WELCOME to Swindon. This has been a good six years in the history of the Trust. We are in excellent shape, the money sound and the membership rising.
You know the figures: membership through 4m, visits to properties through 20m and visits to our wider estate approaching 200m. Our operating surplus has risen by a third, enabling us to spend record sums on conservation, our prime responsibility.
Acquisitions have slowed, but we have taken on Vanbrugh’s mighty Seaton Delaval, Tredegar and Dyffryn in south Wales, Lord Nuffield’s eccentric lodge outside Henley, Arts and Crafts at Stoneywell and the delightful Asalache house (575 Wandsworth Road). We have acquired the last white cliff of Dover and the exquisite Llyn Dinas under Snowdon.
As chairman I can do nothing alone. I want to pay a tribute to my board who have been committed and loyal throughout what have been years of change. I want to pay particular thanks to my deputy Charles Gurassa, who must have broken all records for length of service. And to our new Director General Helen Ghosh who will address you shortly. I also want to thank the staff. We have the best staff in the charity sector.
But there is one matter I have sort of made my own. The effort to relieve our properties of that old complaint, the dead hand of the Trust. We have sought to bring our properties more to life. Make them more welcoming. Make our visitors feel they are entering someone’s house, not someone ancestral museum. I hope have you have noticed the difference.
We have been burning ropes and teasels, don’t touch signs and plastic notice sheets. I have tried to attack the mountain of plaster food. There are fires in the grates at Stourhead, Petworth and Ightham.
There is croquet at Chastleton, billiards at Wightwick, tennis at Hidcote. You can eat windfalls at Woolsthorpe and drink sherry at Croft – or at least I could. We are more tolerant of dogs and photographers.
I was very moved to watch children writing poetry in Coleridge’s study. I watched them research their Great War ancestors at Dunham. I attended a scholarly seminar on the art history and design of Ham House. We have not neglected our academic tradition.
We plunged into controversy. Should we have restored Avebury so radically? Should we have displayed Elton John’s favourite furniture at The Vyne? 90 per cent of visitors said yes, 10 per cent resigned. Should we have opened the Big Brother House? We didn’t own it but partnered a seminar on taste in modern design.
Not everything worked. I failed to secure for the Trust a big house in central London. I failed to brew medieval beer at Lacock. I could not get schoolchildren at Southwell workhouse fed on original gruel. I failed to mess up Kipling’s study at Bateman’s. There are still too many ropes.
All this is because I believe our properties matter more than anything. Never stop the flow of ideas, pushing the boundary of aesthetics and taste. If the Trust cannot join in these debates then it will die. I am proud at how many visitors comment on the new warmth of our welcome, and sense of engagement. I want to thank our property staff and volunteers for the work they have put into this.
That has been paralleled by internal changes to the Trust. We have delegated discretion to property managers. We have concentrated our expertise in a central consultancy. We have struggled to upgrade our catering and shops, an ongoing task. These are competitive markets. It was interesting to hear someone from Derbyshire say they didn’t go to see Chatsworth itself but to see what’s on at Chatsworth.
The external role of the Trust has been more turbulent. We have a mission, handed down since Octavia Hill, to guard beautiful places for the nation for ever. Over the past six years it has never seemed more under threat.
My view is that the British have got pretty good at looking after our built heritage. Historic buildings and towns are reasonably safe nowadays. Grand houses no longer come the Trust’s way. There was a proper framework in place.
That is not true of the countryside.
I have always regarded Britain’s town and country planning legislation as a work of British political genius. The most crowded big country in Europe after Holland has guarded its boundaries between urban and rural, leaving the rural remarkably pristine.
The Trust is non-political, but we are a major landowner and one with a clear mission. We have pleaded with government to save the forests, to fight ash die-back. We are restoring peat bogs. We are re-wilding our uplands. Note how few National Trust properties flooded last winter. We pursue a vigorous renewable energy policy.
But have had to fight case after case for inappropriate wind turbines near our land. We won most emphatically where they would overlook our site at Lyveden and our land along the Bristol Channel. We are still fighting turbines on the ridge next to Hardwick and elsewhere. This will keep on being a fight.
Then in 2010 came the big one. Ministers attempted to simplify planning regulation. We were ready and eager to support this. But we were not consulted and looked on in horror, as sensible reform became what I can only describe as a developers’ ramp.
There is no beating about this bush. The National Planning Policy Framework was a cynical attempt by the builders’ lobby to circumvent 50 years of town-and-country planning. Local plans had to be drawn up virtually overnight, and could be overruled by ministers.
If they were not in place, so-called sustainable development was permitted anyway. It was even made easier in the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It then turned out that sustainable merely meant profitable.
The Trust in alliance with others fought this. We won concessions, notably on green belt protection and brownfield first. But the implementation of the policy has showed appalling gaps. The countryside is still exposed to a slew of off-plan development bids, with those who object mostly losing on appeal.
This was not just a technical matter. It was a relaxation of control unprecedented in planning history. See the results of it in ostensibly unplanned sprawls round Buckingham or Ely. See warehouses and advertisement hoardings sprouting along the M1.
We have to deal with some 400 third-party applications affecting our properties every year.
My desk has been besieged by appeals for help: from Winchester to Durham, Sussex to Lancashire, from Somerset to Nottingham. Applications flooded in from landowners who couldn’t believe their luck.
I must stress that this has almost nothing to do with housing. The Trust is not against new houses. Demand for housing is primarily in cities. Figures show there to be ample space in existing settlements – over one million according to the CPRE monitor – for far more than any concept of housing need.
Nor are spaces in the so-called wrong places. A firm of London agents recently calculated enough vacant sites in London alone for 1.5m new houses, with no green belt encroachment. Using the phrase housing crisis to gobble up countryside is lobbyists’ talk.
England’s towns and villages, glories of the nation, have always grown organically, and can continue to do so. The issue is how to plan this growth and by whom? Is an isolated village really the best place for the 300-unit volume executive estate beloved of developers? Can we really not revive the adjacent town or city?
There is no doubt where we are going. If you want to see the sort of countryside now on offer, go to southern Portugal or Italy, to Sicily or the Costa Blanca, to Ireland even. These countries bitterly regret relaxing planning under political pressure in the cause of profit.
The countryside we are charged with defending tops every list of what people most value about Britain. It is up there with the royal family, the NHS and Shakespeare. It is threatened. Our job is to defend it.
Octavia Hill founded the Trust not for aristocrats or property developers. She founded it to help city people find somewhere green and open in which to refresh their lungs. The Trust, I believe, would not have been doing its duty, to its founders or the public, had we ignored this responsibility.
Friends, I am proud to leave the Trust with the financial strength, the committed staff and the robustness of purpose to keep on fighting these battles. Please keep doing so. Thank you very much.