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The National Trust is a charity that exists to promote the preservation of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation. That is the NT’s founding statute.

And indeed, for more than a century the Trust has spoken out against building projects or other schemes that menace its properties.

But, so far, it spoke politely, behaving like “… a genteel guardian of crumbling aristocratic piles, through which deferential heritage fans were herded behind velvet ropes” (1).That worked well, so far, because legislation on environmental planning was on its side: centralised, conservative, detailed, complex.

But now the Trust has a full-fledged row with Mr Cameron’s government and plays it rough.

Through its draft National Policy Planning Framework, published in July, the government wants to change the planning system into a tool to promote economic growth. Decision power is moved to local authorities, the guidance legislation to be simplified. Where there are no local development plans, there will be a presumption in favour of “sustainable development”.

In the Trust’s opinion this leaves too much power in the hands of developers who will only need to prove that their proposals will deliver growth before any other consideration. As the Director-General, Dame Fiona Reynolds, states: “The planning reforms could lead to unchecked and damaging development on a scale not seen since the 1930s” (2). The Trust suddenly no longer is the slumbering giant in national politics. This year, for the first time, they are lobbying politicians in all three political-party conferences, citing statistics to underline their mandate. With 50m visitors each year and almost 4m members, the Trust has seven times as many paid-up supporters as all Britain’s political parties put together. They point to the charity’s founding statute, which gives it a formal role to the nation. The Trust has placed petitions in its stately homes, which 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 Members of Parliament. Dame Fiona made an urgent appeal to all Supporter Groups, to encourage their members to sign the petition, to join with local MPs, councillors and interest groups to demonstrate the scale of risk this legislation brings to towns, villages and countryside across the UK. The row is not over but the prime minister wrote a conciliatory letter to Dame Fiona, urging dialogue. Indeed, it is not only the number of members or volunteers which makes the NT seem a more sensible model than an adversary. “In the complex, frenetic place that is 21st C Britain, the NT has created a parallel world of wholesome, family-friendly calm, rooted in an enviable self-confident approach to history.

(1)    The Economist, Oct 1st – 7th, 2011 (2)    NT Supporter Group Newsletter, Autumn 2011