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Election special: Andrew Motion quizzes the leaders

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Just before campaigning got underway in the General Election 2015, CPRE President Sir Andrew Motion asked the leaders what they love about the English countryside, and how they plan to protect it.

Sir Andrew Motion: What is your favourite countryside walk and what season would you walk it in?

Natalie Bennett: “Eynesford to Otford along the the Darent Valley Path, which has a rich history from Lullingworth Roman Villa to the still – thriving hop farm, a reminder of the East Enders’ summer working holidays. I’d walk it in early autumn, just as the leaves are turning.”

David Cameron: “I’m so lucky to live in rural West Oxfordshire. The Oxfordshire Way and the D'arcy Dalton Way are wonderful treasures which I walk a lot. Sam and I were both brought up in the countryside and I am a country boy at heart. Our neighbours are farmers and we spend time with them and the children – they love playing with the animals. The best season is definitely spring – we get stuck in and even help out with the lambing!”

Nick Clegg: “For me it has to be Stanage Edge in Derbyshire during the summer months. It’s one of the most romantic places in the world and just 15 minutes from my front door. Whenever we get the chance to visit my family and I love to walk along the edge, the old Roman Road and explore the moorlands. The views are simply stunning and the kids also enjoy spotting the Highland Cattle dotted around. I’ve also had the privilege as Deputy Prime Minister of visiting some other beautiful parts of the country…and got to visit Port Gaverne in Dan Rogerson’s constituency of North Cornwall during winter time.”

Nigel Farage: “In the Kentish North Downs where I live. Any season as long as it is raining, that way no one is around!"

Ed Miliband: “In terms of season, I don't mind so long as the sun is shining. The coastal walk near St Margaret’s at Cliffe in Dover is a personal favourite because it's great for the kids.  There's a lighthouse and a teashop both of which the kids love. Once we climbed down the steps from the top to the beach at St Margaret’s and threw pebbles into the sea with Daniel and Sam. It was freezing cold but it’s a very warm memory. It might not be the countryside strictly speaking, but Justine and I walk a lot on Hampstead Heath, which is a wonderful oasis of green in the city. And there is a lovely walk in my Doncaster North constituency around Arksey, an historic village in a beautiful setting.”


Sir Andrew Motion: What is your favourite part of rural England and why?

Natalie Bennett: “The Cornish coast around Boscastle and Tintagel. I’ve only spent one lovely week of walking holiday there, but I particularly remember an old churchyard packed with wild garlic, windswept cliffs and the isolation of Tintagel, and thinking of what it would have been like in what used to be called the Dark Ages, when an occasional trading ship, the archaeology shows, was still bring exotic objects from the far end of the Med.”

David Cameron: “Difficult to choose but I’m never happier than when I’m in Cornwall. I love the seaside. I love the landscape. The pubs, the people, the coastal paths – they’re all great. The part of the coastal path between Polzeath and Port Isaac is – in my opinion – one of the wonders of the world. I’ve been going there since I was a boy,  and it’s brilliant to see it through my children’s eyes, as Nancy, Elwen and Florence go body boarding at Polzeath and build sandcastles at Daymer Bay.”

Nick Clegg: “The Peak District without doubt! I’m lucky to have this area of outstanding natural beauty on our doorstep and take full advantage of this whenever I can. The Peak District’s landscape and wildlife gives you real peace and tranquillity. I love exploring the villages dotted around the Peak District too like Castleton, Eyam, Hathersage and Hope where you unearth the history of the area dating back to the Norman and Roman times.”

Nigel Farage: “I am a big fan of the North Devon/Cornwall Atlantic coast. It is properly wild.”

Ed Miliband: “When I think of the countryside our wonderful coastline comes to mind first, it is breath-taking in so many places and part of our country’s identity as an island which looks outwards to the world. As well as parts of Kent, we love walking along the coast in Devon and Cornwall, which is just beautiful and very dramatic in places. Whitby on the North Yorkshire Moor is another coastal favourite.”


Andrew Motion: “Because it is so often young people who are most in tune with what really matters in life, we all – politicians included – need to pay far more attention to their hopes for the future of our country. One of the most inspirational campaigners CPRE worked with in 2014 was a 12-year-old girl called Beth who alerted us to the development threats facing her favourite countryside around Maldon in Essex (also one of my favourite places). How would your party help more young people like Beth connect with the countryside?

Natalie Bennett: “We would, as part of a far broader, less exam-focused, curriculum, ensure an increase in outdoor education and physical activity, so that children establish an early and strong relationship with their local environment. We’d aim to use planning law to ensure that everyone lives within five minutes’ walk of a green open space, and introduce a nature improvement area in every town, city and county.”

David Cameron: “Like Beth, my own children love their rural surroundings. In fact, I think Florence thinks the countryside around Chequers is her back garden! I want more children to appreciate what’s around them – the wonders of English nature and the contribution rural communities make to our country. To do this we’ve taken an important step – making food and farming part of the core school curriculum. I love the thought of children sitting at their desks, learning our land, the people who work on it, and what it produces. It will help a new generation appreciate the countryside not just as a place to play and explore, but somewhere that is vital to everyone. Local plans will help local people protect the green spaces and countryside they love best.”

Nick Clegg: “I believe passionately that everyone should grow up with access to nature, and green spaces, and this is something that we’ll be prioritising if we’re back in government after the election. We have a number of proposals to make this a reality, from planting a tree for every child born, to significantly increasing the amount of accessible green space for families to enjoy. This ranges from things like completing the coastal path and introducing a fuller ‘Right to Roam’, to five green laws that both protect nature and wildlife and clean up our air and water. As such, my ambition through these plans is that we’ll be able to hand our countryside and green spaces on to Beth’s generation, and in a better condition than when we were children.”

Nigel Farage: “I think this needs to start in the schools. We must teach children about our heritage, countryside, natural history and the farming that provides their food. Then they will start to relate to the countryside and see their place in it – and want to preserve and enhance it.”

Ed Miliband: “It’s fantastic to see young people learning about their country by learning about the countryside – and we should congratulate Beth for her campaign. My sons, Daniel and Sam, are just beginning to understand this themselves. It’s great to see them appreciating nature – finding out what things are called, what stings – and what doesn’t. I believe we need to guarantee all our young people have access to the countryside, protect our forests by keeping them in public ownership, nurture our great national parks, and conserve our unique countryside for their generation and generations to come.”


Sir Andrew Motion: Which poem or piece of music most reminds you of the English countryside and why?

Natalie Bennett: "Aemelia Lanyer’s Ode to Cooke-ham, particularly
'The trees with leaves, with fruits, with flowers clad,
Emraced each other, seeming to be glad,
Turning themselves to beauteous Canopies'
Which makes me think of an overgrown old orchard, perhaps neglected, but containing ancient varieties of fruits, rich in insect life. The poet’s biography, as the first Englishwoman to have poetry published, is also part of the attraction".

David Cameron: "Gray’s Elegy – it was my leaving present from school and it is a magical poem".

Nick Clegg: "One of my all-time favourite poems is Eternity by William Blake. The need to enjoy the ‘here and now’ is something the English countryside reminds you of every time you get a chance to immerse yourself within its natural beauty and wonder".

'He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise'.

Nigel Farage: "The Lark Ascending, the poem by George Meredith and the piece of the same name by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams was arrested in Margate, some of which is in South Thanet where I’m standing, in 1914 for jotting notes for the piece while watching fleet exercises, because a small boy who had evidently ingested ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ thought he was writing in a secret code".

Ed Miliband: "It has to be the hymn, Jerusalem.  Apart from being a great tune, it is sung at the end of our annual party conference. It carries the idea of a building a better country and making Britain a better place for all of us which really chimes with Labour’s values".


Sir Andrew Motion: "What would you most like to achieve in the next Parliament for rural England?"

Natalie Bennett: "The passing of a Nature and Wellbeing Act, using a framework and targets similar to those of the Climate Change Act, so that we recognise both the essential 'ecosystem services' that the natural world provides and the essential role its preservation and enhancement plays in human wellbeing of all kinds. And we certainly need a proper, comprehensive and well-resourced pollinator strategy".

David Cameron: "A living, working countryside, not a museum. My aim is to get rural England connected, because that is what brings jobs, growth and opportunities to these communities. We’ve already made great progress. Nearly 80 per cent of the country has access to superfast broadband – an essential utility today. I want to reach 95 per cent of homes by 2017 – and eventually the final five per cent too. We’re spending more on the railways since the Victorians. We’re investing more in our roads than we have for a generation. From the remotest moorland farm to the furthest coastal outpost, I want rural England to make the most of its incredible potential – so more businesses set up there, more tourists visit, and more of our young people find opportunities there".

Nick Clegg: "Rural England is what makes this country the envy of the world. We are privileged to have on our doorsteps areas of outstanding natural beauty brimming with wildlife and warm communities who lift your heart whenever you visit. There is no doubt that our countryside has provided wealth, health and happiness for generations of people in this country and for tourists who visit. This is why if we want our rural communities to thrive, we have to support them in keeping their vital local services and community facilities running, from schools, to public transport, local shops, post offices and pubs. Rural communities rely far more than others on public services like bus services, GP surgeries, Post Offices and village halls. So I would like to bring in a host of measures such as renewing the pledge we made in this Parliament that there will be no programme of Post Office closures in rural areas, and introducing fully-trained 'retained' police officers available to respond when needed, to increase police presence in rural communities. We would build on something called the Community Budgets model, which means that services, including nationally-run services like jobcentres and health care, could share costs and facilities to help keep rural services like GP surgeries, pharmacies and libraries open. And we would continue the fuel discount scheme for remote areas".

Nigel Farage: "We need a sensible national strategy to spread economic activity and growth across the country. Just building a lot of houses around our villages and pretending that creates jobs is absurd. We need to build better transport and communications infrastructure to enable our entrepreneurs to build world-class businesses in specialist and high-value knowledge industries, while living and working in rural areas, providing jobs for our young people, while protecting our greenbelt from overdevelopment. This is very important to UKIP, and forms the backbone of our interest in a ‘Brownfield Revolution’".

Ed Miliband: "A Labour government will be committed to working for all Britain – our villages, county towns as well as the cities. The cost-of-living crisis that has hit so many people has often affected rural communities harder than others, whether it be stagnant wages, housing shortages, inadequate transport or soaring energy costs. To help battle that we have a plan to freeze energy bills for 20 months so they can fall but not rise - and get lower prices by Christmas before resetting the market all together. This is part of a bigger plan for a prosperity which is not confined just to a few people but will benefit millions of families in rural areas. It means building more homes where communities want them, raising the minimum wage to £8 an hour, and integrating local bus and rail services".


Sir Andrew Motion: "England’s Green Belts are the envy of the world. They have prevented the urban sprawl we’ve seen in places like LA, Tokyo and Perth, while providing people in our cities with easy access to the countryside. In the past five years, more than 200,000 houses have been earmarked for Green Belt sites. What will you do make sure Green Belt protection is upheld across the country?"

Natalie Bennett: "Dealing with the housing crisis should start with bringing many of the 700,000 empty homes into use. New homes should be primarily on brownfield sites, the focus should be on social rather than mass commercial housing, and small-scale projects should be encouraged and supported, including community-led and cooperative endeavours. We’d also repeal the National Planning Policy framework and in particular its presumption in favour of development, and prohibit the destruction of unique habitats by way of 'biodiversity offsetting'".

David Cameron: "Green belt land is extremely precious. Protecting the lungs around our cities is paramount for me. I am very clear about that – as is our National Planning Policy framework.  This framework compels local councils to develop Local Plans, protecting not just the green belt but any other important areas of green space. The Local Plan sets out where things get built or not. The combination of the National Planning Policy Framework and the Local Plans provide strong protections against green belt development. Councils are exempt from meeting local housing need if constraints like green belt make it impossible. But of course there is a careful balance to be struck between protecting our green spaces and ensuring that there are homes for our young people when they grow up. I believe we can strike that balance".

Nick Clegg: "This is the reason I’m such an advocate for garden cities, because the current situation is seeing bloated towns and cities being forced to expand further bit by bit, and the green belt is being eaten away. If we accept that we need to build more homes to prevent a whole generation of people being squeezed out of the housing market, and if we accept that many of those homes need to be in the southeast, then the only sensible approach is to do it in a properly-planned, sustainable way rather than piecemeal. This approach will help protect our precious green space and prevent urban sprawl. Our plan is to build a series of high quality new towns and cities where people want to live, with green space, sustainable transport and spacious homes".

Nigel Farage: "We will replace the disastrous NPPF with new national planning policies which protect the Green Belt and prioritise building on brownfield sites. We also propose to create Rural Conservation Areas and introduce a ‘presumption in favour of conservation’".

Ed Miliband: "I’m a passionate supporter of the green belt – I believe it has served Britain well and protected beautiful parts of our countryside. National planning policy has built-in protection for the green belt and the natural environment, and we will not change that. When there is a clear housing need, any final decision about building on any part of it should rest with local communities - not with politicians in Westminster".


Sir Andrew Motion: "Would you agree with me that one of the best ways to protect the countryside is by making the most of our wasted urban spaces? If so, will your Government re-introduce a brownfield first policy in planning to save countryside and help regenerate towns and cities?"

Natalie Bennett: "Brownfield first should be the general approach, but in specific circumstances it should also be acknowledged that brownfield sites may be biologically rich and diverse, and provide easy access to nature for urban-dwellers".

David Cameron: "I do agree we should look to wasted urban spaces first– and that is our policy. Our national planning guidance and framework, which sets out the rules in this area, is very clear on that point".

Nick Clegg: "It makes sense that we should minimise the damage to the environment as much as we can by re-using previously developed sites which have fallen into disuse wherever possible. So yes, we would certainly prioritise development on brownfield and town centre sites through national planning policy".

Nigel Farage: "There is room for up to 2.5m homes on brownfield sites, but developers simply find it easier, and cheaper, to use greenfield land. We will create a National Brownfield Register and incentivise developers to use it. We want a brownfield boom".

Ed Miliband: "Yes. If I’m elected Prime Minister, my government will strengthen the 'brownfield first' policy which has been watered down by the current government. It makes sense: brownfield sites are often better connected to existing infrastructure and there is a strong public preference to make the most of previously developed land for housing. This means that our countryside will be protected while we solve our country’s housing crisis".


Find out more:

Read Sir Andrew's analysis of the leaders' answers.

Read CPRE's election manifesto Stand up for the Countryside and find out the latest election news here

England's Green Belts are the envy of the world. What will you do to make sure their protection is upheld around the country?




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