Ladies and gentlemen, I must confess that I had somehow imagined that I was coming to a rather small and intimate gathering, but I have been rather mistaken and have discovered that it is much larger than I thought, and nor was I expecting quite so many eminent property developers and architects and builders. But it is very encouraging to see so many of you, and to have had a chance to see a few anyway of the exhibits. There is never enough time on these occasions but at least I have had a glimpse. I am also very impressed, if I may say so, by the restoration work and the conversion work that has gone on on this building. I think that it really is very impressive indeed. I am not too sure about the acoustics, but still...
But ladies and gentlemen, independent charitable bodies like the Trust do not usually get involved in the daunting business of mounting exhibitions: but having done it to celebrate their 30th year in 1987, they realised that there really was no other forum or focus for all those involved in creating a quality built environment to come together and show some of the best that is being achieved.
The Civic Trust itself has of course been promoting quality in the built environment for many years and in a variety of ways.
Two years ago at the first exhibition, the Trust unveiled a new Regeneration Unit, whose purpose is to restore life to communities laid waste by economic and social change. It had the aim of building on the Trust's experience, particularly in Wirksworth and Halifax. Any of you who have seen what has been achieved in those two very different places - and I was in Wirksworth earlier this week in the snow - will know as I do that a community-based approach, sensitive to the environment, can have remarkable results - physically and economically.
The Unit is now working in nearly 20 locations in England and bidding soon to extend into Wales and Northern Ireland. I am particularly pleased to say that there is to be a Trust follow-up to their original initiative with a call to action by others in the form of - a Regeneration Campaign. I should mention that the Unit and its campaign have secured the generous sponsorship of Grand Metropolitan, for which everyone in the Civic Trust is immensely grateful.
The campaign will be launched formally in September, but I can say now that the aim is to set up more than 100 projects over the next five years.
BiC and Groundwork are working with the Civic Trust to put the campaign together, but I do hope it will draw in bodies of all kinds because the need for it is evident. If we were dropped blindfolded into the heart of any British village and had the blindfold removed, would you know where you were? Once not long ago you could have recognised the region from the distinctive local materials. The beauty and variety of those materials is breathtaking - flint in Norfolk, timber in Kent, limestone in Northumberland, cob and thatch in Devon and so on ad infinitum.
This is part of our architectural inheritance. "And we", as William Morris said, "are its trustees for those who come after us". Compton Martin, Castle Rising, Kilpeck - Ryme Intrinsica, Winterborne Basset and Widecombe in the Moor conjure up an archetypal picture of village life.
The buildings they constructed then were built well and built to last. The stone masons, the bricklayers and the carpenters were building for their sons and their successive generations. They were building with purpose and love and, above all, with pride.
So if we are to build a better Britain - if we are to leave anything of lasting beauty for our children to be proud of - we must search out that quality which our forebears knew so well.
There are builders all over the country who knew about that quality, especially family firms where skills have been passed from father to son. There are bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers who are every bit as skilful as those of past generations, but who are seldom asked to deviate from the norm.
The norm is what we see in ever increasing numbers on the edges of our precious villages, or squashed like bad sets of irregular teeth between the cottage and the school.
If we are to build a better Britain, which so many people seem to want, then we need to seek inspiration from the intuitive ability of our forebears to build in harmony with their surroundings and to express the essence of their humanity through the design and layout of their dwellings and public buildings - thereby creating a true sense of community and, above all, of belonging.
We all know the type of developer who has no real interest in the lives of our villages or towns, except for the profit they might engender; he was not born in Snettisham or Gittisham or Slad. He probably buys up the land at the back of the school playground and next to the 1930s council houses. He then applies for planning permission for 25 houses. He does not notice the gentle curve and winding of the street which follows the contour of the land, but sets his houses down in all directions.
The village is then up in arms, planning permission turned down. Such is the system that this makes little difference. He will appeal and re-appeal because he can afford to. Eventually, the houses will come. The designers of them will doubtless make a gesture towards the local styles and materials in order to appease the conservationists - what more do they want, once they've got their pantiles and Georgian fanlights? But the details are just wrong; the eaves are too mean or the building manual which was consulted has come up with windows of the wrong proportions and, where are the chimneys? Is nobody ever going to burn a fire again? Perhaps...
These important considerations may not concern the developer and, anyway, he has doubtless already moved on and is appealing on another site. Now this new estate could be anywhere in England, for the materials used are universal. But let us not be too gloomy, we have got it in us to build well, as I've seen in several places all over Britain. We must demand nothing less than this high standard if our future villages and towns are to remain as beautiful and as socially cohesive as many of them still are.
I need hardly say that there are many lessons from which we, and others, can learn. We in this country are painfully aware of the trauma caused by uprooting traditional communities at the behest of 'benevolent', know-all planners. We hope that we have learned something from such an experience. That process should have made us, therefore, all the more sensitive to the awful spectre of an entire society - not just certain districts - losing its roots and its ancient communities, which is what is happening today in a corner of Eastern Europe, in a country called Romania.
There, President Ceaucescu has embarked on the wholesale destruction of his country's cultural and human heritage.
What happened here in the 1960s is, of course, not comparable with the policy known as 'systematization' which aims to transform Romania's rural environment into over 500 urban collectives designated as 'agro-industrial complexes'. The object, which is very interesting, is to reshape the nation's identity, to create a new type of person, utterly subordinate to its dreams. To achieve this, President Ceaucescu has set about destroying the cities and villages of his country and replacing them with blocks of flats which are a repetition of failed 1960s social engineering, mixed with the atmosphere of George Orwell's '1984'.
(Let me just emphasise here, for the benefit of those who specialise in making headlines from the most unlikely sources, that I am not comparing Romania in some way with Great Britain.)
To achieve this plan, some 8,000 villages could be demolished, together with churches, ancestral graveyards and every connection with the rural people's past.
In this regard, I am aware of, and support, the moves made both by the British Government and its European partners to bring pressure to bear on the Romanian Government to reverse its policies. Now the 20th century has witnessed some strange aberrations of the human spirit, but few can match the activities of rulers who boast about their patriotism, and then systematically undertake the destruction of the cultural heritage of their people. The extraordinary cultural diversity of Romania is not only part of her natural wealth but a possession of inestimable value to all of humanity.
It is difficult, I find, to remain silent as the peasant traditions and ancient buildings of a fellow European society are bulldozed to make way for a uniform and deathly mock-modernity. Believe it or not, I have a small personal share in this unfolding tragedy because the tomb of my great great, great grandmother - Claudina, Countess Rhedey, who was my great grandmother, Queen Mary's, grandmother, and Hungarian - is in the village of Singiorge de Padure and threatened with demolition.
Imagine the horror of your entire ancestral community being levelled in front of your eyes - including buildings dating from the Middle Ages - or of the centres of ancient towns with their monuments, churches, monasteries swept away regardless of architectural merit, religious significance or symbolic importance to the Romanian people. The appalling human tragedy has been eloquently expressed in an open letter to the Romanian President which was published in this country.
And it is worth listening to because, apart from anything else, it sums up what should lie at the heart, at the very heart of our aim to build a better Britain and, above all, to build communities with a soul. This is what the letter says:
'We call on you to stop the demolition of the country's villages. Driving people from their ancestral settlements where they have a purpose, where they have houses built to meet the needs of life and labour, is a sacrilege. The peasant house is identified with the soul of its builder. By striking at the peasant house, by replacing it with a poky flat in a tower-block, you strike not only at the soul of the people but also at the patrimony which belongs to all mankind.'
Ladies and gentlemen, clearly what they need in Romania is a Civic Trust! It gives me great pleasure to declare this exhibition open.