - is four months.
Central government grants? Bollom sighs. 'People often confuse us with English Heritage, who get 98% of their income from the Government,' says the NT's strategist. 'We get around 11%. We have to earn our money, to survive on our merits.'
Given this contradiction, Bollom's mind is understandably concentrated on finding ways of turning properties from elephants (white) into geese (golden egg-laying). Here, too, however, he faces a paradox. Like it or not, much of the appeal of the National Trust for what Bollom refers to as 'the auntie brigade' (ie the typical NT member) is its vicarious association with poshness, a sort of Hello! magazine in 3-D. The trouble with aunties is that they have a marked tendency to die, thus eroding income from membership fees, and now (adding insult to injury) to do so without leaving legacies.
If the Trust is not to pass away with them, Bollom knows it will have to find ways of appealing to a younger market, one for which the word 'aristocracy' is more likely to evoke the response 'tumbril' than it is 'admiration'. With this realisation in mind, Bollom's forward planning strategy is based on two things for which the younger generation has a well-documented taste: democracy and shopping.
Clearly pandering to the former, the NT's strategic planner is keen to emphasise that new acquisitions will no longer be limited to those of the up-at-the-big-house variety. 'The simple fact is that the ancestry of most of the people in this country was not in 17th and 18th century stately homes,' reasons Bollom. 'When history judges the contributions this country made to the world, its two greatest will be seen to have been the English language and the Industrial Revolution. One criticism of the heritage industry is that it has tended to be nostalgic in a very specific way. Yet I've just been down to look at the Blaenavon industrial landscape: a rather grungy stretch of land in south Wales, but a very real part of the country's history.'
At the same time, Bollom points to parallel changes in the Trust's internal management structures, designed, he says, to 'take it out of the era of the air vice marshal' and into a present where survival will depend on commercial professionalism. 'The Trust has a lot to learn from business in terms of rendering its decision-making crisper,' notes Bollom. 'We've appointed something like 100 property managers over the past couple of years, delegating responsibility to the local level. We are now genuinely asking whether the Trust really needs to have a London HQ at all.'
While all of this is clearly designed to help the NT sidestep accusations of elitism, there is a difference between merely stopping younger people from staying away and actively luring them inside. To do this, the Trust will rely increasingly on its retail arm, the semi-independent National Trust (Enterprises) Ltd or NTE. While income from just about every other source, from legacies to government grants to membership fees, seems likely to fall over the next decade, the trend in the Trust's retail wing has been resolutely upward, with turnover rising from £35 million in 1992 to £43 million in 1995 and operating profits up by a handsome 40% to £7 million over the same period. In 1995, NTE accounted for 5% of the Trust's overall income. The appointment last June as NTE's managing director of Inga Grimsey - a young and distinctly untweedy businesswoman whose retailing pedigree includes executive stints at both Storehouse and Levi Strauss - clearly shows that the Trust means business.
'The truth is that we're not just competing with the rest of the heritage industry,' says Grimsey. 'We've also got to face up to things like shopping centres being open on Sundays. The whole V&A nice-caff-with-a-museum-attached thing may be going a bit far, but we can't just assume that members of the Great British Public are going to continue to roll up to our properties just because they are there. This is the end of a millennium, and shopping opportunities are a part of what that the public demands.'
As one might expect, Grimsey finds herself faintly bemused by the trug-and-secateurs gentility that has tended to colour the Trust's retail culture.
'Having worked for Levi's, I can say with some confidence that there is a lot more mileage to be got out of the Trust brand,' says a tigerish Grimsey. 'Points of difference are going to become increasingly important in retailing, and our biggest one is that we have exclusive rights on our properties. We also have a captive audience in them. What we have to do is to see retailing as more than just a part of the visitor experience.
We have to turn it on its head.'
If this you've-bought-the-notelets-now-see-the Leonardo tendency sounds likely to result in differences of opinion with property managers who may feel that the visitor experience should by rights be the other way around, then Grimsey is clearly willing to do battle on the issue. 'If they see it as a member/customer problem, then of course we'll have to debate it,' she concedes.'There may well be uncommercial decisions over things like opening hours, for example, that will need to be discussed.'
Nonetheless, such talk serves to highlight the tightrope along which the National Trust now finds itself walking. On the one hand, there is a new pressure to be seen to be a truly national trust: that is to say, one that somehow manages to be representative of all levels of the nation's social history. On the other lies recognition that part of the Trust's appeal to its current members and visitors is the air of exclusivity and privilege which its properties exude.
It is a dilemma which means that National Trust Enterprises is unlikely to move into general high-street retailing: in part because such a move would be queried by the Charity Commissioners, in part because having NTE outlets sandwiched between Boots and Woolworth's 'would not be in keeping with the ethos of the Trust'. Instead, Grimsey has her eye on what she calls 'post-Conran babies': the sort of discerning young who are willing to pay a premium for regionally specific, handcrafted goods.
The Japanese, always aficionados of such things, have already proven keen customers, with a new licensing agreement meaning that National Trust Corners have started to appear in Tokyo department stores.
Bollom, too, sees clear constraints on the potential commercialisation of NT properties. 'With all respect to Alton Towers, bouncy castles are not what the Trust is about,' says Bollom. Instead, the rather more rarefied buzzword for the millennium at Queen Anne's Gate is 'multimedia'. With support from corporate sponsors like Siemens Nixdorf and (Bollom fervently hopes) a wodge of cash from the Millennium Commission, the Trust's £22-million Thousand Threads project is intended to lure the cyberliterate ABC1 young to Trust properties with the promise of touch-screens and CD-Roms.
Whether all this will be enough to convince the same young elite that it wants to join the National Trust remains to be seen. There is little doubt that the changes Bollom describes are both serious and well-intended, but old images die hard. The NT's strategist relates a telling story.
When the Trust approached the Heritage Lottery Fund for money with which to acquire Crewe, a stately home, the cash was quickly forthcoming. When the Trust asked for a grant with which to buy the Bedminster Union Workhouse, it was not. 'We're seen as being good at large houses, landscape gardens and parks,' says a fatalistic Bollom, 'not necessarily at workhouses.' Changing that perception may be the biggest challenge of all.