FW Opinion: Time for National Trust to reconnect with farmers

Ask the average member of the public what the National Trust means to them and they will likely conjure up an image of well-looked-after period properties, carefully signposted footpaths and bustling tearooms.

You would think this seemingly benevolent behemoth would have enough on its hands without interfering with what farmers do on land that it does not even own.

After all, it counts 14,688ha of in-hand farmland, 200 historic houses, 39 pubs and nine lighthouses among an astonishing number of other assets it is preserving for the nation.

See also: Why farm tenants are criticising National Trust landlords

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Andrew Meredith
Editor, Farmers Weekly

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The question, therefore, is why is it bothering to meddle in the business affairs of a farming family in Norfolk who simply want to carry on their farm’s diversification strategy?

Pig farmers David and Julie Barber have received full planning permission from their local authority to convert an old pig shed into residential units as part of their pathway to retirement.

But by exercising the power of a restrictive covenant put in place in the 1950s, the trust – which has never owned the land – has chosen to stand in their way and force them to contemplate selling the farm where their daughter is buried.

This is despite them agreeing to many other building projects on the farm in the past, including the construction of the aforementioned shed.

The enormous institution, Europe’s largest conservation charity, may count six million Brits among its members, but it appears to have lost its touch with other custodians of the countryside it purports to uphold – farmers.

Farming tenants of the trust frequently get in touch with Farmers Weekly to highlight how poor the relationship is between them and their landlord.

As business reporter Lauren Harris wrote last year, despite stating that working closely with its farm tenants was key for delivering its environment strategy, farmers say they are never consulted about new agricultural policies and instead are merely told what to do without any negotiation.

Time and again we hear further evidence of poor communication, faddish plans and little support for food production – the business that ultimately underpins much conservation work.

As farmers are fond of saying, you can’t be green if you’re in the red.

Much of what the trust continues to do as part of its broader remit is admirable, including the vital work of preserving many of the UK’s important landmarks.

In a country obsessed by its past, that is a significant power indeed.

Like any person or institution, the more power it has, the more careful it has to be in choosing when to wield it.

It is to be hoped that the trust’s current advisers will eventually recall the wisdom of their predecessors and see that their decision to block the demolition of a humble pig shed will not mean they have failed to protect beautiful, natural places.

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