Didn’t she have enough to do, running the Trust’s 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments? “This was a very unusual moment,” she says, with a patient smile and the quiet, clear authority of a woman who is used to winning her arguments in meetings. “We’re not going to become Rentaquote and jump on every bandwagon. We do campaign, but we save it for the things that really matter. This was one of those.”
The Government published a rewritten National Planning Policy Framework on Tuesday to great cheers. Out went the presumption that the answer to development should be a “default yes”. In came assurances that town-centre and brownfield sites should be considered for development before green spaces and that the intrinsic value of the countryside would be recognised and protected. [errr a lot of reading in there in that sentence]
However, Dame Fiona will now be urging her four million members to get involved with planning decisions where they are, to make sure the words become action.
“No national document is the end of the story. It’s all about how that gets put into practice. That’s our focus now. People should have the chance to shape the places they live in. We’ll communicate with all our members, to say what has happened and what happens now. Some of them will say, ‘Right, I’ve got to get involved in this.’”
Cutting more than a thousand pages of regulations down to just 50, the Government has created plenty of ambiguity. “I’m sure the lawyers will want to argue over what it all means,” says Dame Fiona. So how can she be sure it’s a victory? “We had a checklist of all the points we had made to them. In every single case, the wording was better.”
The Trust did fight alongside the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and other charities, and our sister paper The Daily Telegraph, with its Hands Off Our Land campaign. But it turned in perception from a charity that runs pretty houses and gardens into a campaign group with a network and political muscle any prime minister could only envy, or perhaps even fear.
Formed in 1894, it is sworn to “preserve and protect the coastline, countryside and buildings” throughout Britain except Scotland. “Our founders set up an organisation that could own property, as a last resort, but it was much more than that,” she says. “The National Trust was to be a voice for beauty. They talked about the people of this country needing access to beauty, quiet and fresh air. One of them, Octavia Hill, said ‘the sight of the sky and of all things growing’ were human needs.”
Fiona Reynolds was born in Cumbria, one of five sisters who got out in the open air so much that three of them became geographers. She read the subject at Cambridge, before becoming Secretary to the Council for National Parks. Then she joined the CPRE, rising to director.
During the early years of Tony Blair’s government she ran the Women’s Unit in the Cabinet Office, before becoming the director general of the National Trust in 2001. None of which reflects her eloquence, grasp of detail and determination – a tilt of the head and an unwavering gaze – to get her message across. She’d make a good ambassador to somewhere hostile, and it must have felt like that in the early days at the Trust. It had a reputation for being high-handed and elitist.
“We needed to make a cultural shift. I described it as learning to love people as much as we loved places. I have encouraged us to become a much more open, much more welcoming and warm organisation.” Less rude? “Less formal. Less sure we’re right.”
Some opposed her as a political appointment, one of the so-called “Blair babes”. She was 42 at the time. More recently, some have objected to the “Disneyfication” of the Trust – which has employed actors to dress up in costume and perform in character at some of its properties, and also drafted in advisers from Disney itself to help staff appear more welcoming.
“There’s a fundamental difference between the National Trust and Disney,” she says firmly. “They make up the stories. We use real stories, real people and real places. The second thing I would say is that Disney get a lot right, in terms of their welcome, their service and the way they look after their visitors. We have been able to learn from them.”
The Trust has acquired new properties which have taken it away from its traditional chocolate box image. Doesn’t it still peddle a nostalgic version of who we are, or want to be? “It takes a while for people to catch up with what we’re doing,” she counters.” For example, Penrhyn Castle in Snowdonia is a place that was hated by the local community because the owners ran the slate quarries with dreadful working conditions. We tell stories like that now, which the families would rather were airbrushed out.”
Whatever the opposition, her success is obvious. When she took over, the Trust had 2.7 million members; that figure has nearly doubled now and is rising. Aren’t they all white, middle class and from what might loosely be termed (with apologies to the Welsh and Irish) Middle England? “The membership is certainly largely white,” she concedes. It is one of the things we’re looking at. There is a challenge for the Trust in reaching other kinds of people, but don’t forget that hundreds of millions visit our coast and countryside land completely for free. That is a more diverse audience.”
What attracts people to sign up? “Firstly, it’s fantastic value. But once they renew membership, it is clear they’re starting to be a part of a cause they believe in.”
The latest campaign is an almost evangelical attempt to get children into the open air, offering Trust properties as a safe place to climb trees, build dens, fish for tadpoles and roam free. The Trust seems to benefit more than any other organisation from the desire people have to express their values, now that the Church has shrunk away.
“There is an almost spiritual need that bodies such as the Trust fulfil,” she says. “It is about access to beauty, access to nature, access to history. We live such busy lives, surrounded by pressures and material things, but the National Trust offers an escape from all that, an antidote. Access to the real thing. Something that is an experience beyond price.
“In the recession, we have seen people searching for the simple pleasures of life: a picnic with the family on a riverbank or a visit to a beautiful stately home.”
Is she aware how much she sounds like a priest? “It feels like a movement. It feels as if there is a level of passion that is almost spiritual.”
Whatever its radical roots, the modern Trust also seems able to connect with our innately conservative core values in a way the Conservative Party can only dream of. “I wouldn’t want to put it in even quasi-political terms,” says Dame Fiona, “because there are deeply differing views among our members. But I suppose you don’t join the National Trust unless there is something in you that is interested in the history of our country, in nature or in some kind of aesthetic sense.”
The campaign it launched last summer provoked a reaction in Cabinet ministers that can only be described as vicious. Dame Fiona and her fellow campaigners were dismissed as “semi-hysterical” Lefties consumed by “nihilistic selfishness”, and worse.
“They were really very rude about us at the beginning. We refrained from responding in kind, I hope you noticed.” Instead she toured the party conferences with a massive hamper of scones and invited politicians to take tea. The Prime Minister then invited her to Downing Street. “I think it was an arrogant set of statements. Their words lifted the campaign from an ordinary kind of dispute into something very big, because I think the country was pretty unimpressed. The language exposed some of the Government’s failure to connect with how people feel.”
Connecting with how people feel has been her genius at the Trust, but last month Dame Fiona announced she was leaving to become the Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
“The Trust is in great shape. If ever there is a time to leave it’s now. I have poured my heart and soul into this organisation, but no chief executive can go on forever.”
She will leave once her successor is in place, probably towards the end of the year, but not start at Emmanuel until the following September. “I want to write a book and my youngest is doing her A levels so I want to be around for that. I’m having a sort of gap year.”
She is married to Bob Merrill, a science teacher who became a full-time house husband when the youngest of their three daughters was born 16 years ago. “He is brilliant. I am travelling all the time, which I love.”
Dame Fiona gives no sense of becoming disengaged. “No. That’s why I don’t want to say too much about leaving yet,” she says, with a determined look. “Believe me, there is plenty still to do.”