Reynolds doesn’t have the look of a victorious warrior returning from battle – she is far too measured for that – but she could be allowed a small, self-satisfied smile at the firestorm the National Trust helped inflict on the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation. Reynolds took the step – for the first time in her 11 years at the National Trust – of writing to all four million members and asking them to support its campaign against the consultation that could be the biggest change to planning regulation in several decades. Most potentially devastating, the Trust warned, was prioritising economic growth over longterm protection of the countryside when it came to planning decisions. Their petition was signed by more than 200,000 people and David Cameron stepped in and wrote to the National Trust, pledging to protect the “beautiful British landscape.” The consultation closed last week, and the months of waiting have begun. “We’ve just got to hope the government is really listening. I’m passionate about protecting the countryside, and the need to get it right. If you get it wrong what you lose, you lose for ever.”…
She says she was “hugely impressed” by the response of the National Trust’s members. “I think it’s one of those things about our nation – and we’re a very urban society now – but we do love the countryside, it’s something that seems to be part of our character and our sense of what England is. I think people were shocked, particularly that a Conservative-led government should appear not to be passionate about the countryside. It just felt wrong.”
The coalition is “so preoccupied with growth and of course we have every sympathy with that, but it’s about what kind of growth, what kind of economy, and in a way the recession has given us a chance to think about the quality of what we do. We have 330,000 houses with planning permission that aren’t being built because there is no money for mortgages, so the problems in a way are elsewhere. But given that we have a chance to build really well and intelligently – in a way a recession is a time to think positively about that. That’s the disappointing thing: they felt they had to press the old ‘growth at any cost’ button.”
The National Trust isn’t a campaigning organisation, she says, and isn’t about to become one, despite occasional forays onto the battlefield – it objected to the expansion of Stansted airport, for example, and against the government’s proposed forests sell-off.
“[Campaigning] is dependent on the issue,” she says. “I would not expect us to be doing it all the time. If we became rentaquote, that wouldn’t be right. We reserve our voice for something that is really important, absolutely at the heart of our core purpose and touches what we stand for and where we make a difference. This felt like the single most important issue in the time I have been here. I think we should campaign on issues that are central to what we do and I suspect it would be rare, but when we make a contribution it matters. I think this is what this has shown.” It is a “caricature”, says Reynolds, that the National Trust is against all development. “We recognise we need housing, schools, the physical buildings where these things happen. Our big question is how we do it.”
The National Trust is the biggest private landowner and biggest NGO, with an estimated one in 10 voters a member. Reynolds is head of a huge powerbase. Does this make her the most powerful woman in Britain? She laughs. “I wouldn’t say that. I’m the luckiest woman in Britain because I have the best job in the country.”
Are politicians frightened of her? “I don’t know about frightened. I think they are listening, and that’s absolutely right. I think the National Trust stepping up on this issue really made them think, and that’s a good thing. They did the wrong thing with it by giving it this economic slant. I hope that our intervention will get us to a proper balance between social, environment and economic objectives. They’re listening,” she adds, “but we’re not there yet. We don’t know the outcome.”
David Cameron’s promise that his would be the greenest government ever is met by a small laugh. “I’ve yet to see it, put it that way. You can only judge a government by what it does. This is a big test and they haven’t failed it yet because it was only a draft consultation, but it has to change significantly to deliver what the country needs.”