The National Trust's departing director-general talks to Andy Hillier about charity independence, political impartiality and her battle with the government over planning reforms
Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, is in good spirits. The trust, with other leading countryside charities, has recently fought and won a very public battle with the government over its planning reforms.
In March, she also announced that she would leave the trust later this year after more than 11 years as director-general to become the first female Master of Emmanuel College at Cambridge University, a post she will take up in September 2013.
Reynolds personally led the campaign against the government's planning proposals, which countryside campaigners feared would be a "developers' charter". The revised proposals have been greeted warmly by backers of the campaign, but it brought the trust into direct conflict with ministers, including the communities secretary, Eric Pickles.
Reynolds believes the new slimline planning guidance published in March - just over 50 pages, compared with 1,000 pages previously - contains some important changes from the draft version. The "very provocative" default position of saying yes to developments has gone, she says, and there's more recognition of the "intrinsic value of the countryside".
But governments tend not to forget organisations that challenge them publicly, so could the victory ultimately prove detrimental to the trust? Reynolds doesn't think so.
"It was a very provocative document that was published by the government at first," she says. "I don't think it was very surprised when it caused public concern. Indeed, many members of the Conservative Party were among the most vociferous opponents of the draft because they are rural dwellers who feel passionately about our countryside."
She says both sides need to move on and she doesn't think her successor will have to rebuild the trust's relationship with government. "If relationships have to be rebuilt, they're already being rebuilt on the back of recent announcements," she says. "I don't think the government will hold grudges."
In nearly 12 years in charge, Reynolds has overseen a transformation of the trust. It now has an all-time high membership of four million people, compared with 2.6 million when she joined in 2000, and last year generated an income of £412.9m, up from £192.2m before her tenure. The number of visitors has risen from 10 million in 2000 to 17.7 million today.
She has been accused of the 'Disneyfication' of trust properties by making the visitor experience less formal - but she is unapologetic about this. "We have learned from Disney about the warmth of the welcome and the experience people want," she says. "The days of people walking around reverentially with guide books have gone. They want to understand the stories and hear the quirkier aspects of the properties."
The conversion of British Waterways into the Canal & River Trust later this summer will create another charity monolith in the heritage sector. Like the National Trust, the Canal & River Trust will need to attract thousands of volunteers and public donations to make its work viable.
"We don't see it as a threat," says Reynolds. "In fact, we're delighted that it is developing a viable proposition to protect the future of the canals and waterways."
She doesn't believe that the waterways charity will tempt away significant numbers of the National Trust's 62,000 volunteers: "I don't think that there's just one pool of volunteers."
The announcement of her departure at the beginning of March was not influenced by her recent battles with government, she says. "I will have been here 12 years in November, and any chief executive should feel that a 10 or 12-year horizon is about right," she says.
Reynolds says her decision to step down was influenced by the fact that membership of the trust continues to increase apace and the organisation is generally in rude health. "The moment for a chief executive to move on is when the organisation is strong," she says.
She will remain at the trust until her successor is in place, then take some time to write a book about her experiences in the job. She has also been appointed to the board of the BBC, which she says could be the start of a "portfolio lifestyle".
Reynolds was dubbed a "Blair Babe" by the tabloid press when she joined the trust after almost two years as director of the Women's Unit in the Cabinet Office. So would she accept a peerage if it were offered by the Labour Party?
"It's not relevant," she says. "I have worked in the charity sector for the past 30 years and I've never joined a political party or shown any political bias. In the charity world, political neutrality is really important."
2000: Director-general, National Trust
1998: Director, Women's Unit, Cabinet Office
1992: Director, Council for the Protection of Rural England
1987: Assistant director (policy), Council for the Protection of Rural England
1980: Secretary, Council for National Parks