History in costly fairy-tale garb The National Trust should stop being so smug and extravagant, argues Paula Weid eger

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The Independent Online
The National Trust is 100 years old today. Let me join in the happy birthday chorus - it is one of England's most remarkable 20th-century success stories - but let me not stop there. Although the people managing the National Trust and their passi onate defenders refuse to believe it, it is possible to be both a fan of its outstandingly beautiful properties and a critic of the way it's run.

For the first two-thirds of its history, the National Trust was a decisive, campaigning body with a clear, if changing, purpose. It was brought into being near the end of the 19th century by a trio of socialist do-gooders who wanted to save beautiful countryside from development in order that poor city dwellers could visit and restore their health and spirits.

During the Thirties, it entered its second phase and became a society for the preservation of the aristocracy. Great country house estates were in peril and the National Trust began to try to save them along with the way of life that had produced them. Then, beginning in the Seventies, it entered a period of enormous growth and today has 2.2 million members - more than the Labour and Conservative parties combined.

The National Trust become ever bigger, richer and more powerful. But what does it stand for today? For what does it campaign?

The answers are all too simple. The National Trust seems to stand for nothing more than holding on to the riches it has. It appears to be afraid to stand up for anything lest in so doing it offend someone and lose financial support or future gifts of property.

Last year, for example, when I told its director general, Sir Angus Stirling, that the charity ought to be leading the way in the campaign against roads that threaten unspoilt countryside, he replied: "We must be very careful about what we say on the subject of transport because many of our members favour roads and won't like it." More than 40 National Trust countryside properties were under threat from road schemes at the time! Most people have had no idea of what the National Trust does. Their ignorance is not dispelled by the men running the charity who seem to keep the facts about it to themselves. Recently, for instance, it was decided that a review of its financial performance would be dropped from the annual report sent to all members.

As for all those treasure houses as they are sometimes called: what a collection of greedy white elephants they have turned out to be. They gobble up at least £33m a year - £8m more than the National Trust spends on all its hundreds of thousands of milesof countryside and its one in six miles of the English, Welsh and Northern Ireland coast. And, like all venerable buildings, the older they get the more money they are going to consume.

Acquired because each was a home as well as a testimonial to the wonders money could buy or have crafted, most of them no longer function as family houses. Instead, visitors tour gloriously decorated sets. And the message they take away about the lives once lived in them is as prettified as that communicated in old Hollywood movies. In MGM's heyday no cockroach ever scuttled across a tenement floor and invariably boy got girl and lived happily ever after. Visiting a National Trust , you have no hint that the people who lived in them sometimes communicated with one another by post; no suspicion that as soon as domestic servants had alternatives they fled.

Not all those houses merit preservation as museums. Apart from consuming ever more of members' contributions and government grants; apart from telling tall tales about the past, what purpose can they serve?

One way of answering this last question would be to ask people living near these properties what they would like to see become of them; to poll arts and science institutions for fresh ideas. This would be one way of beginning to bring in an element of democracy and greater decentralisation to the Trust - two areas in which it badly falls down. And it falls down, too, in casting a wide net; the world of the National Trust seems one of twinsets and pearls; the people running it too often seem to give the impression of being smug, narrow and condescending.

What efforts does it make to draw in people who would not describe their colour as white? If all of us don't come to feel this is our heritage, in time it will be no one's; there won't be sufficient financial support.

To whom are the men running England's largest private landowner answerable? Not to its members. Not to its 52-member so-called ruling council which mostly acts as a rubber stamp. And not always to the 33-member executive to which the council has given many of its powers.

When, for example, Angus Stirling wanted to become chairman of the Royal Opera House, did the council debate the implications for the National Trust if he accepted? It did not. Nor did the executive. Yet both the Royal Opera House and the National Trust are appealing for vast amounts of pounds and pence in a world where such contributions are scarce.

What happened instead was that the National Trust's chairman, Lord Chorley, consulted senior colleagues, gave Stirling the go ahead and then informed the council and the executive. These bodies in effect rubber-stamped his decision.

In the Sixties, the National Trust's then chairman, Lord Antrim, called the charity a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Evidently it still is. But the National Trust has grown enormously since then. As a landowner and landlord it is far too big and influential to be run along such lines today.

The National Trust would do well to start its new century with a major house cleaning. It should get rid of dead weight in its bureaucracy of 6,000 full-time or seasonal staff. Surely a body that has grown to become the world's largest preservation and conservation charity needs a new constitution, one which better fits its scope and size and our desire for it to be more accountable and democratic. And it should get out of the business of being a purveyor of sentimental fairy-tales. If Hollywood and itsaudience can grown up, so can the National Trust. At the age of 100, it wouldn't be premature.

Paula Weideger is the author of `Gilding the Acorn: Behind the Facade of the National Trust', Simon & Schuster, £17.99.