Sir Andrew Motion's address to CPRE's 2013 AGM on his first year as President and the threats facing the countryside.
Larkin was right: we risk destroying England
"I’d like to begin by thanking CPRE for giving me the chance to become a campaigner. My last two jobs have relied upon tact and decorum, so it has been wonderful to be able to climb onto the barricades and fight for a cause I believe in so deeply.
I mean: being President of CPRE has been a way for me to connect things that are primitively important to me, and to join with you in confronting some of the huge problems facing our environment and our society. In particular, I’m glad to stand shoulder to shoulder in the struggle to prevent the needless smearing of concrete across our irreplaceable countryside, and so to compromise the green belt in a misguided attempt to kick-start the economy. I have relished the chance to speak out about this – in my own person and for you, the volunteers and members who are the bedrock of all CPRE’s successes. I do my best to express your skilful arguments and channel your passion, to make the Government listen and to raise the profile of CPRE with the public.
A year ago I thought most of my CPRE time would be spent arguing on behalf of the campaigns we already had running, and to add a conversation about access – the need to need to involve more young people in our work. And I have spent a good deal of time with such things. But there are always ‘events, dear boy, events’, as Harold Macmillan famously said – and in this same year the reasons to speak up for the green belt have become more and more urgent. I dare say Shaun and others in our head office sometimes think I go too far. One of my predecessors in this role of President, Sir Max Hastings, wrote for instance that I’d called Nick Boles, ‘Mr Concrete’. But I can assure him I didn’t. I called him ‘Boles the Builder’ – a phrase I borrowed from Charles Clover – because it allowed me to keep the poetry-writing side of me happy by using the good old fashioned rhetorical device of alliteration. Besides, it’s hardly a novelty for CPRE to be forthright. On Bill Bryson’s watch members of the CPRE were once referred to as ‘environmental Taliban’.
Be that as it may: some of the things we’ve heard from Ministers in my first year have been pretty astonishing.
Nick Boles, first:
The Planning Minister has spoken eloquently at times, and today, on the need to protect the Green Belt and to build more affordable and better quality housing. But in denying the potential of brownfield sites, and refusing to acknowledge their great suitability for the kind of housing we most need (not ranch-style homes in green places, which maximise developer’s profits, but smaller-scale projects for those getting their first feet on the property ladder, and couples later in life) he does a great harm.
He leapfrogs brownfield sites and lands with a bricky crunch in the open countryside.
He speaks up for green field housing estates rather than the green fields themselves.
He says another 2-3% of the countryside could be built with no great loss. An area of land two and a half times the size of Greater London? No great loss?
He even justifies tacking 7,000 green field homes onto Grantham as the only way to get a John Lewis in the town.
Now Michael Gove:
I greatly admire Michael Gove for his staunch support of poetry in schools, and I’m deeply grateful to him for his support of my Poetry by Heart scheme. But I was dismayed to read him saying that critics of the Government’s planning reforms cannot believe in social mobility. Shaun was absolutely right to reply that people who fight to protect the countryside are ‘community heroes’, not obstacles to progress. Furthermore, I have yet to hear of a CPRE objection to these reforms that simply pleads for the status quo to be maintained, and doesn’t instead advocate an alternative solution which is more beneficial and less damaging for local people. The opposite of what Michael Gove said is in fact the truth of the matter. Building housing estates on open countryside is terrible for social mobility – for the simple reason that it puts people further away from jobs and services and makes them dependent on cars. And the housing itself is rarely genuinely affordable.
Now George Osborne:
The Chancellor had insisted that tarmacking new roads across priceless landscapes is the best way to achieve growth. Really? How about re-routing that money to repair the many existing roads that are presently falling to bits. We welcome today's announcement of £10 billion for these repairs - but this was dwarfed by £18 billion for major road building. First they came for Combe Haven, now they're dreaming up a South Downs motorway - what a way to treat our newest National Park. Elsewhere we find Mr Osborne saying that local councils should be able to ‘swap’ bits of Green Belt like carbon emission quotas – an idea that would be chaotic and catastrophic for everyone – except presumably developers. The whole point of Green Belts , Chancellor, is their permanence!
Now Nick Clegg:
The Deputy Prime Minister has spoken of the need to fling new ‘garden cities’ across an arc of countryside from Oxford to Cambridge. He seems to think that by putting new Green Belts around these new towns, they will magically become ‘sustainable’. But Mr Clegg: a new town on a greenfield sites is not a sustainable development – it is a wilful act of sabotage, and a gross kind of neglect, since we have large areas of our existing towns and cities in desperate need of regeneration. As the architecture writer Jonathan Glancey told CPRE: “We should be giving our existing cities a shot in the arm, and only consider building new settlements when they can be self-sufficient and have the potential for a character of their own – not as some instant policy hit to solve ‘housing crises’.”
Now Eric Pickles:
In this case there seems at first to be better news. In a number of planning decisions, Eric Pickles has spoken up for the Green Belt as a way of preventing urban sprawl. At the Conservative party conference, for instance, he pledged his party would protect Green Belts – prompted, no doubt, by 6,000 emails from CPRE activists (something that his cabinet colleague Owen Paterson might have regarded as a cyber-attack). But here the better news runs out, because the reality that has flowed from this rhetoric is often so disappointing. Many of you here in this room know this as well as I do, having helped in the preparation of our report last August, which identified plans for green belt developments totalling 80,000 houses.
Working with the Government
Having laid all these charges, and remembered all these dismal pronouncements, I want to insist the CPRE doesn’t enjoy whinging, and can’t be dismissed as a bunch of nimby reactionaries. On the contrary: our history tells a story of constructive debate. We don’t want to be constantly loggerheads with Ministers. We want to work with them to find common ground. And we want to work with politicians from all parties to reverse the gradual erosion of planning and local government which Sir Max Hastings rightly pointed out has been a bi-partisan process – we all remember John Prescott’s ‘Sustainable Communities’ and ‘Eco-towns’.
The fact that Nick Boles came to talk to us today is encouraging – isn’t it? Brave, anyway. Or perhaps he’s aware that the planning ministers who work with CPRE tend to end up as Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain helped found our organisation in 1926 and soon appointed members of the CPRE executive to act as official advisors on the design of rural buildings. As Prime Minister, he appointed our representatives to be consultant in siting aerodromes and arms factories in 1939, so that what would become England’s National Parks would not be built on in the hurried preparations for war.
And this narrative of co-operation goes on. As Housing Minister with responsibility for planning, Harold Macmillan was a keen advocate of the planning system and worked closely with CPRE to ensure his new towns avoided the best farmland. When Macmillan spoke to our AGM 59 years ago, he pledged that the planning system would never be “subordinated to the need for budgetary economy,” saying that "if, in a period of national stringency good planning is sacrificed merely on financial grounds, it will probably never be regained”.
In his closing statement to that AGM Macmillan said “The main battle of CPRE has been won after a very long fight - planning has now become respectable. There is a general acceptance that in so small an island one cannot allow the complete individual freedom which might have been possible in more primitive days."
There are clearly lessons the present Government could learn from this. Easy lessons. Yet it seems we must fight the battle to make planning respectable all over again. Our project called ‘Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning’ has shown how it might be done, by working effectively with Government departments. Because so many of your branches took part, holding workshops and training events, the project was a great success. We’ve shown hundreds of community groups how they can get involved with the planning system to improve their areas. And I think we allayed any fears that taking a grant from the Department for Communities would stop us challenging their Ministers.
I’m sure there is scope for CPRE to work with that department again on a project of similar ambition. And while I strike this hopeful note, let me add that I’m particularly keen for CPRE to work with the Government on a nationwide project to identify the brownfield sites that are most suitable for regeneration, and then help prioritise their development. CPRE Cambridgeshire & Peterborough have led the way with their support for a really sustainable community on the Alconbury airfield site. I’m sure every branch knows of a similar site which could help solve local housing needs and take pressure of green fields. CPRE can help the Government link up with architects, housebuilders and the remediation industry to get these sites taken seriously again.
Together, we need to ‘unblock’ the problems with the more difficult brownfield sites which see them labelled as ‘unviable’. It is simply bad for the future of our countryside to allow these sites to fester in neglect. Bad for the countryside, and bad for the country.
The work of CPRE's volunteers
If I had more time to speak to you, I’d want at this point to say something about CPRE’s year. But since Shaun has already covered much of the ground I might have crossed myself, I’ll pass on now to say something about the work of our local branches, and the outstanding work done by our volunteers and campaigners. I’d always known that CPRE was a grassroots organisation, and liked it very much for that reason. But I’ve been amazed at the range of activity and the tenacity of the campaigning that goes on at our branches and district groups. As well the richly-deserving Marsh Awards winners we met earlier, I can see there are already dozens of candidates for next year’s awards. Indeed, it’s worth emphasising that every year we’d offer many more prizes if we could, because in any given year it’s very difficult to single out a select few from what is always such a strong field.
But CPRE campaigners, at least the ones I’ve had the pleasure to meet so far, are such modest people. They don’t shout about their achievements, and they aren’t doing what they do for personal recognition. They do it because they cherish the English landscape, where they plant their hopes for the future of their families and their communities. Above all I think CPRE volunteers, perhaps more than anyone, take pride in the countryside - because they have such strong connections with it, and because they know it didn’t come into existence by magic. It took thousands of years to create, and it takes thousands of their hours to defend.
I know I referred to myself as a campaigner at the start of this speech, but compared to all of you, I am just a beginner. Without your dedication to your counties and districts, the staff at National Office and I would really struggle to make our arguments convincing. Policy and campaigns only ever work with good examples of work on the ground and the constant vigilance which alerts us to the latest threats.
As a campaigning novice, I’ve been very impressed by the length of some of the campaigns which came to a successful conclusion in the last year. We’ve already heard about an extraordinary campaign by CPRE Oxfordshire - which I believe lasted 27 years. But even more usual CPRE branch campaigns seems to last a decade. A decade of hard work by CPRE in the North East to make the Tees Heritage Park happen; ten years of lobbying by CPRE Cambridgeshire to transform plans for a commercial airport at Alconbury into a plan for a sustainable community; a mere eight years for CPRE Hertfordshire to defeat a plan for a Green Belt development that just wouldn’t go away.
Which reminds me to say: that’s the most frustrating thing about planning campaigns. The bad applications keep coming back – because the powers that be rely on campaigners giving up. Terence Blacker’s summary of his battle with a wind energy developer will sound depressingly familiar to many of you: "A local council rejects an application. Their decision is supported by the Planning Inspectorate. Thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money are spent in a lengthy, careful process to get the right and just decision. The developer then makes a small adjustment and reapplies. That feels like corporate bullying, a cynical exploitation of the planning system and a war of attrition against our local community."
Thankfully the CPRE’s men and women are made of strong stuff. But acknowledging the effort this requires means I want to say how immensely grateful we are for your resilience – especially over the last couple of years, when the government seems to have reneged on or thrown out even the most basic planning principles. Their behaviour makes me even more determined that local people should have the same rights of appeal as developers, and that local decisions should be respected – not challenged repeatedly until local councils are beaten into submission. To keep going amidst such uncertainty, to remain stalwart in such face of so much pressure, is hugely inspiring and deeply appreciated. Thank you. And please, keep up the good work.
Why it all matters
Speeches on days like this tend to be like glorified school reports – and for good reasons. You want to know what we’re thinking, and what we’ve been doing, as well as feeling connected with one another. But I want to end today by moving away from processes and procedures, and trying to say something about the things that bring us here in the first place. By reminding us, in fact, why we bother. By trying to find some words for feelings we all know, but which often exist only at the level of gut instincts, and gut feelings.
Finding these words matters, because it is only through words that we make our appeals, organise our campaigns, express our principles. Our principles are fundamental in the most literal sense, because we are a species that evolved in the countryside, and only very recently adapted to living in towns. Inside us all, wherever we live, however familiar we might or might not be with the countryside, is an absolutely primal atavistic need for green places and open spaces. The more we are bombarded by the demands of modern life, the more important it becomes to enjoy peace and quiet, more darkness, more solitude, more beauty, the pleasures of uncluttered ground.
In the countryside time slows down, longer perspectives open, richer thoughts accumulate – because in the countryside we enjoy the essential things about being human; the things that link us with our better selves, and even allow us to see our less-good selves more clearly. I’m not talking here about a particular way of burying our heads in the sand – or in the grass or green leaves. I’m not talking about escapism. I’m talking about making original connections. About describing and confirming our humanity.
But precisely at the moment when we should be defending the countryside, and making it more accessible because gives us all what we need more freely than anything else under the sun – we are at grave risk of losing it.
Why is this? The charges I’ve laid against the government are the disgraceful expression of a long process. And the process begins, I think, with the way people have come to look at the countryside during the last long increasingly urbanised generation. With the way people have become cut off from the countryside and so to idealise it (if they think of it at all). With the way TV and cinema and advertisements and every other form of media you can think of produces a constant stream of chocolate box images. Images that make us feel soothed but not engaged, and that increasingly turn the countryside into a lifestyle choice - something that is nice to have, rather than something vital for our sense of self. We end up looking on anything that doesn’t live up to the cinematic ideal as being scruffy or dull. As being expendable.
Too many of us, too much of the time, have stopped looking thoughtfully at the real facts and details of landscape and instead have begun to admire it half-blindly. And although it sounds like a paradox, this way of seeing the countryside – safe, predictable, cheesily aesthetised – is adjacent to indifference. It is the reality of the landscape that allows us to understand it. The actual details. The combination of given things and worked-for things. Only once we’ve grasped this can we appreciate that when we look at the English countryside we see our great collective masterpiece. And only when we’ve grasped this can we feel that what we see is truly ours.
Plenty of sensible people say the built environment can inspire awe in just the same degree. And that is – well, it’s perfectly sensible. I’ve lived in towns for the last forty years, and I feel it myself. But I also feel that town-pleasures are different from country-pleasures in at least one fundamental way: we don’t have the same kind of species-connection with townscapes. We don’t have the DNA link. Those green fields that Nick Boles argues have less value to society than the houses he would build on them - they are the bedrock of everything. If we lose them we lose something essential to our selves.
Poets understand and have always understood what I’m trying to say here. That’s why the history of English poetry can’t easily be separated from the history of the countryside. John Clare, for instance, with his badgers and woodcock, his creepy-crawlies and his skylarks, his deep relish for the significance of the apparently insignificant thing. Alice Oswald, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie among our contemporaries. For them, the poetry of a place lies in its details, no matter how minute they might be. For us, whether we’re poets or not, the details are indispensible to our feeling of belonging.
And by details I don’t just mean the clues our ancestors left behind - the dry-stone walls, the abbeys and burial mounds, the made landscape. I also mean the living things we share our world with. The trees and plants, the birds and animals - they are beautifully themselves, and they are also the landscape’s acutely sensitive nervous system, making its beauties manifest, expressing its harms and hurts. This is partly why details matter, and why we must pay attention to them. We need to know the sounds of a nightingale, and to recognise an ash tree, so that we can make sense of their importance to the landscape, and understand why we must defend them when they’re under threat.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am not exaggerating when I say that I think our countryside is in greater danger than it has even been in my lifetime – or yours. For the first time, I really believe that the warning Philip Lakin gave us in his poem ‘Going, going’ will come true. The warning that a great wash of concrete and tyres will smother our green places, so ‘that will be England gone’. Will come true, that is - unless we win the fight to oppose it. Chamberlain and Macmillan were right – we should never use the pretext of an emergency to suspend planning.
They knew that this would risk the destruction of large parts of England which can never be reconstituted. They knew that a short-term boost could never justify the high price the countryside would have to pay. Concrete cannot be scraped off. Roads cannot be gouged out. Endangered flora and fauna cannot easily be made safe again. Lives cannot suddenly be made whole, if they never knew 'a sense of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky’. The damage to our home will be irreversible. The damage to us will be irreversible.
So there we are. Almost at the end of our day together, and at the beginning of the next stage of our great campaign. How do we want to live? That is the big question. How do we want to live – not in an ad-world of warm beer and where the misty lanes turn out to be full of dry ice, but in the real world of clear pleasures and reasonable solutions to difficult problems. We need to provide leadership on this. We need to make the case for the countryside – which is why we will be launching a Charter to Save Our Countryside that everyone should be able to sign up to.
Please continue with the great work you do. Please accept our warmest thanks for it. Please urge everyone you know to support our calls for a return to a planning system which is truly democratic, prioritises brownfield development, and delivers genuinely affordable housing where it is needed.
Sir Andrew Motion
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