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Thursday, 19 September 2013

Tenants, Landlords and the Cottages

I've heard there are two sides to every story and it takes two to tango. But with National Trust tenants and landlords I'm starting to gather there's a third complex member of the relationship. And it makes sense. The cottages are centuries old and have real life stories of their own. 

After talking with Cliff Percival about Landlords, I had a good chat with Julie Borrow, Surveying Technician for the National Trust about tenants and their homes. 

Like Cliff, Julie has been involved with informing tenants about the refurbishment project but Julie's role is also more personal and involved with direct letting. I was very interested in her perspective of West Wycombe Village.

NV: Your role is directly involved with tenants and supporting the National Trust as a landlord, how did you get started?
JB: I’ve known the tenants of West Wycombe Village for quite a long time. I started off working with Richard Wheeler who is now a National Specialist in Garden History at the National Trust.

Richard is a great ambassador for the National Trust. He has a passion for historical things especially gardens, buildings, and park lands. He instigated this passion and enthusiasm in me right from the beginning and encouraged my endeavours to follow conservation of buildings and landscapes.

When he was working with West Wycombe Village, Park and Hill, I was involved only as his secretary but that’s when I started to get to know the village tenants.  It is where I started helping tenants to understand that the works being carried out aren’t just for them or just for the building, but for both. Even if they’re not there for more than a year, they’re still custodians of those cottages.

 We want to give tenants the best, and we want them to give the cottages their best. We want them to feel enthusiastic about the cottages; I think most of the time we are succeeding in doing that.

N: It makes sense that it would take both landlord and tenant to make the relationship work. How do you know the tenants have enthusiasm about the cottages?
There’s a tenant and her partner I got to know and she said before they left: “I used to come out of my cottage onto the High Street.  I would look at the people walking past and they would look at the cottage and they watched me coming out of the door, and I would think, yes, this is MY cottage. I’m a National Trust tenant and I look after THIS cottage”.  She was just so proud of the cottage and I thought, how can I capture this!

But obviously not all tenants feel like that. You don’t really expect them to because not every house owner feels like that about their own house. Even if they’ve bought a house and they don’t rent, they don’t necessarily have that passion. But I think there are a lot of people who do. I believe it still goes back a little bit to that old English adage: an Englishman’s home is his castle. And it’s only an English thing apparently. Americans don’t feel it; the Europeans don’t feel it because so many of them are in rented properties.
Our Trust properties are obviously rented but I think there are a good percentage of our tenants who have that pride – it’s not just an ownership, it’s a passionate, caring, custodial thing. It’s a difficult abstract concept to describe. Like the tenant who declared: This is mine! It’s intangible.

What a role you have seeing the personal side of the Let Estate process. What’s the business side like?  
There are things that aren’t quite right, that people get cross with the Trust as a landlord. And you can understand that. And some of the things are quite simply because we neither had the funding nor the man power. The best thing about the project is that we can now,  at this point,  over these 3 years,  do all the work or as much as we can,  to make that better.

I think the NT is now realising that this is what’s got to be done. There are villages up and down the country which are just boarded up. People want to get in there and make it better

West Wycombe Village is like a Let Estate test bed in some respects. How does it compare to other villages managed by the NT?
Holnicote Estate was their first big project and when you look at those villages, they are really idyllic; they are dotted with stunning cottages – some available as holiday homes.

But it’s with the two villages of Buscot and Coleshill that you get a really good comparison with West Wycombe Village. At first sight, West Wycombe’s facelift is more obvious than Buscot and Coleshill.

The Buscot and Coleshill Estate is only about an hour’s drive from here, (Saunderton), and worth a visit. They’re so gorgeous you could just pick them up and eat them. They’re more spread out, not just a high street like West Wycombe. Coleshill has a village shop, cottages, but not more than one pub. It has a farm estate yard which they let out as craft shops. It all sort of works but it’s a real country village as opposed to West Wycombe which is a real rural village with the main A40 going though the centre.
Buscot town hall

Buscott Wier

Coleshill Park
Some would say West Wycombe isn’t as pretty as Coleshill, but even so they are both having similar kinds of works done. Unfortunately you can see the disrepair in West Wycombe more than you can in Coleshill; the cottages in the latter are more set back from the road or behind garden walls.  Because West Wycombe has this road, all the splashes go up on the front of the houses. Everyone who goes through West Wycombe says ‘What is the Trust doing about that?’ And I just say they are continuously doing something about it. They have to do it every couple of years. It’s like the Forth Road Bridge in Scotland – you start at one end but by the time you finish you have to start again. I suppose it’s like the M25.

If West Wycombe didn’t have the main road, then the outside render and the paintwork wouldn’t get damaged as quickly.  That is where the difference lies - although Coleshill has a road, it is not as busy.

Who are the tenants of WWV and are they long term tenants who tend to stick around or are there high turnover?
There are a fair amount of retired people who live in WWV. The average tenancy really varies. The oldest tenant is a 100 years old but she’s been living there for only some of her life. Like any village, there are some long standing tenants who have had children that move away and then come back to live with mum and dad.

In the 6.5 years that I’ve been working on WWV I have let and re-let 2 or 3 cottages about 2 or 3 times. I would say that some of the cottages turn over often and some of them don’t. There’s a fair mix in ages.

Is it difficult to become a tenant of the National Trust, what is the process of applying to be a tenant?
You don’t apply to be a tenant so much as you apply to rent. First the cottage gets advertised and goes onto Rightmove.

For all of the cottages I’ve let, I meet up with every single prospective tenant.
And yes there is an appropriateness that we look for in tenants which helps us find the strongest contender. It’s not just the money side. Obviously we have to go through the financials, credit checks etc. just like all landlords do. You can’t get around that.

 Please could you tell me more about the process and the non-money side, the appropriateness.
 The referencing goes through a central credit control, which has an outside company that’s completely objective. They don’t know the cottage or the tenant and they look at personal and professional references on the credit check form.

 And then where do you as the National Trust representative come in?
At the beginning it’s who we say we think is most appropriate. It’s very abstract but I always explain to people it’s the most appropriate person for the cottage and the village.

It’s about how we feel they would benefit from the village and how the village would benefit from them. It’s a bit difficult to explain sometimes because people don’t have that feeling. They just want a roof over their head and a pretty cottage, pay the rent and that’s it. They’re not really worried about anything else. Whereas we would like them to actually appreciate the cottage and the village for what they are.

But then people can sometimes think: Oh, all you’re interested in is the cottage. And it’s not actually that, we also would like happy Tenants!  We obviously hope people will look after and enjoy the property, but then we should be able to deduce that from meeting the people how you feel they will look after the cottage.

I don’t think it’s something you can explain, and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes two or three years down the line they leave and actually the cottage is in a poor state which is very sad. Some of the time it’s not due to the Trust, it’s due to the tenant not reporting work needed because they haven’t got time. They don’t want the workmen coming in; they don’t want people coming into the house when they’re not there. All of these kind of tiny things. I suppose we would take time off work if it was our own.

And other times, some people just let it get dirty; you think how can people live like this. But you know it takes all types to make a world and you’ve just got to accept that. And there are other cottages you come back to after 2-3 years and you think “I could just move in here tomorrow” and that’s a pure joy; and it does happen. It’s quite difficult to describe appropriateness.

How do you think the tenants feel about the current project? What were their expectations and how have you helped to inform their expectations?
If they are more long standing tenants they have voiced some complaints about the way the landlord has been in the past, maybe that things weren’t dealt with as well as they could have been. Perhaps there’s still a misunderstanding of how much the Trust has to spend.

 For example, when the Trust acquired Chastleton House up in Gloucestershire for around 2 million pounds in the late eighties there appeared to be a misunderstanding between the Trust and the public, and some members. Some people believed that the Trust should do what they would like to do. In many respects, because membership supports the Trust, you can understand why they feel this kind of ownership. We only touched Chastleton extremely lightly to conserve it as it is but it still cost just as much money to conserve as to acquire it. Sometimes people are not aware and don’t understand this.
Chastleton House
The Trust is a landowner. And people think there are millions of pounds!  In a way yes, but it’s all tied up actually. Every single time somebody bequeaths a property something like West Wycombe Park it costs millions to maintain it through the years. And it’s the same for a tiny cottage. Just a small two bedroom two up two down, needs a bathroom, a new kitchen every so often, the roof needs to be done every 50 odd years - same as any normal house. Walls need to be painted and windows repaired etc etc. You’re going into thousands of pounds for just one cottage and we’re talking 58 in West Wycombe alone!

 While a few longer standing tenants might tend to think the Trust sometimes hasn’t done as much as they should have done, many others are okay and even happy.

I went to see a couple last week who moved out because of rewiring work, he and his wife are happy as sand boys. They’ll be in another cottage for about one or two weeks and they don’t mind. In a way it’s like a holiday. They get to go and see more people because they’re in a different part of the village and people are just across if you go out the door. And some of the younger ones think it’s just great that the Trust is getting around to doing it.

 There’s a certain amount of “how long is this going to take” with the roofs off and such like but there’s also a huge amount of “wow that looks so much better now it’s done”. I know we feel it. Some of them are saying we know it’s going to be uncomfortable for a while but it’s going to make such a good difference.

 What’s your wish list for how things will go after the project is finished. And where do you think the big differences will be felt?
I think there will be a significant difference for warmth in the winter for all the people with more insulation, secondary glazing. And for some people that are perhaps lesser able than they used to be, then certain bathrooms are going to be easier for them. Just tiny things will make a difference like the way kitchens are laid out. And I don’t want them to be “eternally grateful” and all that. It’s just nice for them to realise that we do care. And I think the majority of them do realise that.

Does this mean that the interest in renting village cottages will increase?
I think it will become more “out there”. People will generally be more aware of the fact that it’s a National Trust village. Because even now, there are a number of prospective tenants that come through Rightmove without realising that West Wycombe is a National Trust village. They just have no idea.

I suppose their idea is West Wycombe Park, big house – National Trust. Hughenden Manor, big house – National Trust. They don’t think about the cottages, and the villages. Probably because they haven’t been on the radar. And in some respects it’s perhaps better this way because we don’t want people peeking into tenant windows. You and I wouldn’t like it.

You have a point, if visitors began treating the village like a tourism attraction or ‘show village’ then privacy could become an issue for residents.  In West Wycombe there isn’t a single show cottage. They are all lived in.
Yes I’d say to visitors: you can go into the three pubs, you can visit the many lovely shops. But please remember there are residents who live in these homes.

And there was another wish on your list, tell me about the audio history side of the project.
Preserving the personal history of West Wycombe is important because it’s becoming a more public facing commercial village.

 Audio history has been carried out but there’s still more to do about interviewing the tenants who have memories of the village not necessarily just the Trust. I don’t believe the majority of people who have been asked to do it are insulted they actually find it quite enchanting that someone wants to listen to what they have to say.

There are several tenants who have been in the village since the 1980s and quite a few for an even longer time. All of those people could well have interesting anecdotes of village life.

 Every history book that we read now at one point in the long gone past has been somebody’s life. Which is quite astounding and that’s why it annoys me when certain politicians say that history is unnecessary. We wouldn’t be here without it. If you don’t have history you don’t have now.

 It’s not just English history, you also feel strongly about your trips and visits to Athens. Want to end our chat about West Wycombe with thoughts about Greece?
There are stunning pieces of history that mankind has left in Athens, for example. There have obviously been nasty parts of history and bloodshed all over the place, but you have that incredible feeling when walking through the Acropolis. How old; how many years! There are millions of me and you gone through from when they built that until today.  How fleeting mankind is compared to all of this around us, albeit we’ve built it. Some of it. But we haven’t built the landscape. We’ve helped change it, shape it to a certain degree, but it’s always going to beat us in endurance.  

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