Next year the National Trust will mark its 125th birthday. The National Trust can appear unchanging and eternal – after all our tagline is about looking after special places for ever, for everyone.
But our work through a century and a quarter has always responded to the changing society, economy and environment. These provide the context for our work to protect places of natural beauty and historic interest.
Our founders were always clear that heritage, beauty and nature were not just something to preserve in isolation, but something that should be of benefit for all.
The National Trust recently worked with the University of Surrey on pioneering brain research, which showed that meaningful places play a huge part in our emotional and physical wellbeing. (http://bit.ly/nt-places)
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain carried out as part of the research show that the brain generates an emotional response to places that people feel are significant to them, such as feeling joyful, calm and energised.
Further work by the Trust showed how places bring people together, both as locations where we interact with others but also because we want to share our love of places with other people. The spirit of a place gives us a sense of belonging.
So we know that the quality of places matters to our well-being. But what can we learn from the past?
Looking from our twenty-first century vantage point, we can romanticise the Victorians and the heritage of public buildings and suburban streets they created.
The inner suburbs in my bit of Victorian south east London are now the desired homes of the professional classes, and my parents’ house in Poundbury mimics a nineteenth century vernacular (though it has to be said, owing more to Scotland than the traditional buildings of Dorset).
Yet, the rediscovery of Victorian buildings and architecture can blind us to the destruction and ugliness of the period.
The Victorians were perfectly capable of building stunningly ugly buildings, of proposing to crash a railway line through Greenwich Park in front of the Queen’s House, of eating up beautiful green spaces under the advance of monotonous ranks of terraces, or erasing historic coaching inns from Southwark (though the National Trust managed to preserve one side of the George Inn). The Victorians were probably the biggest destroyers of our natural and built heritage.
Public pressure could force changes to railway routes or protect some spaces, but it was not enough and the National Trust’s liberal reformist founders looked to the law to provide better protection.
The 1907 National Trust Act enabled the new charity to permanently protect the places it owns by declaring them inalienable and only to be overridden by a special Parliamentary procedure.
Institutionally protected to provide public benefit, this has laid the basis for the National Trust’s ability to look after some of the most special places over the last century.
For all the benefit the National Trust was able to bring to the buildings and places it owned, it was only with the development of the planning system that the country’s wider landscape and heritage would be safeguarded.
Recently, however, the planning system’s role has become increasingly contested. It is blamed for both ugly development in the wrong locations and for holding back housing supply.
The temptation can be to throw out the planning system and start again. But if not planning, then what? Policy Exchange’s recent interventions in the debate have been welcome for recognition that the answers need to be not to start from scratch but to look at ways to improve what we have.
As housing continues to be a priority for central and local government, we need the planning system to ensure public benefits are provided in developments, given that the market for land does not incentivise these.
But we also need councils in their own developments and in their approach to Local Plans to use spirit of place to inform their work.
The nineteenth and twenty-first centuries are very different, but what they do share in common is a public who care for the quality of the places being built and who want to see the green spaces and historic features of where they live protected.
With thanks to Policy Exchange for permission to reproduce this essay – http://bit.ly/build-beautiful