The National Trust: a big scary opponent for the government
Sep 29th 2011, 17:11 by Bagehot
Just recently, however, it has become something of a political force.
The National Trust’s presence at all three party conferences is a first: as is the fact that their director-general, Dame Fiona Reynolds, gave a speech at the Lib Dem reception openly tackling the coalition government over its proposed changes to planning rules, changes that the Trust fears will put the countryside in danger of unwanted development.
But it is all part of a pattern. The planning row is the second confrontation this year between David Cameron’s government and the trust, a giant of the voluntary sector, with nearly 4m members and more than 60,000 volunteers (the first involved a row over a botched forestry privatisation).
Now, the planning row is a complex one. We at the Economist have written about the pros and cons of the government’s planning reforms before, and will doubtless do so again. For this week’s print edition, however, I have written a piece that focuses narrowly on the emergence of the National Trust as a voice of opposition to the government.
Talking to government sources, I am assured that the activism of the trust is not such a big deal. Why, I was told by one senior figure earlier this month, only 50,000 of their 4m members have signed their petition against our planning reforms, and there are 60m people in this country. A fair point (though the petition just passed the 100,000 mark). But I wonder if the trust’s very vocal criticisms are as harmless as ministers think, for one simple reason.
The whole premise of the coalition’s public sector reforms is that Britain has become too centralised and too statist a place, especially during the years of hyper-active, endlessly-meddling New Labour. The coalition says that its big idea is devolving power down to local communities, to volunteer groups and to a patchwork of private firms, charities, mutual outfits and social enterprises, whose knowledge and energy will drive change and improve outcomes more surely than any desk-bound Whitehall bureaucrat. To much mockery, Mr Cameron has called this idea his Big Society, which he contrasts with the Big State. He does not use the tag so much nowadays, but the ideas linger on. It certainly matters a great deal to the government that voters should believe its reform plans are part of an optimistic, creative reshaping of the state, rather than a right-wing plot to slash the state back.
That, I would argue, gives the National Trust quite a lot of clout, because it already embodies something rather the Big Society in action. Thus, for all that ministers may grumble about the “nihilistic selfishness” of the trust’s position on planning, and point to the crying need for new housing in Britain, I think they will struggle to sell their plans as long as groups such as the trust withhold their blessing.
Here is my piece, cross-posted from the print edition:
IN GENERAL, governments are loth to attack anything that routinely appears in children’s books (this newspaper once dubbed that the Richard Scarry rule, after a popular illustrator). From farming to firefighting, some things resonate so strongly with the public that only the boldest politicians will risk a scrap. It thus shows either remarkable courage or folly that David Cameron’s government is deep into its second public fight of 2011 with the National Trust, a huge charity whose holdings read like a bedtime-story index, including 40 castles, hundreds of woods, beaches, mansions, farms and a dozen lighthouses.
With some 50m visitors each year, the National Trust is as integral to many British childhoods as Marmite or picnics in the rain. It has heft in the adult world, too. With almost 4m members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own, sister organisation), the trust has more than seven times as many paid-up supporters as all Britain’s political parties put together. Trust bosses cite that statistic in their rows with the government, the latest of which is over a bid to loosen planning laws to establish a presumption in favour of “sustainable development”.
The trust has long spoken out against airport expansions or other schemes that menace its properties. But it was a slumbering giant in national politics: a genteel guardian of crumbling aristocratic piles, through which deferential heritage fans were herded behind velvet ropes. In the past decade, however, the trust has undergone a cultural revolution, adapting to a country from which deference had vanished as surely as liveried footmen or dressing for dinner.
Today, members are encouraged to feel almost like collective owners of its properties, lounging on lawns, playing ancient pianos or enjoying games of croquet. Stern guides have been replaced by volunteers offering fancy-dress outfits or cooking lessons to children. Slogans such as “time well spent” and advertising showing families roaming the countryside play expertly on the anxieties and aspirations of parents in a crowded, time-stressed island.
Still more recently, that evolution has been accompanied by a public political awakening (this year, for the first time, the trust is lobbying politicians at all three political-party conferences). Strikingly, it is Mr Cameron, who wants to cultivate a “Big Society” built around volunteering, charity work and local communities—ie, rather like the National Trust—who has borne the brunt of this new assertiveness.
In the fight over planning, the trust has played rough. It has placed petitions in its stately homes (over 100,000 people have signed), and sent concerned letters to all its members. Its website offers protest posters and the chance to e-mail MPs.
Ministers are determined to avoid the fate they suffered in February, when a bungled privatisation of state-owned woodlands was scrapped after the National Trust (among others) decried it. Dame Fiona Reynolds, the outfit’s director-general, says she did not seek either confrontation. But she points to the charity’s founding statute, which gives it a formal role promoting the preservation of lands and buildings of beauty or historic interest, and acknowledges it wields considerable clout in public debates.
The row over planning laws is not over. Ministers insist they are “resolute” in their determination to push through a new framework that at once hands powers to local communities to shape new building projects, but at the same time makes it harder for villages or towns in many rural areas to say they want no development at all. One minister accused campaigners, including the National Trust, of “nihilistic selfishness”, arguing that a chronic shortage of new homes only hurts future generations. Yet there are signs that the coalition is feeling the heat. The prime minister recently wrote to Dame Fiona calling Britain’s landscapes a “national treasure” and urging dialogue.
His conciliatory tone looks wise. It is not just the trust’s 60,000 volunteers, or its localist commitment to serving home-grown produce in its tea rooms, that makes it seem a more sensible model than an adversary. In the complex, frenetic place that is 21st-century Britain, the National Trust has created a parallel world of wholesome, family-friendly calm, rooted in an enviably self-confident approach to history. Mr Cameron would love to achieve half as much.