The Director General of the National Trust told delegates at this year's Co-operative Congress, Birmingham, that the charity operates as a mutual in many ways. She described an organisation that goes far beyond its traditional image of looking after stately homes: “From its early days, under the guidance of social reformer Octavia Hill, the organisation sought to provide open-air sitting rooms for the poor.”
Dame Fiona said that just like the Rochdale Pioneers, Octavia Hill was a great believer in self-help and self-enlightenment and was someone who believed that “access to green space and fresh air was as important as food and shelter”.
She said that, as with many of the philanthropic organisations established in the 19th century, the National Trust’s role had changed in the 20th century as first the state assumed responsibility for many areas of life and then “the cult of the individual” emerged — something that she attributed not to Margaret Thatcher but to the 1950s and Harold MacMillan’s “never had it so good” speech.
She said that this had all led to an illusion that people were independent of one another and of nature: “We consumed much more of our planet’s finite resources and became desensitised to the bonds that keep people together. Environmental crises make us realise what we’re missing and how only through working together can we make a difference. We are communal beings at heart and now so many new forms of community endeavour are emerging, from transition towns to community supported agriculture.”
She said that, in line with public thinking, the trust has also rethought its priorities: “The focus has shifted back to people and social purpose, providing access to beauty and nature for the whole country.”
In a practical demonstration of how the charity is becoming more family-friendly she said “the ropes are going” in its properties to highlight what you can see rather than what you can’t.
She said the Trust had also built 700 homes south of Manchester — sustainable, green homes with open space and community facilities; land had been released to create almost 1,000 allotments; its online ‘My Farm’ initiative allowed people to collectively manage their own farm and the organisation had plans to create 1,000 miles of new pathways.
Dame Fiona added: “We face a more uncertain world than our predecessors with both short and long term challenges. Organisations that embrace co-operation and mutuality will be more resilient and adaptable. I hope that the National Trust will be seen as one such organisation.”