In January 2013, I sat down with Ben Cowell in his final weeks as Deputy Director of External Affairs to look back over his time in External Affairs and see what he will be getting up to in his new role, as Regional Director of the East of England.
Firstly, let’s have a look back at your time as Director of External Affairs.
It’s been a fascinating few years at the National Trust for me. I joined the team in late 2008, just as we were heading in to the last few years of the previous administration, and as the global financial crisis was starting to hit. The nature of external affairs has changed immeasurably over this period, both with the change of Government in May 2010 and with changes to the way politics is conducted at national, regional and local levels.
I am very proud of the influence the Trust had over important national debates over the last few years. We have played our part in debates about forests, natural environment, heritage and, most recently, planning.
In my mind, the External Affairs team at the Trust is the bit of the organisation that helps to remind everyone about the Trust’s cause. One of our founders and our first Chairman, Sir Robert Hunter, wrote in 1897 of the need for the Trust to ‘bring its influence to bear’ – and not just on those places that the Trust owned and managed. His view of the Trust was as an organisation that stood up for special places everywhere, and did so by itself or working in partnership with others. The Trust has moved on considerably since 1897 of course, but that campaigning spirit is still very much alive, not least in the External Affairs team!
Now for a little bit about your new role…
My new role is as Director of the East of England Region, which means I am responsible for an area that stretches from Norfolk to Hertfordshire, and including Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. The role will involve being the leader for the entire region and a lot more operational work. I will be directly responsible for delivering on a range of performance indicators, from financial, to conservation, to measures of how well we are delivering fantastic visitor experiences.
In many ways I am most looking forward to the operational aspect of my new job: getting to grips with the fundamentals of how the Trust funds itself and interacts with its supporters. I am also looking forward to acting as a figurehead for the Trust in the region, and getting to know and develop relationships with partners in the region. However, my first priority will be getting to know our teams at our properties and in our regional office, and finding out about how the National Trust works in the East of England.
What will be the biggest challenge for the region in 2013?
The Trust faces huge external pressures. In the East of England this includes new housing developments, including plans for entire new towns. There could be further attempts to look again at the expansion of Stansted Airport, to accommodate future increases in the number of air passengers. Coastal landscapes also face particular pressures as arising from new offshore wind developments. These pressures all present potential challenges for the National Trust, in undertaking our role looking after special places and landscapes. Hopefully with my experience of working with planning issues while in the External Affairs team I can help to navigate these debates.