Does it really matter if the National Trust sees fit to allow commercial development on land it owns? The Trust's decision to allow Countryside Properties to construct a 200-unit housing scheme at the Cliveden Estate in Buckinghamshire have laid it open to accusations that it has abused its position as guardian of our national heritage. Yet this is hardly an instance of impoverishing the public realm.While the grounds, woods and parkland are open to the public (at a price), any sense of 'ownership' is undermined by the fact that the house itself is a luxury hotel. The three major public rooms that are open to the public can be viewed only during nine months of the year, just on Thursday and Sunday afternoons. Those who wish to see the rest of the house can book in at a cost of £385 a night.
A more compelling argument is that, in using a portion of the land for purposes which were not envisaged by its former owner - in this case the second Viscount Astor, who donated the property to the National Trust in 1942 - it is failing to respect the spirit in which the gift was originally made. But loss of control is central to the act of giving. It is neither practical nor desirable for the Trust to maintain all its assets in the state in which they were acquired. And while it is important to preserve stately homes within their setting, it is patently absurd to ascribe equal value to everything which happens to fall within a property's legal boundary.
If the Trust chooses to develop 5.7ha of a 152ha site, we can assume that it has taken the considered view that it will not undermine the essence of the property with which it is charged.
There is little doubt that the decision to develop was driven by financial considerations, but to suggest that this casts doubt on the Trust's integrity is patently absurd. Custodianship is a heavy responsibility, precisely because it encompasses the notion of exercising judgement, as opposed to simply care-taking.
Like any other charity, the National Trust is entitled, and indeed obliged, to make its own decisions as to how resources can most effectively be employed to serve its wider goals.