Sunday 4 November 2007

Could the National Trust become a political party?

Whatever happened to political parties? Their combined membership amounts to little more than the circulation of a modest-sized celebrity magazine. In ten years time, well, they probably won’t manage more than the readership of the New Statesman.

I’ve been on the look-out for years for something that might replace the insititution, at least in the UK. Then I open the Times yesterday, and find that the National Trust is going head to head with the government over their housebuilding plans – threaten to buy up green belt land to prevent them.

I have wondered for some time, without taking the thought very seriously, that the National Trust could transform itself into some kind of political party. Its membership is around five times any rivals. It stands for a set of coherent ideas about conservation, green futures and good management – and for ideas (whether you like them or not), about the nature of Britain.

It has recently adopted something approaching an economic policy – local purchasing, rebuilding local money flows – and the latest news looks as if it is moving towards the next stage. What comes next? Candidates?

I’d welcome it myself, even vote for it, if it wasn’t for the damage they might wreak on the Lib Dems – unless the Lib Dems can learn some of the lessons now about the slow and unremarked radicalising of Middle England.

Which brings me finally to the housebuilding issue. Once again, this is about centralisation.

Because the UK remains so debilitatingly centralised, corporate headquarters flock to the capital in a way they don’t feel the need to in the USA or other European nations. Consequently, because of the miserable metropolitan snobbery at the heart of UK politics, so do other businesses. So do people.

So we find ourselves in a situation where we are demolishing homes in the heart of northern cities, while we have to queue to leave London underground stations in the evenings (I queued 20 minutes to get out of Leicester Square station a little while ago).

The Liberal response to the housing crisis ought to be (a) Massive decentralisation of power to regional centres, (b) Strengthen regulations about how much money people can borrow for mortgages – the real driver of house price inflation, (c) Proper, civilised homes with gardens, in new garden cities – many of them in the north.

Let’s be tough about this, and maybe we won’t have to canvass against National Trust candidates in the future.

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