National Trust’s new regional director hopes to preserve the East’s treasured heritage
- Credit: IAN BURT
The new regional director for the National Trust hopes to raise the profile of East Anglia's treasured landscapes and historic buildings – both for their heritage value and their tourism potential. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.
At first, it was studying at the UEA which nurtured Ben Cowell's lasting affection for East Anglia's landscape heritage and open spaces.
And now the same passion and expertise has brought his career full circle, landing him the role of regional director for the National Trust (NT).
Mr Cowell described the pivotal campaigning and conservation position as 'easily the best job in the National Trust'.
As the figurehead of the organisation in the East of England, he will lead a team of more than 500 staff and 5,000 volunteers in their efforts to preserve valuable properties and countryside – and highlight their value for tourism.
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The trust looks after places, wildlife, collections, community spaces and heritage. In the East, its properties include the coastal nature reserve at Blakeney in north Norfolk, and stately homes such as Blickling Hall near Aylsham and Oxburgh Hall near Swaffham.
Mr Cowell said he wants to emphasise the trust's role in conserving these places 'forever, for everyone' – the mantra of the trust since it was founded in 1895.
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And, true to the campaigning heritage of the organisation, he also wants to champion the interests of the countryside against a raft of challenges including development pressures, farm subsidy reforms, climate change and wind energy proposals.
But the over-arching ambition for his tenure is to promote the East of England, with all its heritage and natural beauty, as a place to be enjoyed by those who live here, or visitors with tourist pounds to spend.
Mr Cowell said: 'What I want to do is to put the East on the map and get people coming to visit here, and get people who live here to enjoy what they have on their doorstep.
'We live in some of the most fantastic landscapes in the country. When people think about stunning landscapes, they don't often look to the East – but they should, because we have so many unique things. We have places like Blakeney Point, the Suffolk coast and examples of heathland that are unparalleled anywhere else in the country. We need to celebrate that.
'I don't think we shout enough about how wonderful the East is. It is rich in history and it has got such beautiful coastline and countryside. These things are important to our wellbeing and our health as a nation.'
In the East of England, the National Trust's portfolio comprises 80 properties including historic chapels, stately homes, mills and nature reserves. It looks after 11,500 hectares of land, 38km of open coast and 43km of sheltered or estuary coast.
The trust's income relies heavily on membership subscriptions, but takings from cafes, rents from tenant farmers and fees from holiday cottages all help with upkeep costs. About £100m is spent on 'core conservation' activities across the country each year – everything from restoring tapestries and paintings to mending roofs.
'We are an organisation that has got lots of different parts to our business,' said Mr Cowell. 'The conservation and protection of the places we look after is the foundation of it, but we are also in the tourism business. We are in the business of opening these fantastic houses up for people to come and enjoy them.
'We are a charity. We don't depend on government and we have to live by our own means.
'One third of our income is from membership. We have got four million members, which is more than we've ever had, but we want to grow that membership even more.
'In challenging economic times, people often rediscover what they have got on their doorstep rather than going overseas for their holidays. We find the 'staycation' effect can help us. I think tourism can be at the heart of the economic revival of the region, and I think the NT, working with other organisations, can champion this area for tourism.'
Before embarking on a career in the civil service, Mr Cowell specialised in landscape archaeology at the Centre of East Anglian Studies at the UEA. He worked at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in London before joining the National Trust's external affairs team in 2008.
Last year, he led the charity's vocal campaign for reforms to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – the government's pro-growth blueprint which contained a controversial 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' in situations where councils had not adopted a local plan.
'It is unusual for the trust to speak out so loudly on such a controversial issue,' said Mr Cowell. 'But the draft NPPF was such a bad document that we had no choice but to speak out. We could see that unless we did, we were setting up problems for the future. 'We were struck by how strongly people were feeling about this. Any local newspaper you pick up is full of stories about planning and people are worried about the decisions being made in the places where they live. We were quite surprised by the response, but we shouldn't have been, because people are rightly worried about what might happen in the next five years.
'I don't want us to be seen to be anti-development. This country needs more homes, without question, and we need to get the economy moving. But are we planning developments in the right way, with the proper infrastructure, and the right green links, with architecturally-sensitive designs? Or are we building in a way that destroys the character of places, covering the country with identikit settlements?'
Mr Cowell lives near Saffron Walden in Essex. As regional head of the trust, he joked that he was 'not allowed' to have a favourite property – although he has a particular fondness for Sheringham Park, the gardens designed in 1812 by famed landscape architect Humphry Repton.
'It is a wonderful example of the trust managing a place,' he said. 'People go there for a walk or to look at the rhododendrons. It is a landscape rich in history and meaning, and it is the best example of a Humphry Repton park in the country – and it is here in Norfolk. It is a very special place for me. But then, all of them are special.'