September the 8th, 2009
The closure of the Civic Trust after half a century of campaigning for quality places shocked groups across the land but now the civic amenity movement is fighting back, says Huw Morris
Fiona Reynolds was attending an all-day meeting at DEFRA in April when she heard the news. After 52 years of campaigning work to improve public spaces, preserve local heritage sites and encourage people-friendly buildings, the Civic Trust had gone into administration. Suddenly, around 1,000 organisations and 250,000 individual members had lost their national voice. "I thought: 'This can't happen,'" recalls the National Trust secretary-general. "It was one of those defining moments when we all thought we could do something."
The trust's demise prompted an extraordinary tide of support. Pract¬ical offers flooded in from professional bodies, local authorities and 500 civic groups. The outcome was unveiled last week in London's Covent Garden. The Civic Societies Initiative aims to take up where the trust left off, working with local and community groups to develop a national champion for the movement.
Funded and supported by the National Trust, the initiative will receive in-kind support and office accommodation in London and Liverpool from the Campaign to Protect Rural England and RIB A. The North of England Civic Trust is providing a charitable home to receive funds and provide governance, while Blackpool Council and Blackpool Civic Trust are to hold a convention in October.
The initiative is headed by former National Trust strategy and external affairs director Tony Burton. "This is a new chapter in the story of civic societies," he says. "Communities have lost trust in the institutions that make decisions on their behalf. Politicians talk of devolution and empowering communities. Civic societies do this on a daily basis. It was the risk of losing that movement that led to such a groundswell of interest and enthusiasm."
Covent Garden was a particularly apt venue for announcing the new champion. This central London showpiece would not exist had it not been for a public outcry in the 1970s over plans for a six-lane highway. Its status was preserved in 1973 when home secretary Robert Carr listed 250 buil¬dings to block redevelopment.
Without the trust, much of Whitehall would also have been flattened and Piccadilly Circus would resemble something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Civic societies also fought vanguard actions in historic towns from Bath to Berwick-on-Tweed, Chester and York. The movement was the midwife of the Lee Valley Regional Park, heritage open days, conservation areas, Environment Week and much more.
The initiative has given itself a 12-month deadline to provide a national voice for civic societies. According to Burton, three things are already clear. The movement needs an independent champion, it needs to be supported as a network where the voice of individual societies can be strengthened and its future needs to be rooted in what the societies want because they will have to drive the initiative forward.
The initial outcome will be a set of proposals covering the organisation's name, values, funding and governance as well as a three to five-year plan. "We will be talking to activists, societies and community groups," says Burton. "The focus will be on the grass roots, what will help the movement do its work better, what is important to local communities and how they can coalesce to speak at a regional or national level."
The movement has recruited TV presenter Griff Rhys Jones to lead an appeal for a £50,000 immediate fighting fund. "Once we have that ir place we can think big," Burton says The Civic Trust awards, which have honoured more than 5,500 buildings since 1959, are in the hands of the administrators. But he is convinced that "celebrating quality will be part of the future".
Also on the list of objectives is i close look at the movement's relationship with the DCLG and planning "Civic societies are one of the mos1 significant contributors to the plan¬ning process," says Burton. "It is important that we make planning mort accountable so solutions are driver by communities rather than some force bearing down on sensitive places where people live and work."
Laura Sandys, daughter of Civic Trust founder Duncan Sandys, notes that it was formed at "a seminal moment for town planning". She expects a reinvigorated movement to emerge from its ruins: "This economic situation encourages people to take short cuts. Sustainable solutions may not always be cheaper, but they are usually better in the long term." •