Democracy made redundant at the National Trust

Gerrard Winstanley office at
Wed Sep 14 19:30:35 BST 2005

Breach of trust 

It is Europe's biggest environment charity. But the National Trust 
must modernise or die, argues Rodney Legg 

Wednesday September 14, 2005
The Guardian,7890,1568966,00.html

Since 1990 I have been a trustee of the National Trust for the Open 
Spaces Society, which is a direct descendant of the Commons 
Preservation Society that founded the trust in 1895. No longer. 

Although still a council member, I and 26 other trustees from similar 
bodies have been dismissed. Our powers now pass to an inner cabinet of 
a 12 "super-trustees". So ends, in my opinion, an extraordinary 
century-old exercise in representative democracy, and Europe's largest 
environmental charity now becomes, in effect, the National Trust plc. 
A close look at what is happening suggests that all is not well.

Despite membership edging towards 4 million, the trust, like the 
conservation movement as a whole, is predominantly white, ageing and 
middle class. Its distribution remains patchy. In Cardiff, for 
example, trust membership is insignificant. The same applies to cities 
with large ethnic minority communities. Most people join the trust for 
a piece of green plastic that acts as a visitor's card. Linked 

Young people are almost statistically immeasurable in the trust's 
accounts. This demographic gulf threatens long-term decline unless the 
trust starts to value the participation of younger people as a 
financial loss-leader that will buy it a future. In places where the 
trust controls whole parishes and landscapes, we must provide corners 
- such as disused quarries - for noisy events and extreme sports, 
rather than drive them into the next county.

Properties that appeal to the young should link the generations. 
Places such as Tyntesfield, a Victorian Gothic pile near Bristol, has 
the potential to bridge the gap. Likewise the workhouse at Southwell, 
Nottinghamshire; back-to-back houses in Birmingham; the Lennon-
McCartney homes in Liverpool. Elsewhere, we need to celebrate cultural 
difference rather than seeking to transform it into more of the same. 
Priority should be given to creating new-style visitor experiences 
within reach of cosmopolitan centres.

Instead, despite record sums from appeals and legacies, acquisition of 
properties has slumped to the lowest level in decades. Having acted as 
a safety net, during their threatened period, for the English country 
house and their owners' lifestyles, we are now paying the price.

Trust chairman Sir William Proby is correct in regarding the trust's 
property portfolio of 640,000 acres as a liability rather than an 
asset. The same applies to conserving its collection of cultural 
collectibles. Land and chattels are worth several billion pounds but 
cannot be sold. They have to be maintained in the trust's slogan "for 
everyone, for ever" at ever-increasing expense.

But the unease stretches beyond the properties. A recent survey showed 
that only 15% of staff "feel that senior managers are in touch with 
what is happening on the ground". That 15%, I suggest, must represent 
the senior managers themselves.

Tenants also show growing unease. Rent arrears have risen to £4.5m and 
the strains have brought pressure for the trust to act as a farming 
preservation society.

Instead of welcoming trends that would see upland farms reverting to a 
natural wilderness, one form of subsidised over-grazing is being 
replaced by another. Only in Ennerdale, Cumbria, has farmland been 
allowed to revert to scrub, trees and wildlife as an example of self-
sustainable biodiversity in practice. Visually, this has set the clock 
back - or forward - by 500 years.

Where the Forestry Commission has taken the plunge and dedicated its 
woodlands to public access as open country under the provisions of the 
Countryside and Rights of Way Act, the National Trust has feared to 
tread. Even where the trust has areas that are subject to a right to 
roam, such as on Snowdon's southern slopes, there are often few stiles 
or other access points. Trust wisdom is that people may otherwise 
stray and need to be rescued. Responsibility without power

In fairness to the chairman, he is now seeking to give us council 
members a new role, which amounts to "special duties". To old soldiers 
that means digging latrines. Proby sees the trust's council acting "as 
the trust's conscience" in giving "advice and guidance" to trustees. 
It will make appointments and be responsible for "holding the trustees 
to account" by "focusing on fewer bigger issues rather than working 
through the tyranny of an agenda".

But what we have lost is the democratic long-stop. Council members now 
have responsibility without power under the sort of self-governing 
constitution that Winston Churchill, as colonial secretary, bestowed 
on Southern Rhodesia. That unravelled four decades later.

In extremis we may remove a trustee from the governing board by 
"resolution of the council supported by at least 30 members of the 
council or at least two-thirds of the members of the council present 
at the meeting and eligible to vote, whichever is the greater". That 
is an impossible hurdle which on lesser counts will leave the offender 
wounded but not dispatched.

There is inevitable friction between two separate power bases. To set 
up such a potentially divisive form of governance strikes me as 
madness. The only consolation, to continue with the Rhodesian analogy, 
is that it may take 40 years before we find ourselves with an Ian 

· Rodney Legg is chairman of the Open Spaces Society.,7890,1568966,00.html

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