Changing landscapes and views

NEW ROLE: Janet Bibby, regional director of the National Trust, is responsible for sites such as Brimham Rocks, left, near Harrogate.
NEW ROLE: Janet Bibby, regional director of the National Trust, is responsible for sites such as Brimham Rocks, left, near Harrogate.
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JANET BIBBY helped former coalfields find a new role. Now she has a new role – helping the National Trust broaden its appeal. John Woodcock reports. Picture by Gerard Binks.

Is that because it doesn’t fit a still widely-held perception that the trust is mainly about tapestries, Chippendale and stately homes, and a white, middle class membership dominating its genteel tearooms? Hardly. The trust has crossed plenty of unexpected borders.

It has been in existence for 116 years and now protects everything from Fountains Abbey, Upper Wharfedale and coastline, to a former workhouse, cotton mill, gold, copper and tin mines, and even a time-frozen family semi.

Yet within a region of 599 square miles, the trust’s distinctive oak leaf logo is yet to fall. Nothing of South Yorkshire is represented in its vast accumulation of the nation’s heritage; not so much as a garden, wood or hint of an industrial past. On the face of it, such omissions make Janet Bibby’s arrival at the organisation all the more unlikely.

She was born in Sheffield and until now spent her working life in the area. Previous jobs include running the service department of a fork-lift truck company, being a partner in a large shop and post office in Doncaster, and helping to establish a charity dealing with alcoholism, as well as finding time to gain a Masters degree in education.

Her energy is self-evident and she needed every drop of it as a member of the team charged with reviving the Dearne Valley, which became the largest derelict site in western Europe once coal mining ended.

Among its successes, the valley’s redevelopment provided the headquarters for her next career. For more than seven years, she was chief executive of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the charity established in 1999 with the aim of improving the quality of life in areas which had lost their main employer, and with it a cultural identity.

It meant managing government funding, balancing the demands of Whitehall, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and trying to find a different way forward for thousands of individuals in former pit communities.

Ms Bibby admits to a slight shock to the system since becoming regional director of the National Trust, responsible for Yorkshire and the North East.

For one thing, her office is in one of the Trust’s properties, Goddards, the former home, inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, of Noel Goddard Terry, a member of the York chocolate-making family. With formal terraces, wilderness gardens and herbaceous borders enclosed by yew hedges overlooking the racecourse, the environment couldn’t be further from the slagheaps and industrial wasteland she helped to transform in a previous life.

In a way, Goddards represents a National Trust stereotype that distorts actuality. The list of its sites within Bibby’s patch are among the contrasting wonders of England. They include Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands and a section of Hadrian’s Wall.

In Yorkshire, excluding the south of the county, it’s responsible for 31,000 acres and 24 places as diverse as Hardcastle Crags, Marsden Moor, coastal centres along the Cleveland Way, the Malham Tarn estate, the Treasurer’s House in York, Rievaulx Terrace and Temples, the 1,049ft landmark of Roseberry Topping, and Nostell Priory, an 18th-century mansion near Wakefield whose family treasures were in part paid for by coal – given her background, a detail not lost on a senior representative of the house’s owner today.

Bibby concedes that the timing of her appointment was not the best. It coincided with the end of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust’s current round of public funding. Given the economic climate, there was no guarantee more cash would be forthcoming (it has received just over £200m in total) and she was aware her departure could look like an indication of bad news.

One of her final tasks in the Dearne Valley was writing a business plan for the charity’s future. She was helped by a positive report from the National Audit Office, and by the Public Accounts Committee of MPs who concluded that the CRT represented good value for money. She won her case, meaning it can build on its achievements to date. Nationwide, it claims to have created more than 8,000 jobs, helped 17,000 people find work, supported 115,000 into training and education, improved 2,500 community facilities and developed 119 new ones.

Bibby says much more help is needed in former coalfields, not least in tackling the stubborn “poverty of aspiration,” and their fragile economies are more vulnerable than most in the recession. But on a personal level the mother of two needed a different challenge and the National Trust has provided it through changes it also needs to make.

Its pledge is to care for special places ‘for ever, for everyone’, but there’s evidence that, despite having 3.6 million members and 62,000 volunteers, too many others still don’t connect with the trust’s role, or are unaware of its range of attractions.

In addressing that, greater emphasis is being placed on outdoor experiences, from walking to rock climbing. In the Dales a learning centre aimed at schools and families is being provided along the Pennine Way. At Brimham Rocks the Trust is working with climbers and Nidderdale Llama Trekking Centre to encourage more visitors to the area. The wider aim is to promote the trust’s landscapes and attract a new support that’s currently lacking because of a misguided belief that the organisation focuses on buildings and gardens.

“We are targeting those who feel the National Trust is not relevant to them,” said Bibby. “They perceive us as being stuffy, or just about historic houses, or a government quango remote from their lives. That image has to go. Basically, we have to engage with a lot more people. Our message is that we have a fantastic range of assets, something for everyone, and in one form or other can offer an inspiring and possibly unique experience.

“And it’s not just a question of visiting a place. Why not join the National Trust as a volunteer and help make a difference? Maintaining such a major national commitment as an independent body would be impossible without those from all walks who give us their skills and time. The ‘Big Society’ is already a reality here.”

The view from the office might be different now but her task is not that different from previous ones. “It’s about the future as well as the past, about managing change and creating opportunities.”

Maybe even one that puts the National Trust logo somewhere in South Yorkshire.

• www.nationaltrust.org.uk regional headquarters 01904 702021.