Governance Matters

  • 23 Oct 2018
  • Article

For any organisation, good governance matters. This holds true if the organisation is in the private sector or the public sector, or whether it is run on charitable or commercial lines.


At Historic Houses, governance issues tend to come to the fore at this time of year. Our organisation, a not-for-profit membership association of owners of significant listed buildings, is divided into 13 regions and countries. Each region or country has its own governing committee, mainly comprising volunteers from among the local house member community. Every year, each region or country is required to hold an Annual General Meeting (AGM), to undertake those most mundane yet important of tasks: the election of the chairman and other members of the committee, the approval of accounts, and the signing-off of minutes or records of previous meetings.


As Director General, along with the President, I have the pleasure of attending every one of these AGMs. It is a chance to hear from house owners about the issues they face, and their reflections on how well (or, just occasionally, not) the association is representing and supporting their interests. It also means I get to visit some interesting places that I might never have seen before. This year the highlights have included the Welsh AGM held at WE Gladstone’s country retreat (Hawarden Castle in Flintshire), the meeting held alongside the ruined shell of a 17th-century mansion (Kirklinton Hall in Cumbria), and the meeting hosted in the drawing room of the beautiful Birdsall House in Yorkshire. It is of course invidious to pick these three out, since every meeting has been extremely well organised and very generously hosted, normally by one of our house members themselves.


Image: The Cumbria AGM at Kirklinton Hall


Next month, on Tuesday 13 November, our national AGM takes place at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster. As well as the usual AGM business, this year’s meeting features more speakers than ever before, including the Minister for Heritage, the Director General of the National Trust, and the President of the European Historic Houses Association. For any member of Historic Houses, whether house owner or general member, further details of the AGM, including how to book, can be seen here. Details of the popular Historic Buildings, Parks and Gardens exhibition that takes place alongside the AGM are here.


The National Trust has also recently held its AGM. Like Historic Houses, the Trust has a Council of advisors, which holds its Board to account as well as giving a top-line steer on strategy. The Trust’s Council provides a direct democratic link back to its membership, since half of their number are voted by a ballot of the Trust’s 5.5 million members. The remainder are appointed on behalf of so-called ‘appointing bodies’: organisations that share similar interests and values to those of the Trust.


The Trust has undergone some governance changes of late. It recently agreed to reduce the size of its Council, from 52 individuals to 36. This of necessity meant that the number of appointing bodies needed to be reduced, from 26 to 18, and this year the Trust held a ballot on which 18 organisations it should be.  Although the Trust’s Council gave recommendations to its members, there was an entirely free vote on the matter (members were not offered the chance to delegate their vote to the Trust’s Board as proxy, as is sometimes the case).


As it turned out, 15 of the 18 organisations now elected as appointing bodies had been recommended by the Council prior to the vote. The remining three reflect the preferences of NT members over those of its Council. The Council’s recommendations of the CLA, Icon and the Women’s Institute were overlooked, in favour of the RSPB, the CPRE and us at Historic Houses. All three were re-elections, since these organisations were already appointing bodies and had been close partners of the Trust for many years. 


They join three other organisations that were elected as appointing bodies for the first time this year: two of them charities formed from former government agencies (the Canal & River Trust and English Heritage), and the other the ever-popular Woodland Trust, which came top in the poll with a whopping 31,552 votes (compared to just under 20,000 for Historic Houses).


Governance change can be hard work and elections by their nature can throw up unexpected outcomes. However, even though only three of the appointing bodies are new recruits, the Trust has nonetheless achieved its goal of reducing the number of appointing bodies from 26 to 18.  They will be sorry to see the other organisations relinquish their role as appointing bodies, although there will be a chance for them to come back in future elections (there is a vote every six years).


Our current representative to the Trust’s Council happens to be an indirect descendant (and near namesake) of one of the National Trust’s co-founders, its first chairman Sir Robert Hunter. We are thrilled that he will continue to represent independent owners at the Trust’s Council table. After all, we represent more than eight times as many important mansion properties as there are within the Trust’s ownership (1,650 Historic Houses member houses compared to c.200 NT country house properties) – we may know a thing or two about them, therefore!


Healthy governance means ensuring a diverse range of voices are heard. We are pleased that Historic Houses gets to continue to appoint a representative to the Trust’s Council, to bring the vital perspective of independent owners to bear in its discussions.  


Ben Cowell

Director General

Historic Houses


Ben Cowell


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