THE timing couldn’t be better. As the National Trust leads a fight to save Britain’s countryside, its membership has topped four million. How easily will the Government be able to ignore the world’s largest conservation body, outnumbering all Britain’s political parties combined by almost four-to-one?

Probably very easily, for democracy and public opinion counts for little in Britain.

David Cameron unwittingly confirmed this the other day with a revealing remark about our EU membership.

He said: “It is not our view that there should be an in or out referendum. I don’t want Britain to leave the EU.”

Obviously, he knows a referendum would want us out. So he denies us one.

The Government’s plan for the countryside, creating a presumption in favour of “sustainable” development outside specially protected areas like national parks, equally flies in the face of what people want.

The strong reaction against the proposal rests on a deep national affection for the countryside. During the Second World War this was heavily exploited. A poster picturing a family silhouetted on swelling downland bore the message: “It’s your country.

Fight for it now.”

Though Conservatives like to think of themselves as the party of the countryside, it was Labour who halted random development by establishing the planning system in 1947.

The present Government’s intention largely to abandon it seems motivated solely by their desperation to kick-start growth – a priceless heritage sacrificed for uncertain short-term gain.

Ministers parrot assurances that areas like green belts and the National Parks will remain protected.

But the National Trust, backed by not only obvious allies like the Council for the Protection of Rural England, but the RSPB and the Royal Town Planning Institute, has exposed the massive flaw. As Dame Fiona Reynolds, the trust’s director, says: “For many people it is the places on their doorstep that are threatened – the ordinary yet special places that people hugely value.”

The blight of wind farms, imposed almost always against local opinion, shows that even the present system is imperfect.

It’s 12 years since Simon Jenkins, current chairman of the National Trust, noted, in his glorious book England’s Thousand Best Churches, the “virtual collapse of rural planning”.

The Government’s plans spell catastrophe for the countryside. Already blurred by retail parks and industrial estates, the distinction between town and country will disappear.

Outside a few elite landscapes the immeasurable physical, mental and spiritual refreshment provided by open countryside, even of modest scenic quality, will be lost.

May the National Trust, through its four million members and its respected allies, avert this tragedy.

PETER BARRON, editor of The Northern Echo, is far too modest to tell you how he raised the roof at Mike Amos’ farewell bash. There was a huge gale of laughter when he told the assembled guests, in Sedgefield’s well-appointed Hardwick Hall hotel, that he intended to “pay tribute to Mike on behalf of all the editors he has worked for.

WT Stead…” (And if you don’t know that Stead went down with the Titanic you must be a new reader. Welcome.)