Interview: Preserving historic sites for future generations

Bigger read interview with Ben Cowell, who is the new boss for the National Trust East of England.
Bigger read interview with Ben Cowell, who is the new boss for the National Trust East of England.
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After battling to preserve the country’s emerald landscapes from opportunistic developers and with a long held passion for the East of England, Ben Cowell is the ideal candidate to lead the National Trust’s vital conservation work in the region.

As the charity’s recently appointed director for the East, the 40-year-old wants to put the area ‘on the map’ attracting tourists in their droves to the Trust’s eclectic portfolio of properties and gardens.

Sitting in the packed cafe at Ickworth House, which hums with relaxed chatter, he beams: “It’s about being more vocal about the wonderful places we have here.”

The signposts to this role have been planted throughout his career and he was first inspired at an early age by a family friend who managed the Trust’s Derbyshire country house estate Calke Abbey.

Meanwhile, his ‘love affair’ with the East began while studying history – with a focus on landscapes – at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich.

He later became a civil servant in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and, in his last job, was responsible for how national museums were funded and promoted.

In 2008, he ‘crossed the fence’ landing a role at the National Trust as the deputy director of external affairs managing relations between the charity and Government.

Mr Cowell explains: “The Trust doesn’t get any Government subsidies and is totally self reliant. We depend on our four million members, many millions of visitors and the goodwill of volunteers.”

He soon found himself locked in a battle with his old employers as the charity campaigned against the Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework, which controversially spearheads a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Campaigners feared acres of countryside could be churned into grey asphalt by unregulated developers.

“We were saying they were going too far. It was an unusual example of the Trust speaking out on a very public issue. The Trust is all about looking after special places for the long term forever.

“We found many people shared our concerns. We had nearly a quarter of a million people signing our online petition. When the policy finally came out there were some significant changes which wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for our and other group’s interventions. We felt we had achieved some good results.”

Among those amendments, he says, was an emphasis on brown rather than green field development to adapt previously used sites and a recognition of the ‘intrinsic value of the countryside’.

Mr Cowell started his new post in January and is based at Westley Bottom. He is ultimately responsible for the Trust’s properties and sites across the East including Ickworth, Anglesey Abbey, Blickling Hall and Hatfield Forest.

He says: “Each of the properties have ambitious plans, targets for visitor satisfaction and numbers as well as the essential conservation work we do. My job is to help those properties achieve those ambitions and for this part of the country to raise its profile.”

As earnings are squeezed in this prolonged age of austerity, how has a charity reliant on goodwill coped?

“We’ve had a reasonably good run because last year we reached our four millionth member. We found that the ‘staycation’ effect was benefitting us at first and more people were becoming National Trust members rather than having expensive holidays overseas.

“Last year was quite a difficult one for us though. It wasn’t just the economy but the weather. We had a very wet year and that can have a big impact on us.”

The charity’s annual turnover is £450 million and gains a third of its income through membership.

Mr Cowell says: “We need to make sure that not only are we giving people reasons to continue their membership but also that we reach out to new members.”

He says properties such as Ickworth are a shining example of the National Trust founder’s (Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Robert Hunter) mission.

“They were all about open spaces, historic character and enjoying places of beauty and distinction.

“We are here to do it for everyone.”