A metropolitan Blairite whose mantra is inclusiveness, the director-general of the National Trust nevertheless brings useful credentials as a rural campaigner and persuasive lobbyists to the job. Does she have the commercial instinct to make her new ideas pay off?
Just give me a moment while I sort my life out, hollers Fiona Reynolds from her desk. She swivels in her chair, furrows her black eyebrows together in thought, then whispers a pair of sharp commands into the phone.
She smiles and walks across to the boardroom table that runs along the side of her office. Her life seemingly sorted out, she can now turn her attention to sorting out the rest of the world as well. That is how Reynolds is: a 'sorting things out briskly and without too much fuss' type of person.
At the moment, the thing she is sorting out is our history, and how we look after it. Last year, she was appointed director-general of the National Trust, taking over from Martin Dury, who had held that position for 27 years. Maybe she thought she was stepping into a universe populated only by fine old stately homes, with old ladies called Doreen making tea in the kitchens, happy families buying tea towels in the gift shop, and the occasional Lord Bufton Tufton figure bequesting yet another crumbling wreck to the nation. If so, she would have been mistaken: the history that the Trust's director-general is most likely to encounter is the ducking stool and trial by fire.
The modern National Trust is two things. It is a big business that urgently needs to find new ways of doing things and raising more money; and it is a national football - a venerable old institution upon which everyone has a view and over which everyone is very quick to take offence.
'It has become an incredibly contentious job,' says Clive Aslet, the editor of Country Life and a keen observer of rural affairs. 'You can't even put a new lick of paint on a country house without people arguing about what sort of paint you are using.'
Reynolds is a figure calculated to grate on the nerves of the traditionalists, the backwoodsmen and the young fogeys. For many of them, all it takes is a glance at her CV to tell they don't like her. She is a woman, for starters, and one with three children and a house-husband. She lives in Islington. Her last job was in the Cabinet Office, as an adviser to Tony Blair, in - wait for it - the Women's Unit. And in her opening speech as director-general she peppered her conversation with buzzwords such as 'inclusiveness'. Naturally, the Daily Mail and the Spectator have been busy sharpening their knives. A feminist working mother Blairite bent on modernising the National Trust? Short of getting Eminem to play at the Queen Mother's Funeral, it is hard to think of much that could annoy the traditionalists more.
And yet Reynolds is a slippery, mobile target. In common with many successful political operators, she is never quite what she seems. She might be a working mother from Islington, but she spends much of her time in the country, and has devoted her career to rural issues. She might talk about modernising the Trust, but she cares passionately about history, and her most significant achievement for the organisation to date has been buying Tyntesfield, a huge Victorian country house outside Bristol. She might talk about inclusiveness, but her plans are for more organic farming, and for smart Trust restaurants, the customers for which are going to be the same middle-class, Radio 4 people who have been traipsing around stately homes for generations. The fogeys are going to find themselves boxing with a shadow: as soon as they think they've landed a punch, she's not there any more.
Is Reynolds really a moderniser, or is that just a convenient media label?
'I am in favour of doing things - that's what I was recruited here for,' she replies, launching herself into the question with the gusto of a toddler unwrapping a new toy. 'Modernise is a funny word. I am a great believer in tradition, personally. I like organisations with a sense of their history. I am certainly not in favour of changing things for their own sake.'
Her office sits on the corner of St James's Park, with views stretching out to Buckingham Palace in one direction and Big Ben in the other. The National Trust occupies a magnificent slice of Belgravia but is furnished with the parsimony of charity: in appearance, it is like a weird hybrid between an Edwardian mansion and a social security office.
Reynolds is a forceful, elegant presence. It is not hard to work out why in her earlier career she was such a successful lobbyist. She talks fluently and openly, answering questions directly, and yet always skilfully turning the conversation back to the points she wants to make. She is persuasive in the way that good lobbyists are: she empathises with the person she is talking to, and gradually drags them across to her point of view. Most of the time you don't even notice, always a sure sign of a good operator.
She has grown gradually into her role as a public figure, and handles it deftly, but there was little in her background to prepare her for it: her family was solid and respectable but not glamorous. Her father Geoff Reynolds was the great influence of her life. A metallurgist by profession, and a Methodist lay preacher for recreation, he taught her both to love the countryside and to value hard work, the two qualities that have most shaped her career. 'He was a great enthusiast,' she says. 'He taught us a love of the countryside and a love of music, and he shared all those enthusiasms with me and my four sisters. I used to travel around with him when he was preaching, and I learned a lot from him.'
But not religion particularly?
'No, I'm not especially religious,' she replies. 'He became less and less conventional as he got older, and we talked a lot more about environmentalism and those kinds of issues.
Reynolds is one of five girls, and she has three daughters herself. 'Oh yes, definitely something genetic going on there,' she says with a laugh.
So she is used to feminine-dominated households? 'We were quite tomboyish girls,' she recalls. 'There was a lot of climbing and playing outside. There was never any distinction drawn between what boys could do and what girls could do.'
The five sisters were all very different, she says, but when I ask her what they all do, it turns out that three of them are in the environmental movement, one is a teacher and one is a social worker. It doesn't sound that different. She talks about her parents and her childhood without a trace of irony or bitterness. Maybe that is where her self-confidence comes from: she has a quiet determination that suggests she seldom doubts the rightness of her own opinions.
The sisters were all brainy. Reynolds was educated at Rugby High School, and from there went to Newnham College in Cambridge, where she read geography. She finished her degree in 1980, with no big idea about what she wanted to do with her life. She knew she didn't want to work in business or the City like many of her contemporaries. By chance, she saw an ad for a job at the Council for National Parks, and realised she had found her niche in life. She would be a campaigner on rural issues: that would combine her love of the countryside, her interest in policy and government, and her commitment to working for the charitable sector. 'I love working for charities, because they have a real sense of purpose,' she says.
She was good at it as well. Reynolds has a natural feel for networking, for contacts, and for building support for her positions. And her timing was good. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, interest in farming, conservation and rural issues steadily grew. So did the controversies and debates. She had landed as a young and ambitious woman in a growth industry.
In 1987, she switched to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, as its director of policy, becoming its director-general in 1992. That introduced her to the Whitehall machine. The CPRE is what ministers and civil servants talk to when Whitehall wants a view on the countryside. She became an effective insider, often opposing the Government, yet managing to remain close to ministers and mandarins. That lobbying skill again: she can disagree with people, often fiercely, yet stay on good terms, slowly winning them over. Tories such as John Gummer speak just as warmly of her as Labour politicians.
Indeed, the Whitehall machine liked her so much that its operators decided it was preferable to have her inside the tent rather than outside. In 1998, she joined the Cabinet Office as the director of its Women's Unit. The Women's Unit? What does that do exactly? It sounds like a lame gag from Private Eye.
'Its job was to look across the range of policy as it affected women,' she replies. 'I went in as an outsider, and I learned a great deal from it. I am much more of an admirer of the civil service now than I was when I went in.'
Not so much of an admirer that she failed to spot the main chance, however. She was only two years into a three-year contract when she saw the National Trust advertising for a new director-general. Reynolds knew she had to apply: the vacancy might only come up every quarter-century, and if she didn't grab it now, it might never come again. 'The Trust has a very powerful ethos, but sometimes I think it can be seen as very removed from ordinary people,' she says.
The National Trust is a big business. It was set up in 1895 by three Victorian philanthropists as a way of preserving old, historic buildings, and it has grown into one of the most powerful organisations in the country.
Its greatest period of expansion came in the post-war period when the crippling death duties imposed on the aristocracy by Labour governments meant leaving houses to the Trust was the only way that old landed estates could survive. It now owns more than 200 stately homes, nearly 50 historic monuments, looks after 600 miles of coastline, and owns more than 600,000 acres of farmland (making it the UK's second-biggest landowner after the Queen). It has nearly three million members, and employs more than 4,000 staff. All of which suggests it must have been doing something right.
The new boss is seldom a popular figure in any organisation. When she comes with an agenda to blow away the cobwebs and the dust, she can expect the corridors to be thick with spite and bile. 'The National Trust is a very tweedy sort of place,' says a staffer at a different heritage body. 'They have a very set way of doing things, and they don't like to see that changed. She hasn't really been popular in her first year.' Moving the headquarters to Swindon has not helped her win over the staff either - although that decision was made before she arrived.
Reynolds set out her agenda in her first speech as director-general. 'The familiar view of the Trust is as a body concerned with the preservation and protection of the countryside and historic houses,' she argued. 'But in fact we are concerned with a more human and personal interpretation of our cultural heritage - acknowledging the contribution of below-stairs life in grand country houses; the back-to-backs in Birmingham, and the Workhouse in Nottingham.'
Not everyone thinks that is what she should be doing. According to Country Life's Aslet, there has been a groundswell of opposition since she arrived at the National Trust. 'There is a lot of whispering going on in certain quarters,' he says. 'Quite a few people are mortified by what she is doing.
'Fiona has come at the National Trust from a very different angle, and she doesn't have a huge academic knowledge of historic buildings,' he elaborates. 'She is very politically correct and very Blairite, and I think a lot of people were afraid she was just going to concentrate on a sort of 1970s sub-Marxist interpretation, that all that mattered was what was happening below stairs.'
Lord John Patten, the former Conservative education minister, has been arguing in the House of Lords that the Trust should be broken up into a series of regional trusts. His point is that it has become too monolithic and too remote from the communities it serves. Every Trust property offers a similar experience - they are McStatelyHomes. 'The National Trust has become too big by far,' adds Patten. 'It is like one of the old nationalised industries. It has become aloof, and bureaucratic and distant from its members.'
Since raising these issues, he says, he has been flooded by letters from Trust tenants complaining of high-handed treatment and that the Trust never listens to them. So far as he can see, it escapes accountability and scrutiny. 'The way that it is run reeks of a self-perpetuating oligarchy.'
It doesn't help that Reynolds is associated with the Labour Party. The New Labour tag, like most media labels, is not completely fair: after all, she has spent as much time opposing this Government as supporting it. Yet there is something very Blairish about Reynolds. It consists of two qualities, both of which she might well have learned from the prime minister. One is her ability to believe in two contradictory things at the same time. So she supports modernity, but also tradition. Change and continuity. The countryside and the town. The past and the future, and so on. If she could be 'tough on old building falling down, and tough on the causes of old buildings falling down', she no doubt would be.
The other is her relentless inclusiveness. For her, the National Trust is a big, big tent, a ship that just about everyone can climb aboard. Just as Blair can't really think of anyone who couldn't be a New Labour supporter (witness his decision to accept a big donation from the pornographer Richard Desmond), so Reynolds can't really think of a building that might not one day belong to the National Trust.
We were talking about the Trust buying Paul McCartney's old house in Liverpool, and the policy of restoring old Victorian workhouses and opening them to the public. She defends those decisions admirably. But, I wonder, where does she draw the line. What would make her stop and say: 'No, that's silly, we can't buy that, it just not a National Trust property.' Where's that boundary?
'Well, I don't think you can do that,' she replies. 'The biggest test is whether something is going to stand the test of time, and whether it is going to remain of historic interest. We don't have some huge pile of money that we go out and spend. We have to be convinced that it's important.'
The English, when they argue about themselves, usually frame the argument in historical terms. We debate where we have come from as a way of disagreeing about where we are going. That is why history is always the most politicised of subjects.
But our interpretation of what history is and what our culture is constantly changes, and Reynolds is alive to that debate, well aware that museums can themselves become museum pieces if they don't change with the times. From the 1960s onwards, social history has moved into the mainstream. Only the most diehard reactionaries still suppose that the servants' quarters are not an interesting part of a stately home, that a workhouse isn't part of our heritage, or that Paul McCartney's birthplace isn't a historical building. Every generation has its own slant on history, and the Trust needs to reflect that. 'I want to be able to show people what we are doing on the ground, from helping people develop new skills to supporting farmers, and giving a fantastic day out,' she says. 'That's why I'm keen that we tell the stories of the servants, farm workers and gardeners as well as the great families.
'Below-stairs history is proving quite a draw for visitors, especially to properties such as Petworth, where people can see the servants' quarters,' she adds. 'McCartney's former home, 20 Forthlin Road, is unique, not only for being the birthplace of much of the music of the Beatles, but as an insight into 1950s social housing.'
The nature of the Trust has also changed. It might have been established to preserve estates that would have been destroyed by death duties, but history and culture are now big business. History books top the best-seller lists, and donnish historians stride across our television screens. Nobody goes broke preserving the past any more. Some great family houses such as Chatsworth have gone into business for themselves, and done a roaring trade.
But the Trust has been slow to capitalise on those opportunities. True, it shifts a lot of tea towels. But it has not used its land to expand into organic branded food, as the Duchy of Lancaster has done, for example, with its Duchy Original bacon and sausages. It has only just started opening upmarket restaurants on its properties - there are two so far and Reynolds plans more - despite fabulous locations and the highly trusted brand name.
'Our biggest aim right now is to increase the membership,' she says. 'We need to find new ways of maximising revenues because that is the only way we can afford to preserve more buildings.'
Last year, the Trust recorded a deficit of more than pounds 4 million, due to shutting up in the foot-and-mouth crisis but also to competition for tourist money. Reynolds is acutely aware she has to get revenues up, yet she has no commercial experience to draw on.
She is more interested in policy than money. Her biggest initiative has been focusing more on farming and the Trust as a landowner. 'Farmers already have skills in producing food,' she says. 'But if they are going to be more responsive to consumers, they will have to develop new skills.' This stand on rural issues and her determination to make the Trust as much about preserving the rural landscape as stately homes have won her many friends among landowners and farmers. Alan Woods, director of strategy at the Country Land and Business Association, says: 'We deal with the Trust on the key policy issues affecting those who earn their livelihoods in the countryside, and we particularly value the lead that it gives to other land managers by demonstrating good practice in providing a countryside rich in wildlife, heritage features, landscape beauty and recreational opportunities.'
But Reynolds is likely to remain a controversial figure. The Trust needs to change if it is to stay relevant, yet by its nature it attracts staff and members who temperamentally like to keep things as they are, and they will resist reform. It needs to find answers to the criticism that it is too big and too remote.
None of that will be easy.
Reynolds brings to the task wide experience of lobbying and networking, but she has never run a big organisation before. 'I don't believe I have a monopoly of wisdom,' she remarks. 'We have a lot of frank internal discussions, and I don't always win them.'
The chances are she wins most, however. In the end, Reynolds is a radical who is also a small-c conservative. And what could be more traditionally English than that. If she wasn't already theirs, the National Trust would probably buy her.
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