Robin Henry, Simon Trump and Grace Marsh writing for the Sunday Times report;
As the self-appointed guardian of the green belt, the National Trust has been a fierce critic of the government’s plans to relax rules on building in the countryside.
But the charity has been accused of “hypocrisy” after it emerged that it had been quietly selling or releasing parcels of greenfield land for housing developments.
In one case, farmland in Somerset bequeathed to the trust is being sold to help create a housing estate on the outskirts of Taunton.
In Shropshire, more than 100 acres of grassland on the edge of Shrewsbury will be used to create homes, a hotel and a shopping complex after the trust sold control of the property’s mineral rights to facilitate the development.
Across the border in Wrexham, north Wales, plans to build 200 homes on part of the Erddig Hall estate sold by the trust have resulted in accusations that it has behaved “more like a speculative property developer than a heritage organisation”.
The trust, which has more than 4m members, says the developments meet a “genuine local need for housing”.
On its website, it describes how its early supporters were “a voice against urban sprawl and ribbon development in the 1920s”. It goes on to detail its campaigns against the government’s national planning policy framework (NPPF), which was introduced in 2012 to free more land for housing.
Such boasts ring hollow for many in Staplegrove, a small parish in the northern suburbs of Taunton that lies close to the Quantock Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty.
When Frederick Adams, a wealthy West Country farmer, died in 1972, he left a substantial area of rolling fields between Staplegrove and the Quantock Hills to the trust, stipulating in his will that they could be used “for their general purposes absolutely”.
The trust now plans to sell part of that land to a developer to be incorporated in a new housing estate of 1,600 homes.
It will result in the grade II listed house where Adams once lived, and where he died, being surrounded by modern new-builds.
Paul Williams, 71, the current owner, said: “When Adams gifted all this land, he had no intention for any of it to be developed for housing.
“For over 25 years we have maintained the rural character of this heritage asset as dictated by the council’s listed buildings officers, only to be faced with the surroundings becoming a suburban extension.”
Several residents are threatening to cancel their National Trust membership.
“We think the great British public would be horrified if they were fully aware of how land-grabbing developers and the hierarchy of the National Trust are carving things up here,” said Gordon Rawlings, one objector.
In November 2014, Sir Simon Jenkins, the trust’s retiring chairman, described the NPPF as a “declaration of war” on the green belt. Just two months earlier, however, the trust had sold the mineral rights to the site near Shrewsbury to “allow work to progress” on greenfield land.
Four days later, developers submitted a planning application to transform the fields into 550 houses and a commercial complex. Despite an objection, the application received outline planning consent.
The trust is also in talks with developers about a new estate on the outskirts of Wrexham.
The plans were given outline planning consent in 2008, but Carrie Harper, a local councillor, claimed the trust had “ridden roughshod” over the wishes of the community.
“I feel the trust is acting more like a speculative property developer than a heritage organisation,” she said. “ They are causing a huge amount of damage to their own organisation and reputation in the process.”
The vast majority of trust property has been deemed “inalienable”, which makes it duty-bound to retain and preserve it. Less than 1% has been set aside for investment and sale to raise funds. A trust spokesman said it was not “against development in principle” and was satisfied the proposed developments would be high quality, accessible and affordable.
He stressed that while these developments were on greenfield sites on the edges of conurbations, they were not officially green belt land. He added: “When we very occasionally release land for development, we aim to use it as an opportunity to showcase what good housing can look like.
“We only consider releasing land where it complies with the wishes and intentions of the people who gave us that land in the first place.”