It is the first time that the National Trust has had an exhibitor’s stand at the Conservative Party conference. They were in Liverpool last week too, where Labour delegates treated them with confusion. Siding with the rural and heritage lobby is not a natural Labour impulse (if only because electorally speaking the countryside is a Labour-free zone), but doing so inconveniences the government.
The National Trust’s relaxed and cheerful external affairs staff treated me to a mug of tea and biscuits. The conference season has been a new experience for them but they believe it has been successful and worthwhile. “A majority of people we have spoken to this week support what we are doing.”
This is hardly surprising. People are more likely to take tea and biscuits with you if they agree with you. But the volume of supporters was high, too, and it included a number of Conservative MPs. There are not enough malcontents on the backbenches to worry the government but the reforms are unpopular in the countryside, where many default Tory (and Lib Dem) voters reside. MPs are aware of the unease and even if they support the reforms privately, many are unwilling to go out to bat for them publicly.
Nevertheless, the prime minister is being briefed by advisers that this is a fight worth picking. The sophistic linking of planning reform with economic growth is one reason. Another concerns political positioning. Focus groups and polling are telling Downing Street that taking on the National Trust and other rural interests makes the Conservatives appear less ‘shire Tory’ and more in touch with the needs of modern Britain.
This partly explains the intemperate public tone of ministers such as Francis Maude, who said opponents are talking “bollocks”, Greg Clark, who accused the National Trust of “nihilistic selfishness”, and Michael Gove, who said the coalition was “on the side of jobs, not the nimbys”. Local government minister Bob Neill described it as “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by left-wingers”, and former shadow minister David Heathcoat-Amory accused the National Trust of “jihad”.
Unlike the forestry sale fiasco, which offered no justifiable return, the planning reforms are presented as a solution to a recognisable need: more affordable housing. This and the government’s strident determination to see it through spell problems for the National Trust and other opponents.
Furthermore, you could argue that the National Trust has no clear end game. The recent rapprochement of the likes of Greg Clark and the prime minister himself, who wrote a letter to the National Trust, is a victory of a sort. But it is hard to identify a National Trust ‘win’. However this all ends, the government will make sure to present it as a victory for growth and opportunity, and a defeat for vested interests.
“But who says that we are looking to win, as such?” said a National Trust spokesman at conference. The trust’s position is clear, set out in its ‘red lines’. They do not oppose reforming the planning system, nor the building of more houses, but there must be “balance”.
The National Trust is a powerful and respected organisation. Today its membership passed the four million mark for the first time, many times greater than all the major political parties put together.
Ministers and advisers are at pains to insist that clarifications will be made to the planning framework. The Conservatives want to prove their modern credentials and be seen to be putting growth, jobs and opportunities ahead of their core vote but the government does not want a long, drawn-out battle with an opponent like the National Trust. Especially when that opponent tells you it has nothing to lose.