Wray Castle in Cumbria, where the National Trust’s ‘radical approach’ has had extraordinary results. Photograph: James Emmerson/Robert Harding/Rex
The National Trust is a virtual state within a state. It has the most members, the biggest land-holding and the grandest mission of any British charity: 4 million members and 200m visits a year to its coasts and uplands have freed it from any need for public subsidy. Standing down after six years as chairman, I remain in awe of the place.
I was amazed at the gullibility of politicians to the spurious claim that recovery from recession lay in building executive homes in meadows, not in renewing Britain’s exhausted town and city centres. Even where there might be a case for more rural building, Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, decided to let the market rip, be it for houses, warehouses, turbines or hypermarkets. Every county in Britain seemed under siege.
The result was not growth but war. My miserable duty was to be driven by planners round derelict urban acres, where factories, schools and shops were emptying while costly infrastructure was built by taxpayers in the surrounding country. David Cameron claimed this was sustainable. It was dumb. The “smart city” movement is dead in Britain.
I struggled to set this battle in a wider context.
As the Prince of Wales writes in this week’s Country Life, most Britons “are now four or more generations from anyone who actually worked on the land”. They do not understand it, but they do value it. The countryside comes near the top of every poll of British values. Its problem, like much of public welfare, is that what economists call its external benefits lack political constituency and thus traction. When told by lobbyists that the countryside can solve the “housing crisis”, people do not know to disagree.
Homes are most needed near population centres, jobs and infrastructure. Traffic congestion cries out for city-centre housing. This is not a strategic challenge. Britain’s cities are among the least densely populated in Europe. The agents Stirling Ackroyd recently identified space for half a million houses in London alone.
We can argue over how much social housing rural people really need – rather than want – but this has nothing to do with urban housing. Nor is demand sensibly met by “bombing” villages with 300-unit estates and barn conversions, as is now happening from Cornwall to Northumberland. The coalition wants to tear up half a century of rural guardianship unique in Europe. It wants to give England the pockmarked landscapes of Ireland, Portugal and Spain.
What we are seeing is the effective privatisation of rural Britain for personal gain, that of builders reluctant to invest in cities. Houses are not being built where they are most wanted, while the countryside lacks articulate defenders beyond its residents. Old town and country planning has become class war between locals and landowners, between frenzied nimbys and pimpys (please in my backyard).
What is missing from this argument is a language in which to articulate what people value and love. Such words as beauty and landscape seem effete. Few politicians dare use them. In London this is evident in the collapse of high-buildings policy, about to reach its apotheosis in Boris Johnson’s skyscraper cluster right opposite Big Ben. Such de-control would be unthinkable in Paris, Rome or even New York. Yet in London the idea of a skyline being “beautiful” seems close to meaningless.
The National Trust has had similar trouble articulating the appeal of its own properties. While visits to the outdoors are booming, those to historic houses are stagnating. The heritage business seems to be talking to itself, over the heads of a public drawn from an ever wider social and educational base. Not all of 20 million paying visitors know art history.
The American essayist HL Mencken once pondered what those wandering round Baltimore’s art gallery really saw. He was told the experience had “some occult power to mellow and uplift the human mind, and fill it with aesthetic passion”. “Really?” said Mencken – the visitors just looked bored.
I wondered how far that applied to the National Trust. To many visitors, old houses and their past occupants lack any point of reference. How would people treasure such places in future, as we hoped they might treasure the outdoors, without some shared understanding and a language in which to express it – if need be politically?
The result was a campaign to bring Trust houses to life. They have been made more welcoming. Ropes are being removed, fires lit, people allowed to sit and read, play pianos and billiards. They are encouraged to use houses as if they were guests, rather than as visitors to a hallowed museum. While this cannot apply to such showcases as Kedleston or Kingston Lacy, it can apply to most places.
From this it was a short step to a more radical approach. What if the house stopped “talking” to the visitor at all? What if the house was an empty shell, just walls with a past and a view? Fill it with eBay furniture and a few prints. Leave visitors to their own imaginings. Let them stay all day, make themselves tea – and wash up. Let them build from there an awareness of aesthetic delight.
This has been piloted in semi-derelict properties such as Allan Bank andWray Castle in Cumbria, and Vaughan Williams’s Leith Hills Place in Surrey. The result is extraordinary. These are among the Trust’s most popular properties. People enjoy being allowed to own space, rather than be told what and how to appreciate it.
This unlocks a deeper truth. The public realm – built or unbuilt – may not belong to private citizens, but the capacity to enjoy it is intensely private. Looking at views is reputedly the most popular of all leisure activity. Lord Clark said engagingly that after love, “there is nothing by which people of all kinds are more united than the pleasure in a fine view”.
Pleasures that cannot be given market value or political clout still matter. They reflect today’s “cult of connectivity”, a craving for live experience that characterises the post-digital age. But first they need a new lexicon of beauty. The old one is in desperate decay.