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The countryside and Englishness

CPRE President Sir Andrew Motion CPRE President Sir Andrew Motion © Nigel Keene

 

Sir Andrew Motion's speech to CPRE's AGM on 26 June 2014

It’s fitting that we meet on the 100th anniversary of Laurie Lee’s birth. Lee’s best-known book captures a period in time when the rural England he knew was changing beyond recognition. He wrote in Cider with Rosie: “I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years' life. The change came late to our Cotswold valley, didn't really show itself till the late 1920s; I was twelve by then, but during that handful of years I witnessed the whole thing happen.” In our time, fifty-five years after the first publication of that book, we feel the gigantic upheaval he witnessed is about to be followed by another. We feel, in fact, that we are facing the biggest changes in the countryside within our living memories. It is a defining moment. And in my speech today I want to concentrate on that idea. I want to think about how threatening the changes are, and about how we might prevent them from turning into a disaster.

I warn you, this will involve a bit of historical delving.

According to Laurie Lee, the last nail was hammered into the coffin of old England in 1926 - the year the CPRE was formed. This was a period when speculative builders, motorcars, and the growth of the electricity network began to change the face of the country for ever. Some of these changes represented progress – we needed good new homes and a better infrastructure. But some – the rash of advertising, and light pollution, and the growing litter problem - were more often driven by corporate greed than by the desires and intentions of the public.

Such rampant commercialism made many suspect that England had fallen under the spell of America – and been hurt in her trance.  When JB Priestley left London on his English Journey of 1933, for instance, he followed the new Great West Road and found himself in a place so strange he thought he “might have suddenly rolled into California.” Although he allowed that there were in fact two other and more familiar kinds of England still available – the Old England of “quaint highways and byways” and the “industrial England of coal and iron” – he feared that a new England was taking over, sometimes brazenly, sometimes by stealth: an England of “filling stations and factories, dance-halls and cafes, cocktail bars and Woolworths”.

We can understand his alarm. Rapid change always threatens our sense of self. But if we don’t panic, we can see that while the processes of change work through and around us, we are generally able to adopt certain aspects that we like, and ignore or amend others that we don’t. Broadly speaking, this is how nations and national characters evolve. By giving and taking, by rejecting and embracing. Isn’t it striking, for example, how many people lamented the demise of what they considered to be a much-loved English institution when Woolworths went under? And where would we be without dance-halls and cocktail bars and American music?

So while it might be frightening, change has a lot to be said for it. It can invigorate and broaden. Yet while we accept this idea, we also want to insist that some things are unalterably sacred to us, each in our own place. And of all the things that are sacred to us in England, the countryside is one of the most precious of all. I wasn’t at all surprised to see recent survey showing that people who’d emigrated away from England missed the countryside more than anything else. And for those of us who stay, 93% believe the countryside is a national treasure. Or that’s what a ComRes survey published last year says, anyway.

Balancing progress and preservation
Two years after completing his English Journey, Priestley praised the CPRE for fighting the battle for the preservation of beauty against the ‘huge marauding hand’ of the enemy. He said: “Being a heritage, the beauty of this island is also a trust. Our children and their children after them must live in a beautiful country. That is something we can all leave them if we fight to preserve it now.” Stirring words – but just like the fledgling CPRE, Priestly also understood that it was daft simply to fight change, or to pickle the country in aspic. He said the country we pass on to the next generation must “be a country still happily compromising between Nature and Man, blending what was best worth retaining from the past with what best represents the spirit of our own age – a country as rich in noble towns as it is in trees, birds and wild flowers”.

The language here may strike us as being a bit fruity, but in essence it describes our core values as members of the CPRE - maintaining the delicate balance between progress and preservation. And before I return to this theme, and see how it might be applied to the present, I want to look further still into the past. Because the fact is, by the time our organisation was launched, we didn’t so much represent a campaign as a whole movement - a surge in national feeling for the countryside, which itself caught a wave of feeling that had been building since the onset of industrialisation, and that increased greatly in volume and power during the First World War.

Cider with Rosie alludes to this, and so do many other writers at work in the period, or remembering it later. A E Housman for instance. Kenneth Grahame. Edward Thomas. Thomas Hardy. George Orwell – who typically and bracingly warned that the ‘charm of buried villages, the nostalgia of place names’ had the potential to produce ‘a kind of idealised rustic’ that was pernicious as well as potent. That being said, it’s especially appropriate for us to think about the effect of the war in this commemorating year. What motivated those who were so quick to enlist. Duty? Jingoism? (There was certainly an aggressive nationalism on the home front, stirred up by several newspapers that are still with us.) But there was something else as well. The pastoral imagery used by early recruiting advertisements - and the posters sent to the front line in 1916 to “awaken thoughts of pleasant homely things” - suggest that many soldiers believed they were defending the English countryside rather than the British Empire. A crucial part of our modern, country-loving form of Englishness was forged in the heat of war – a manipulated sort of concept, certainly, but also one felt in the blood and felt along the heart, as Wordsworth would have said. When Edward Thomas’s friend Eleanor Farjeon asked him why he was enlisting, when they were out walking together in 1915, he bent down and picked up a handful of earth and crumbled it between his fingers. ‘For this,’ he told her.
 
The war, in other words, placed the countryside at the heart of what it meant to be English. But even before the war, this association was already – well, in place. Exactly 100 years before the outbreak of the First World War, William Wordsworth had written this in ‘The Excursion:

“..at social industry’s command,
How quick, how vast an increase. From the germ
Of some poor hamlet, rapidly produced
Here a huge town, continuous and compact,
Hiding the face of the earth for leagues…”

Manchester typified the sort of change that Wordsworth was thinking about here. Yet there was a silver lining. Because the sprawling growth of the city could also claim to have caused the first public movement for countryside preservation. As towns grew, inhabitants became further and further removed from the countryside, so being able to walk out into the surrounding countryside became a vital source of recreation. Footpath preservation groups were formed in Manchester by the 1820s, and their cause was taken up by a Whiggish MP, Robert Slaney. Proposing a Select Committee on Public Walks in 1833, Slaney argued that it was essential for rapidly growing towns to provide footpaths on their rural fringes for "comfort, health and content". Within 20 years of Wordsworth shining a light on the phenomenon of sprawl, a public campaign had been formed and the issue was being debated in Parliament.

The birth of conservation
By the 1860s, it was the politicians who were leading the movement. Indeed, it was an MP who started the first society to campaign for the preservation of the countryside. George Shaw Lefevre founded the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, following several years of heated Parliamentary debate about the threats to Hampstead, Richmond and Wimbledon. Today, we think of these places as urban oases, but at the time they were real countryside, on the edge of the metropolis. The process of enclosure had reached the edge of the city, and the temptation for landowners was to cash in on the building boom. While the political establishment showed huge resistance to the idea of interfering with private property, there were enough enlightened politicians, supported by popular resistance and artistic patrons like Ruskin and Morris, to save London’s great open spaces.  

This may all sound familiar. CPRE’s opponents today say that without change we wouldn’t be living in the houses we do – everyone lives in a property that was once green space etc. etc. But it can equally be said that without bloody-minded campaigners like those in CPRE, and the defenders of the Commons in the 1860s, we’d have little countryside or heritage left. As I’ve already said, the trick is to make the case for safeguarding the best of the past while also allowing for progress and improvement.

The late-Victorian enthusiasm for England’s culture and heritage – which remains a key part of our national psyche – was born in the debates over London’s commons. What good was breakneck ‘progress’ if conditions for the majority deteriorated? The rapid loss of the old England, and the appalling conditions of parts of the new, created a moral duty to preserve. Thus began the tradition of reclaiming and celebrating England’s cultural heritage, with the countryside now seen as an integral part of that heritage. Perhaps the tipping point came with the formation of CPRE? Certainly, press reaction was universally positive. Rather appropriately, but hilariously none the less, the Spectator found a good omen in the fact a body designed to protect such a vital part of Englishness should have 22 founding organisations: “22 – the length of a cricket pitch, is quite the most English of all the numbers.”

Politically, there was also a general consensus about many of CPRE’s landmark early campaigns, stemming from the joint-appeal on our behalf by MacDonald, Baldwin and Lloyd George during the 1929 election. The great post-war settlement for the countryside – National Parks and a democratic planning system – was delivered by Attlee’s goverment, but was a testament to the work of a National Government and CPRE during the war. In the bold new world of 1945, planning didn’t just seem like the best way to rebuild our communities, industry and infrastructure. It promised to create a better, more cohesive society, while protecting the greatest component of Englishness – the natural beauty of our countryside - for future generations.

The achievements of good planning
And that’s where I want to end my historical survey and move into the present. Since the end of the Second World War, planning has done a difficult job pretty well. It has delivered much – but of course not all -  the housing we need, while preserving a large percentage of our countryside. Here’s what the archaeologist Francis Pryor says about it: “somehow Britain has managed to retain its uncluttered rural areas…it is almost entirely down to planning. Town and country planning … is now the single most important factor affecting the look of Britain. And we meddle with it at our peril!”  National Parks have been an unqualified success, and so too have Green Belts, despite what their detractors have to say about them.

Not so long ago politicians of all parties were trying to take the credit for these Green Belts. Now we hear politicians of all parties constantly talking about swapping Green Belt, or loosening Green Belt, or giving cities the right to grow over the Green Belt. This is not simply foolish and destructive – though it is both those things. It is also mightily out of step with public opinion. And I don’t just mean Daily Telegraph public opinion. 75% of Guardian readers recently voted against building on it.

I said at the outset that I think we’ve reached a defining moment in the history of our relationship with the countryside. And in my not-at-all-humble opinion, the assault on the Green Belt lies at the heart of this crisis. It is a potential catastrophe. ‘England gone’, as Philip Larkin warned us might happen in his poem ‘Going, Going’.
 
What is the matter with politicians – the whole lot of them? Is it impossible for them to show the vision and ambition of their predecessors – the men and women who, as I’ve just reminded you, stood up for the protection of commons, of National Parks, of Green Belts, of footpaths? I’m prepared to believe that most MPs are at heart not bad people. I know many of them love nature, beauty, the countryside. I understand that they face big problems and are inevitably pulled towards the immediate wishes of voters who are concerned about economic growth and the things it can bring. But politicians have always been beset by day-to-problems in the past, not least the post-war governments that faced huge problems of reconstruction but still managed to introduce protection for landscapes, nature and heritage.
 
Surely we can recapture some of that progressive, enlightened thinking? Surely it’s possible to resolve the growing gap between people’s consumerist impulses and their deeper desires as citizens? Of course it is. Of course we can achieve the change in outlook promoted by CPRE’s Vision for England in 2026, where people see houses as a home, not an investment; where economic growth is not the only measure of national progress; where beauty and well-being matter; where we aspire to improve the quality, and the equality, of life. Of course we can achieve it – if we argue for it. Of course we can, if we ask what I believe should be the great question of our time: How do we want to live? And give our clear and ringing answer.

A positive vision of Englishness
As our Vision says, “embracing beauty, local character and the enjoyment of green, open spaces” can help bring about this change. The fate of England, and the planet, is at risk if we don’t. An appreciation of our natural heritage, and a growing environmental consciousness, is not just a joy for ever. It’s vital necessary. It’s a part of what makes us who we are. National Parks and Green Belts are national icons as much as the NHS. They are among the things that make England, and Britain, great. Scotland and Wales are rightly proud of their unique sense of identity, but we seem to be hell-bent on smearing concrete over ours. I don’t want to see an England post-Scottish independence – should it come – that’s forgotten what is worth caring about, any more than I want to live in a country that is characterised by insularity and fear of the other. Who does? No one should.

Some of you probably already know this. Since about 1940, the population of Los Angeles has grown at about the same rate as the population of London. Los Angles is now so enormous that if you somehow managed to pick it up and plonk it down on England, it would extend from Brighton on the south coast to Cambridge in the north-east. That’s what happens if you don’t have a green belt. Look at Tokyo if you doubt me. Look at Seoul. Same thing. If we carry on overdeveloping the South East at the present rate, it will truly become a modern Great Wen, a concrete region denuded of the very things that make it such an attractive place to live and work – its green spaces. At the same time, our great northern and midlands cities, the monuments to the great Victorian age of Improvement and Civic Pride, will become monuments to a generation that turned its back on high ideals and precious values, and allowed great places to rot. Again I ask: how do we want to live? Where is the ambition to strive for CPRE’s vision of an England to be proud of?

Let me be clear. CPRE is not and never has been a reactionary organisation. When we hear politicians say we need to build 200,000 more homes a year we don’t say ‘no way’; we say: why only 200,000 – but why on earth ruin the countryside by building them on the Green Belt and on green fields and open land? There are suitable brownfield sites available for a million and a half homes, as we point out over and over again. Build the new houses there. That way people can have roofs over their heads – roofs that are of an appropriate size to their needs – and England can be saved. The foundation of our character can be preserved.

Englishness is a difficult notion, not least because whatever it is has tended to shun large gestures and big rhetorical flourishes. I like that modesty and decorum. Yet I also see that it makes us vulnerable. Vulnerable because it can make us feel there’s something intrinsically embarrassing or unnecessary about feeling proud of our country. And vulnerable too because our body politic can become an easy prey to those who speak stridently, and think crudely. But given the political mood of our times, let me say this. In my own view, and in the true spirit of CPRE, Englishness has never been about being small-minded and insular. Traditional values like our pride in the countryside exist in a wonderful big melting pot of Englishness, together with our pride in absorbing new cultures, and our appetite for them, and our refusal to make Englishness an issue of race or birthplace. Satish Kumar, Benjamin Zephaniah, Marina Lewycka and Anish Kapoor have all signed the CPRE’s Charter to Save our Countryside. The great majority – the great majority – of politicians lack the courage to stand up for the countryside in any way. That says a lot.

The end of local democracy?
I’m nearly done. But before I close I want to return to Laurie Lee on his centenary year. This spring I met the volunteers of CPRE Gloucestershire who have done so much to protect his beloved countryside as a living legacy, not one that can only be accessed through the printed page. The Slad Valley is internationally famous, both for its beauty, and as the setting of Cider with Rosie.  But even while Laurie was alive, four attempts were made to build on Baxter’s Fields, in the heart of the Slad Valley. In 2011, CPRE Stroud volunteer Geof Murray helped defeat more plans for a housing estate in the valley, actually within the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But as Geof predicted, and as all of you will know, the defects of the NPPF means that even when plans to spoil these precious places are defeated, developers keep coming back to have another go. Even now, the branch and local people are fighting against new plans for a housing estate of 112 dwellings on Baxter’s Fields.  CPRE Gloucestershire’s objection argued the application showed a “complete disregard for the need to protect the glorious open countryside immortalised by Laurie Lee.” In the next few weeks, a planning inspector will decide whether to rule in favour of the developers and overturn the decision made by Stroud District Council to reject the plans.

Please God the inspector will make the right decision. How could it possibly be in the national interest to destroy part of our national heritage? How could it be possible in a democratic country to overrule the local knowledge of elected councillors? These same councillors, incidentally, who have received expressions of sympathetic support from Sweden, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Nepal, Japan and the Philippines. What will the rest of the world think of England if we allow this to happen? I’ll tell you. They’ll think we’ve lost it. England gone.

The Prime Minister was another recent visitor to the Slad Valley. He said that he had been very taken by Cider with Rosie at school: “It is a very special book and it has wonderful links with this very special part of the world.” He was obviously unaware of the impact his planning policies were having on the ground, until the director of Stroud Arts Festival remarked that “for Mr Cameron to say that Laurie Lee is one of his favourite authors, but to then want to destroy the very thing that inspired his work is a contradiction of the highest order.” The reply was that “we all know that new houses have to be built so we have to make choices about where they will go.” A flimsy answer, but without meaning to, the Prime Minister actually hit the nail on the head. There is a choice. There are always alternatives to building on priceless countryside. In this case, CPRE Gloucestershire and others have shown that there are other sites for housing nearby which are more suitable and more achievable. It would be a travesty if the inspector makes the wrong choice in Stroud. And a travesty if other inspectors in other and similar situations up and down the country also made the wrong decision. A travesty for our reputation, for our own selves, and also a bitter blow to the hope of creating a new era of Englishness that values local democracy and our shared heritage.

A local man known as JJ apparently stood up at the Baxter’s Fields public inquiry and asked to “speak on behalf of the land as a spiritual body." It’s a high-flying sentiment, but a wonderful and in its way a courageous one. In our own various ways of speaking, all of us in the CPRE know exactly what JJ meant – because we feel we’re doing the same thing in all our work for the organisation. The head of Planning at Stroud, Phil Skill, certainly does. He recently said that “the planning system tries to breed the emotion out of you. Heritage and culture is about the soul. If we fail the Slad Valley it's almost open season."

Once upon a time, David Cameron seemed to understand all this. Back in 2008, he spoke to CPRE as leader of the opposition – one of the few pre-2010 speeches the Conservative party were unable to erase from the internet last year. He said: “The beauty of our landscape is a national treasure, to be cherished and protected for everyone’s benefit. It’s not enough for politicians just to say that – we need leaders who really understand it and feel it in their bones. I do.” And in a follow-up blog on CPRE’s website he said: "Local people know better where new homes should go than officials in Whitehall do. It’s precisely because new development is often imposed on communities that it’s so unpopular.”

What happened, Prime Minister, to make you forget these beliefs? What is it, politicians of all parties, that makes you so willing to trash the heritage and traditions that form the foundation of the country you were elected to serve? Why can’t you see that we can have the progress, and the houses we desperately need, and an economy that benefits all of us, and still preserve the vital, fundamental things? I’ll ask the question one more time. How do we want to live? As things stand, we are facing the ruination of England as we know it, and we are destroying it not by accident or chance, but by design. We are inflicting, in Laurie Lee’s words, ‘a self-inflicted wound that not even time will heal’.

So go back to your branches and offices, my friends, with my warmest thanks for what you have done and are doing to resist these present lunacies. Fight the good fight – for our contemporaries, and for those who will come after us.

Sir Andrew Motion
President, CPRE

 

Of all the things that are sacred to us in England, the countryside is one of the most precious of all.




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