15 September 2000


Allowing the NFU

representation on the

National Trust council

would surely gain the

Trust a more receptive

response from its

farmer tenants, says

Edward Leigh-Pemberton

Let us take stock of the National Trust, its organisation and management of UK farmland.

First, a few facts. The Trust is the countrys biggest landowner with 248,000ha (612,560 acres), it has 2.6m members and is rich. It is run by a council of 52 people – 26 elected by members and 26 nominated by persons or bodies with an interest in the running of the National Trust.

Papers for the Trusts AGM in Manchester on Nov 4 have been sent to members. In the Annual Report, the chairman highlights the role of the Trusts farm tenants, the importance of a prosperous agricultural economy to the Trust and the councils approval of a new agricultural policy.

So you might expect the NFU to be one of the bodies able to nominate a council member. Not so.

The CLA and the Royal Agricultural Society of England are represented on council. Surely the NFU, the main national body of both farming and tenant farmers, on whom the Trust is so reliant, should have a voice? I do not demean the input of others, but surely the NFUs input would be more valuable than the Youth Hostels Association?

The list of nominating bodies is up for review this year, as it is every six. The council is giving members the option to vote for the NFU, but recommends Transport 2000, the Garden History Society and the British Tourist Authority. That is indicative of a wider concern about the National Trust and its attitude to farming and the countryside. The new agricultural policy contains a lot of politically correct language more familiar to Islington than Exmoor. As the chairman acknowledges, tenants play a vital part in the Trust, but to complain or comment on Trust policy would compromise the landlord-tenant relationship. For this reason alone, the NFU should be represented on council. Farm tenants would have a representative to approach confidentially. Farm tenants have expressed the view to me that they do not have confidence in, and contact with, those determining the future of their livelihood and spending the considerable resources of the Trust. NFU representation would correct that.

With the Trusts vast membership and various enterprises, farm rental income does not make the major contribution to its income. But no one seems to have investigated the effect on expenditure if farm tenants do not have sufficient income or are not present to maintain the great bulk of the estate for free.

The Trust has not used its vast political clout to lobby actively on behalf of the farming industry. Not surprisingly, one broadsheet newspaper has described the Trust as a "rich and baggy monster peopled by urbanites".

Another concern is the voting procedure. The form itself is fiendishly complicated. A cynic might suggest its design encourages members to vote in line with the councils thinking. A much wider concern is the near total apathy of the membership. In recent years, fewer than 2% of the membership has voted. A significant proportion of those voting give their proxy to the chairman, which allows him to stifle any dissent.

I urge all National Trust members to use their vote this year. Ask yourself whether you will be acting in the interests of the Trusts farm tenants, farming generally and the future governance of the Trust if you follow the councils voting recommendations.

One broadsheet newspaper has described the Trust as a rich and baggy monster peopled by urbanites.

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