All-time high numbers of visits to National Trust properties and record membership has seen some of the Trust’s smaller cafes, car parks and shops - many of which were built decades ago - suffer from queuing problems and visitor frustration at peak times.
Many places have only basic facilities, while some outdoor sites have no catering on offer at all, but using a low-interest, unsecured loan approved by the Charities Commission, the Trust has announced plans to spend about £20m over each of the next five years to expand, improve and upgrade on-site facilities.
It said the funds will also be used to tackle a backlog of repairs to farm buildings and homes and to modernise some of its holiday cottages.
The charity insisted that no income from membership fees or donations will be diverted from conserving houses, gardens, countryside and coastline to pay for the improvements.
Sharon Pickford, the National Trust’s director of member services, said: “We are delighted that more people than ever before are enjoying spending time at our properties.
“Our challenge now is to make sure that our visitor facilities can adequately cope with demand whilst maintaining record levels of investment in conservation.
“We know that the facilities at many of our places have failed to keep pace with this growth and are inadequate or even non-existent at some of our places.
“That’s why we’re going to act on what our visitors have been telling us they want to see and invest in improving our facilities by using a low interest loan.
“That allows us to fund this essential work whilst at the same time ensuring no money is diverted away from our vital conservation work.”
Properties will “bid” for the money with a business plan setting out how a minimum 10 per cent return on the money borrowed will be delivered, so they can pay off the loan and generate additional income for their conservation work.
Among the place that could benefit from the funding is Dyrham Park (pictured) in south Gloucestershire, where visitor numbers are forecast to reach 400,000 by 2021, and an £8.6m project has been proposed to build a new visitor reception, extra toilets and paved parking, a larger cafe and a bigger shop.
Overall, the National Trust has seen its visitor numbers soar from 270,000 in the 1970s to 26.6m last year.
The charity now has 5.2m members, a rise of more than a million in just five years, its annual report states.
Yet visitor satisfaction has dropped in the past year, with visitors rating their experience as “excellent” down to 61 per cent in 2017/18 from 67 per cent a year earlier.
Between 2013/2014 and 2016/2017, those who rated their visit “very enjoyable” fell from 66 per cent to 56 per cent.
CANDIDATES FOR INVESTMENT
In the past year the National Trust spent £138m on conservation, including £100m on historic houses and gardens, its annual report shows.
That funding included the completion of the £4.3m conservation project at Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland and the £5.4m roof repair scheme at The Vyne in Hampshire.
Other places owned by the Trust that could benefit from the new £100m loan include Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, where visitor numbers have doubled in a decade to 220,000, and Buscot and Coleshill in Wiltshire, an estate with 7,500 acres of land and 20 miles of footpaths but without any visitor facilities.
In Hampshire, Hinton Ampner has seen its visitor numbers increase five-fold in the last 10 years but only offers parking spaces on grass and has very limited toilet facilities, while there are also health and safety concerns about coaches and deliveries using the main visitor route. This property could also be considered for a share of the funding.