The National Trust is planning to sell hundreds of acres of land near historic buildings to private developers, amid accusations that it has tried to bully local people into dropping their objections to the sell-off.
The Trust - for 108 years the defender of historic buildings and countryside - was founded by a group of philanthropists horrified by the uncontrolled spread of development in the English countryside.
But now it is planning to sell dozens of acres belonging to the world-famous Cliveden estate, in Buckinghamshire, to a private developer for the construction of 200 "executive" style homes.
It is also selling off landat Dunham Massey, an exceptional early Georgian manor house near Altrincham, Greater Manchester, for a development of 650 homes.
Opponents say that the Trust is planning a series of similar land sales to private developers throughout Britain.
Villagers near Cliveden are furious, and say the Trust has tried to use threats and bullying tactics to silence local opposition to the proposed development.
Cliveden, the palatial former home of the Astor family, became infamous for its role in the 1963 Profumo scandal.
The Trust stands to gain an estimated £80m from the sale of land at Cliveden.
There is no formal application for the 200-house development, though locals expect it to come in August or September.
"The plans are universally disliked for lots of reasons," said Heather Fenn, a member of the local history group opposed to the Cliveden development.
"It seems that the Trust is using these proposals as a platform from which to start other schemes around the country.
"This will lead to the wider urbanisation of the English countryside. This is a test case.
"Most of us around here are National Trust members. Every time we've had a meeting with the Trust, we've objected. We feel very bullied."
Other local residents are equally incensed.
"The whole attitude of the Trust is counter to how someone like the Trust should have reacted to our concerns," Lorna Parkins said.
"Our views have never been listened to. We've had three meetings with Trust representatives but none of them have ever addressed the public here en masse.
"There was meant to be a meeting on Friday but the Trust cancelled it."
The Trust argues that the portion of the Cliveden estate earmarked for development, by Countryside Properties, is a "brownfield" site, occupied by a derelict wartime hospital. It says Lord Astor himself had sanctioned the sale when Cliveden was given to the Trust in 1943.
The site is not visible from the main Cliveden mansion, though opponents say that the rise in traffic and disturbance from building works alone will damage the local environment.
Julian Lloyd, a Trust spokesman, confirmed last week that it was looking at other sell-offs: "There are other development land proposals. There are one or two others in the system. There will be two or three other development proposals."
However, the Trust subsequently confirmed only the proposed development at Dunham Massey.
One local councillor, Euan Felton, said: "We think that the Trust have lost their way on this one.
"The Trust is beginning to be the antithesis of what they were set up for."
A new Trust marketing strategy, which started this month, highlights the organisation's sites used as film or television locations as an enticement to join. For example, Lacock Abbey hosted recent productions of Jane Austen's Emma and Harry Potter. And Lyme Park was the setting for Granada television's remake of The Forsyte Saga.
The Trust is Britain's largest conservation body, with more than three million members and 3,000 staff. It owns more than 600,000 acres of land.
However, it has been forced to seek new sources of revenue to counter a decline of around £4m, which the Trust blames in part on falling visitor figures in the wake of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.
Promotional material for the Fox studios film Nicholas Nickleby, released last week, offers three months' free membership of the Trust for those who see the film at participating cinemas.
Last month, the Trust was attacked by archaeologists after it allowed a 300ft-high white eye to be painted beside one of the country's most important ancient remains - the Iron Age white horse on a hillside at Uffington, Oxfordshire.
The offending eye, used to promote the new series of Big Brother, was removed after the series started.
Channel 4 is believed to have paid the Trust around £2,000 for permission to use the hillside for the advert. "There are pressures on resources," explains the Trust's Julian Lloyd. "As we've expanded, so those pressures have expanded. We have to look carefully at our cost base.
"These are expensive things to run, and there is a continual pressure on us. We are keen to innovate."
In April, an independent review of the Trust's internal structure by Lord Blakenham found it was neither "sufficiently consistent nor transparent", while its members were often "frustrated and dissatisfied".
National Trust members living near the proposed development at Cliveden are to put forward a resolution at the Trust's annual general meeting in November, expressing disgust at the charity's plans for Cliveden.Reuse content