Historic Houses President, James Birch, Speech at the 2018 AGM

  • 19 Nov 2018
  • Article

"Ladies and Gentlemen good morning. We are short of time today so we will not have conventional questions from the floor. We have asked for questions to be emailed to us and you can continue to send them during the day as they arise. Please send them to info@historichouses.com. The questions can be directed to me or to any of the speakers through this method. Questions not answered today will receive an email response in the next few days. The advantage of this process is that we can answer questions that have broad interest, rather than getting tied up on an obscure topic.

Because we are short of time I am also going to start talking early about changes to our annual awards. We are changing the garden of the year award for two reasons. This is Miserden our worthy 2018 winner. Firstly the voting system was antiquated and a bit ragged. Secondly with just one winner each year, a great gardener might be unrecognised in his or her lifetime. In addition we think our gardens under recognised as a national asset and as an asset to Historic Houses. In a single generation an owner can probably make a bigger impact on the garden, than in any other aspect of a house and a garden has more visitor capacity than a house.

A long list of nominations from Regional Chairmen has been slimmed down to a short list of 8 chosen by a panel chaired by Ursula Cholmeley. These are the 8 Gardens. Lady Cholmeley will also become the chairman of a new Historic Houses Gardens Committee that will help raise our game. The terms of the competition will be on our website in the February edition of our Magazine. The competition will be run all summer and the winner announced at the 2019 AGM. Christies will generously continue to sponsor the prize. There will also be a prizes for the first three members to take a selfie in each of the eight gardens.

Our other award, the Sotherby’s restoration continues in its current form with an expert panel choosing the winner. This year it was deservedly won by the Burge Family’s complete and faithful restoration. I had seen photographs but was totally stunned by seeing the house in person. I would hugely recommend a visit although it is by appointment only. 

One of the very few benefits of being President of your association is what Ian Fleming might have called a licence to snoop. During the year I probably visit 40 or 50 houses in some capacity. What has struck me is that the place where there is the greatest change to the function of the houses is the location and design of the kitchens. The kitchen is always the first room that new occupants change. Where planning permission allows, the kitchen has moved from a dark small room at the back of the house to a bright one at the centre of things and more time and effort is spent on getting the kitchen right. That is obviously appropriate as it is now at the very centre of family life. In some way the new working family kitchen is what most differentiates a family house from an institutionally owned house. As such we will be announcing a kitchen award in early 2019. This is the private Kitchen at Marchmont, this is Burghley in what was previously the dining room with a ceiling by Capability Brown. This is Birdsall and this is Carlton Towers. Lady Fitzallan Howard is fizzing with excitement at news of the Competition. As public access is unreasonable the completion will be a photographic one open to all 1700 of our members. Giles Kime the interiors editor of Country Life will Chair the panel of judges and we already have a company anxious to sponsor the prize.

Now assuming most of our attendees are here, I will start my main address. Let me remind me of who we are and what we do. 

  • We are an association of 1700 historic house owners paying between £139 and £800 a year.
  • We have 52,000 members paying about £54 a year.
  • We have 10 full time staff.
  • We outsource our membership and publications.
  • We lobby the Government 
  • We market our houses, especially to our members
  • We provide advice 
  • We are a community

In March 2018 we launched our new brand. Brand changes are often unpopular, but in our case the only major concern was that our new castellated logo was too close the English Heritage logo and that Castles were really their turf, so we did a Castle count and English heritage have 76 castles and we have 154, including the two most important ones Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and Downton Abbey.

The brand message is that our Houses are Historic Homes rather than just houses. The Brand is designed to raise or profile in every sense but also to increase our membership. The opportunity for members is immediately clear from the following statistics.

The national Trust have about 200 open houses and 5m members. 80% of their visits are from there members.
English Heritage have 50 open houses and 1m Members. 55% of their visits are from their members.
Historic Houses have 330 open Houses and 52,000 members. Only 4% of visits to our house are from our members. 
There is clearly a huge potential for more members. With that in mind we have significantly increased the amount we pay back to houses for our member visits. Over the last four years we have increase the member credit from xxx to xxx or a compound rate of 12% per year.

The rebranding was relatively simple and cheap but behind that was a £300,000 technology upgrade creating a new website and database. This has taken longer to implement that expected and one of the significant delays has been the functionality to allow a member of the public to become a member and pay at the gates of one of our Houses in a quick on line transaction. This is at the heart of the huge success that the National Trust has in converting non-members as they visit houses. As this was not functioning until late July the most important part of our new membership campaign, which is most effective during the early summer, has effectively delayed next year. However it is not all bad news. Despite ending a number of discounted first year membership incentives our numbers are up from 49,000 to 52,000 or 6%. Ending discounts has increased the value of our subscriptions by 12%. Non incentive memberships are also more likely to renew and therefore our retention is likely to grow. We have also underspent our marketing budget, but where we have spent we have made interesting discoveries – the Guardian website produces better results than the telegraph!

Regardless of the delay to our Membership Campaign we have continued relentless lobbying of the Government and other parties for a more level playing field. Our broad message is that we are the custodians of perhaps the UK’s most distinctive built heritage sector and by virtue of the fact that 80% of the UK’s important Historic Houses are in private hands, we are saving the nation from a huge burden. As our houses are also family homes they are more interesting than institutionally owned ones. However we play on a very uneven playing field compared to institutional owners of houses. I recently attended a meeting with of Heritage Chairmen with Michael Ellis the heritage Minister to discuss how the 2019 spending review might affect our organisations. When my turn came I was able to confidently say that any potential cuts would not affect us as we don’t get anything anyway.

Over the last year been specifically campaigning for an improvement to the tax rates on Heritage Maintenance Funds. These vehicles were introduced in 1976 by a labour government and improved by a Conservative Government in 1982. They originally had a significantly lower tax rate than normal, but are now taxed at the highest rate of income, and as a result the funds are no longer attractive. Although we will get no resolution until 2020 at the earliest, our case is being well received and we have a meeting with Treasury Official next week.

We have recently merged with two organisations that I am confident will further our cause. The First is invitation to View, a tour booking system driven by the needs of the House being visited rather than by the demands of the tour party or Coach Company. Invitation to View is successfully used by 100 houses in East Anglia allowing them to set the date, number of visitors and price to suite their property. The visits will now be marketed preferentially to Historic House members. We believe that Invitation to view will be especially useful to our 500 or so houses who would welcome more visitors on their own terms, but are not set up to receive and average coach party. Sheila Charrington, will talk more about invitation to view after lunch.

The second merger, which is agreed but still needs Charity Commission approval is between the Heritage Conservation Trust, a small Charity sponsored by Historic Houses, which gives grants for picture restoration, and the Country Houses Foundation,   a much larger Charity, which over the last ten years has given £8 million to 130 bricks and mortar restoration projects. Significantly the Country Houses Foundation will change its name to the Historic Houses Foundation. While Historic Houses, our lobbying and membership organisation, and the New Historic Houses Foundation will remain independent of each other, Historic Houses will devote all it’s Fund raising to the Historic Houses Foundation. My predecessor Rick Compton will become a Trustee of the Foundation. Last year the National Trust received £64m in donations and legacies. On a prorate basis with 1% or their membership we should be raising £640,000. Norman Hudson the Chairman of the Country Houses Foundation will talk more this afternoon.

We are launching the new Charity today and to celebrate the launch, we very much hope that everyone will make a donation, even if it only is a pound. Please hand in the envelopes to our volunteers as you leave.

During the last ten minutes I have possibly depicted the National Trust as a competitor. That is not the case. They are very supportive and helpful to us. We meet Tim Parker the Chairman and Hilary McGrady the Director General formally at least twice a year. I have struggled with the right analogy to illustrate that we are on the same side but just doing things slightly differently. The Army and the Navy seemed too simplistic, I was quite pleased with the National Trust being football’s Men Premier League and Historic Houses being the Woman’s football league, but I realised this was politically dangerous. The Anglican and Catholic Churches in England was too complicated so I would welcome any suggestions. Anyway, it is my great pleasure to introduce Hilary McGrady who without question has the most important job in our business, Director General of the National Trust."


To view the slideshow from James Birch's speech click below:



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