In conversation with… Graham Bell, Director of the Cultura Trust

UNW news /  22 June 2022

We recently spoke with Graham Bell, Director of the Cultura Trust, about how he came to be involved with the Trust and his role there, the emergence of sustainability on the Trust’s agenda, attracting funding and support for their SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) plan and how he intends to take it forward.

Can you tell us a bit of background about the Trust and your role?

In the 1960s, if you had felt any sense of concern about insensitive development in your area, or that it was so special that you wanted it recognised as a conservation area, you probably would have called upon our charity, established as ‘Civic Trust for the North East’. Now, as Cultura Trust, we are still a go-to organisation on all things cultural heritage, but as director I have steered us in paths unthinkable when we began over fifty years ago.

I am only the second director of the charity since 1965. HRH The Duke of Gloucester has been our Patron for 40 years, so being here for the long game is inherent in our make-up. The reality is that change in the places we value is measured in decades and even centuries. My experience has been characterised by resilience in the ebb and flow of the economic environment, from Barings going down in the 1990s, to the financial crisis in 2008, to the pandemic. As a former company secretary once said, the first rule of business, including charities, is to stay in business. That has meant keeping to our principles (why we do what we do) but being adept in anticipating and adapting to societal needs (how we deliver public benefit).

Measuring success – our KPIs – has been about complementary investment in places and people, especially where shifting markets have left both disadvantaged. Picturesque market towns can suffer economic decline as much as city centres or dispersed rural communities. We’ve worked in all, where historic character may be the USP upon which to rebuild. Being on the board of the £200m Grainger Town Project was a highlight as it was transformational, fundamentally changing attitudes and behaviour as a precursor to achieving and sustaining an uplift in all the things we want from a city. Mentoring groups like the Heritage Centre Bellingham through governance reviews and forward plans is just as important as these are the ‘anchor institutions’ that underpin tourism, local economy, employment, volunteering and educational access. As an ‘alchemist’ trying to turn risks into assets, this is my world.

When did sustainability first make it onto the board agenda (and why)?

2018 was a pivotal year. I’ve worked at a European level for years but that was the European Year of Cultural Heritage for which I was the UK National Co-ordinator. Having 50 countries working together was a remarkable crucible of influences and ideas in which the sense of what makes us all European within a global context was explored. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the word ‘regeneration’ has largely dropped out of the vocabulary; ten years on, ‘sustainability’ was emerging as the more eco-friendly, holistic, inclusive, responsible way of doing things. Whereas regeneration was often the tagline of European or government funding programmes, sustainability seemed more of a sentiment with less definable investment objectives; how do you measure sustainability? Arguably, the Trust had championed sustainability all its life through keeping historic places economically and socially vibrant, but somehow this was different – not just common sense but an emerging ethos. Therefore, though I could introduce the principle in our three-year forward plan, it was work in progress as to how it would turn out in practice. For over fifty years our points of reference had been the familiar aims of conservation of heritage and the traditional skills upon which it depends, but now we were looking at impact across a much wider range of indices; ‘sustainability’ was not just maintaining the status quo but recognising a conscientiousness that all we do (or don’t do) has a much wider impact – people, place and now also, environment. For a ‘conventional’ charity rooted in continuing traditions, that was quite a challenge!

What were your first steps in looking at the environmental (/sustainable) credentials of the Trust?

It still really surprises me how few people in positions of responsibility know of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which means fewer think they are relevant, and hardly any have linked them directly to their business plans and involved their people. Have you? This is not just about changing light bulbs; it is about the interconnectedness of life, of managing cause and effect way beyond the water cooler or balance sheet. The UN published the SDGs in 2017, of which there are 17 containing 169 target actions by which we can measure and therefore manage our environmental/climate impact. Not all are within reach of all of us, but ‘none of the above’ is not a valid response.

Our challenge in 2018 was partly about changing the culture of our organisation: the SDGs were not an obvious progression of day-to-day planning policy, conservation or traditional skills. It made me realise how so many organisations use ‘next step’ forward planning rather than objective-driven strategies. The challenge was even greater for a small charity having limited resources than what is expected of large corporate organisations for whom directors and shareholders would go beyond operating procedures’ due diligence into the added value of environmental/climate responsibility. When the pandemic caused lockdown, Cultura took the opportunity to benchmark our SDG performance at an organisational level and at three of our properties, and, in what seems to be unprecedented, set forward planned KPI targets.

As if that was not enough, through my European roles, including as board member of Europa Nostra, Europe’s largest and most influential cultural heritage NGO (Non-governmental Organisation), I was involved in a response to the European Commission’s ‘European Green Deal’. Whereas the SDGs encompass all aspects of a sustainable society, the Green Deal is a road map to implementing urgent priority climate action carbon reduction targets by 2030. As it identifies a need to upgrade 35 million buildings in the next 7-8 years, it was clearly something Cultura ought to be taking on board, as specialist advisor and property owner.

How easy was it to attract support, and more importantly funding?

If the subject is unfamiliar territory, funders and partners also find it peripheral to their core priorities. Cultura could see that the aberration of the pandemic and access to abnormal funding was an opportunity to grab. The Culture Recovery Fund supported our ambition to produce an SDG Plan as the pandemic itself was raising fundamental questions about working patterns, travel, tourism and all those things which determine the sustainability of a way of life and the infrastructure we had assumed was unshakable. From what I can see, Cultura remains an exception in having done so. Exceptions can attract funding but also risk; we need to hold our nerve and course, though it would be reassuring if others joined us.

What are the next steps for you and the Trust to take this forward?

I’ve said the world of SDGs seems to be the preserve of large, well resourced, often multi-national, corporates, or niche sector specialists (though I don’t think of Cultura being the latter). It may be a cliché to think we are ahead of the curve but as I haven’t yet found other organisations with the same commitment, I think we are, though going off piste is not new for us: in the 1980s we were by combining a ‘civic trust’ role with acquiring and rescuing historic buildings at risk, and subsequently in our Heritage Skills Initiative, which was an award-winning response to the (still) worrying shortage of people taking up traditional trades, and more recently through our European work. Our mill near Carlisle was selected by the Council of Europe as an example of putting sustainability into practice in a circular economy. Given we own a chunk of the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site, we were the only UK participant in undertaking a sustainability audit, indexing the values of the site against the SDGs, comparing them among 60 global organisations from every continent. Currently we are doing a scientific audit on our watermill at Hawes to test its energy/carbon performance with plans to make it an exemplar of how to achieve better than carbon neutral.

But perhaps the newest challenge is one even fewer people have heard of or are adopting: Environmental Social Governance (ESG) takes the principles of the SDGs and integrates them into the way organisations are managed and operate. So far, evidence of this is mainly at the macro scale: HSBC, Virgin, European Investment Bank. We can’t wait for this to percolate down to SMEs and NGOs; my aim in 2022 is to take Cultura across this threshold.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be in implementing the plan?

A bugbear of mine for years has been the silos we insist on operating within. As we progress in our working life, many of us specialise, but that intensity often leads to loss of contextual vision – the woods and trees risk. The pandemic has broken our stride and revealed that many of what we assumed were the ‘givens’ of life actually could change, even for the better. Curious admiration for Greta Thunberg and changing our own lifestyle may have been an unfulfilled gulf, but now, almost by default, it has become partially attainable and even rewarding. As we are creatures of habit, the biggest challenge is whether in the next three years we look at the pandemic as being an aberration (‘post-COVID’) or a change of tack. Cultura has never known comfortable financial security, perhaps because we relish being entrepreneurial more than maintaining a status quo, so for us the challenge is whether our faith in sustainability leads us into new working relationships.

For more information about the Cultura Trust, please visit

As a former company secretary once said, the first rule of business, including charities, is to stay in business.
Graham Bell,  Director - Cultura Trust