To its four million members, the National Trust evokes a bucolic image of the conservation of our history.
For them, this august institution exists to protect our country and its landscapes from the ravages of the 21st century. The Trust, by its own declaration, ‘looks after historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, moorland, islands, castles, nature reserves, villages and pubs’.
And now, perhaps, wind farms. Indeed.
The Trust’s new chief executive, a former Whitehall careerist called Dame Helen Ghosh, has come out with the surprising declaration that wind turbines are ‘rather beautiful things’ and that critics need to stop being so narrow-minded.
Dame Helen has said she has no general objection to wind farms. ‘I think they look graceful,’ she said in her clipped, schoolmarmish accent which brooks little dissent.
She believes that, in time, wind turbines will come to be regarded as warmly as railways – another innovation viewed initially as a blot on the landscape.
Opponents of wind farms should ‘open their minds’. These whirling bird-mashers, so many of which have been stuck on the spines of our great hills, would come to be considered as objets d’art in a century or so: thus, in so many words, said Dame Helen Ghosh.
Wind farms beautiful? Try telling that to campaigners who fight desperately to stop these noisy eyesores, rusting like old bicycles, being erected near towns and villages in our already not so green land.
Try telling that, too, to man-made climate-change sceptics who argue – possibly with good cause – that wind power is an economic and environmental folly of our age, the received wisdom of privileged nincompoops.
Is the new chief executive of the National Trust in possession of her senses? That will be for others to judge, not least card-carrying members of the Trust when they are next asked to cough up their £53 annual subscriptions.
It’s not easy to automatically discern Dame Helen’s qualifications to run the National Trust, often considered a temple of Toryism. As a former minister told me: ‘She’s more at home in court shoes than gum boots’.
But over recent years, the Trust has drifted a long way from its original aims and increasingly reflects the metropolitan preoccupations of its professional managers – many of whom are straight from a Blairite central casting agency.
These are not knowledgeable enthusiasts in the mould of the late James Lees-Milne, the art historian who did so much to create the Trust in the Forties and Fifties.
Over time, the charity has become remorselessly urban, a vehicle for careerism, for the moulding of public attitudes rather than the promotion of public knowledge. It has become the plaything of bien pensants propagating the latest orthodoxies.
Its website takes it upon itself to assert numerous ‘views’ of a distinctly political nature, on everything from pheasant shooting to fossil-fuel consumption.
At times, it reads more like the website of the Green party than an organisation – supposedly a cherished ‘trust’, let’s not forget – which is involved in heritage conservation.
Today’s Trust seems happier gushing about climate change than it does about promoting historical knowledge. It sets up low-carbon villages, proselytises about a ‘leaner, greener lifestyle’ and raves about modern art.
The National Trust is also a major landowner, but is little liked by farmers who feel it is more interested in ramblers’ rights than in protecting the livelihoods of its tenants.
So, who is Dame Helen Ghosh? And is she a wise appointment for the National Trust, an organisation which has so long claimed to be non-political?
Until recently she was the most powerful female civil servant in Whitehall, known in London power circles as ‘Lady Humphrey’ – fictional Sir Humphrey being the sly, shrewd Whitehall Permanent Secretary who runs rings round his elected ministers in hit Eighties sitcoms Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
Dame Helen, 57, was ‘Perm Sec’ at the Home Office, and before that held the same elevated position at the Department for the Environment.
She prospered in the New Labour years, with senior stints at the Department of Pensions, the Cabinet Office and HM Revenue & Customs. You may notice that all those organs of Government have been plagued by terrible administrative cock-ups in recent years.
The moment she left Environment, for instance, the forestry rumpus erupted when public protests forced the Government into a screeching U-turn in early 2011 on plans to sell 620,000 acres of state-owned woodland,
Pure coincidence? Or is there a ‘curse of Ghosh’? The surname Ghosh is pronounced ‘gauche’. Yet that word, which means ‘awkward’ and ‘clumsy’, could never be applied to pointy-nosed Dame Helen.
Born to a librarian mother and a father who was a research scientist, she was educated at a convent school (there is something of the Mother Superior about her, now you mention it) and once considered trying to become a ballet dancer.
She took a first degree (in history) at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she was a bookish, arid figure. A postgraduate degree followed, in sixth century Italian history, and she nurtured a special interest in the Roman philosopher Boethius – a father of logical argument.
At the age of 23 she married Peter Ghosh, later an Oxford history don, and entered the civil service.
With a couple of breaks for child-rearing, she would remain in the Whitehall system until last summer when, after yet another administrative controversy, she left amid accusations of incompetence and blame avoidance.
Indeed, her time at the Home Office was notable for rows about Olympic security, policing, the London riots and the Government’s ability to monitor immigration. Senior border officials, in particular, felt they were left to stew by Dame Helen as she seemed to hop out of the way of political blame.
There were reportedly sticky moments between her and the Secretary of State, Theresa May. Dame Helen lasted just 20 months.
Mrs May had initially welcomed Dame Helen, and the world was told how the new Permanent Secretary took her homemade cakes into the office to cheer up staff.
Photographic portraits of Mrs May and Dame Helen were placed alongside one another on the Departmental walls (snapshots of junior ministers were removed – airbrushed from history).
But within weeks, relations between the Home Secretary and Lady Humphrey had cooled, and insiders were talking of ‘a clash of the ice queens’. Mrs May won.
Dame Helen’s earlier stint at the Department for the Environment between 2005 and 2010 was scarcely any brighter. She inherited a major shambles at the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which dispenses subsidies to farmers and was failing to get the money to them on time. But under Dame Helen, matters failed to improve. Not so much Lady Humphrey as Lady Calamity, perhaps.
By late 2006, thousands of small farmers were suffering bitter financial hardship, and the suicides of several were blamed on delays.
The Public Accounts Committee, Parliament’s leading spending watchdog, tore into Dame Helen over the RPA scandal, saying the payments fiasco had been a ‘masterclass in bad decision-making’, and noted that spending spiralled and civil servants were given hundreds of thousands of pounds to leave jobs.
Under Dame Helen, so legend has it, the initials RPA came to stand for ‘Redundancy Payoffs Agency’.
Her performance in front of MPs that day at the Public Accounts Committee was as fascinating as it was embarrassing.
Dame Helen appeared to resent being questioned. Her designer shoes swivelled and tapped with what looked like impatience, as elected politicians quizzed and criticised her. Suddenly it became clear why so many parliamentary frontbenchers muttered that ‘Ghosh is no good’.
Tory MP Stephen Barclay, one of her interrogators, admits that the committee had ‘frustrations’ with Dame Helen. She was not considered a willing or cooperative witness, even though billions of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money had been (mis)spent. Extracting information from Dame Helen, says Mr Barclay, was ‘like pulling teeth’.
She spoke at length about herself, repeatedly placing the blame on predecessors and on politicians.
She spoke all the language of modern officialdom, with its argot of ‘policy implementation’ and ‘action plans’.
She deployed internal reviews – those useful tools of political delay and blame management – with the skill that only comes from 33 years in Whitehall.
Here, in short, was a woman brilliant at reading flow charts, peerless at appearing enigmatic rather than decisive (so much less dangerous), ace at clambering up the slippery pole. And the MPs saw through her.
If Dame Helen was irked by them, she was little better impressed by the set-up at 10 Downing Street. Heading for the exit at the Home Office – her dreams of becoming head of the civil service having been dashed – she attacked the ‘network of friends’ surrounding David Cameron and complained that there were so few women near the top of the civil service. And yet she, arguably, owed her advance to the near summit of a politically-correct Whitehall desperate to promote women . . . to her gender!
She referred to the political team around Cameron as a ‘clique network’ and an ‘Old Etonian clique’.
She was not the first to make such remarks – and they may well contain some truth – but it was novel, and arguably improper, to have them expressed by so senior a mandarin. It was certainly hard not to detect the sour tone of pique.
And now she has popped up as chief executive of the National Trust. The Trust’s chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins (who hates wind farms), admits that it is a risky appointment. During interviews he asked Dame Helen if she would mind criticising the Government. Came the reply: ‘I can’t wait.’
Uh oh. That sounds like a newly-liberated civil servant intent on making a name for herself. That sounds like a woman on the warpath. She may have had, ultimately, a failed career in Whitehall but now she has a very public pulpit for her views.
If, to mix metaphors, Dame Helen lets off steam about wind farms, how will it play out politically? It may please Whitehall and the Left (and the BBC, which recently ran an admiring radio profile of Dame Helen). But will countryside campaigners be pleased? Will the Trust’s small-c conservative members? Will Downing Street?
There is a danger that the Trust may go the way of the RSPCA, another previously popular national charity which, in recent months, has had its reputation badly damaged by the publicity-seeking antics of a new chief executive wasting vast sums of money on covert actions to prosecute David Cameron’s local hunts.
Is it too much to hope that Dame Helen can be persuaded to drop her devotion to windmills, along with her new-found appetite for controversy? If she wants to make herself popular, should she not, in her spare time, apply herself to her celebrated baking skills and make some cakes for the National Trust’s tea rooms?
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