The trust reportedly failed because it had become dependent on programme funding, and went under when it lost a substantial contract. An attempt is now under way to create a new and more influential organisation to lead the societies, but what support they need remains unclear.
Tony Burton, the former Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) planning director who followed his boss into the National Trust, has been given resources by both those bodies to leave the trust and start an organisation to "provide a voice" for the 1,000 or so civic societies in England. His plan to generate a debate about how a Civic Society Initiative (CSI) might serve the societies' interests bore fruit last week in a discussion document on the future of the civic society movement.
Own the Future records an "overwhelming demand" for a national body to "champion" the movement and identifies a range of relevant tasks. These include giving support and advice to the affiliated societies, boosting networks of societies and being the movement's national leader by providing inspiration, direction, lobbying and campaigning, so raising its profile and influence.
There is, the report admits, uncertainty about which role should have priority and a huge unresolved question about funding the operation. The unwillingness of the societies in the past to support the trust more generously, and therefore receive a more substantial service, suggests that it will take a lot to persuade them to support the CSI through the proposed per capita charge on society membership.
The problem with central leadership is that, unlike the effective CPRE model, civic societies are not branches of a bigger entity and are already precisely those independent, bottom-up, locally based groups that the CSI campaign ostensibly supports. While on their own admission many could do with serious revitalisation, joining a collective of the kind envisaged could be problematic unless strictly limited to background support.
There is a strong organisational case against anything more, although the ideological antecedents of the initiative, out of the CPRE through the recently transformed National Trust, have not escaped notice. Civic societies will be wary of falling prey to any opportunistic attempt to represent their diverse interests through unified policy campaigning that may not speak to their particular urban condition.