Campaign to Protect Rural England Standing up for your countryside

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CPRE is very interested in land and how it is used. In many of our publications, we make the point that it should be considered more, be debated more and used more wisely.

For our cities and rural areas to move forward, we need to improve our country’s infrastructure. If we are to secure buy-in from the public and leave a positive legacy for our landscapes, we need to do this with care and precision, engaging and consulting with local communities along the way. With the UK’s National Infrastructure Pipeline now at a record £500bn, there has never been a more crucial time to make sure we get these issues right.

Our lecture, held on Tuesday 6th December, sparked discussion and debate on infrastructure in the countryside with a wide range of leading experts.

Our main speaker was Phil Graham, Chief Executive of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), delved into the highlights of the Commission’s first year in operation before setting out how it is drawing up the first ever National Infrastructure Assessment, a vision of the country’s infrastructure needs in 2050 and the best way to get us there.

Our panel of respondents then provided us with their reflections on Phil’s speech. The panellists - Deborah Mattinson (Founder Partner of Britain Thinks), Martin Stockley (deputy chair of the HS2 Independent Design Panel) and Ralph Smyth (CPRE) - each gave their own view on the subject, outlining their views on how infrastructure should be approached in the UK. The discussion was chaired by CPRE’s chair Su Sayer.

What they had to say

You can listen to the full discussion here:

A summary of lead speaker, Phil Graham, can be found here:

Phil Graham

Full transcripts from the respondents can be read here:

Deborah Mattinson

Martin Stockley

Ralph Smyth

About the speakers

Phil Graham, Chief Executive, National Infrastructure Commission

Phil joined the National Infrastructure Commission from the Department for Transport, where he worked on many of the UK's most important infrastructure projects. He led the development of the Government's high speed rail strategy from its inception and took it through one of the country's largest ever consultation and analysis processes.

Deborah Mattinson, Founder Partner, Britain Thinks

Deborah has more than twenty five years’ experience of providing clients with research based strategic advice. In that time she has worked with global businesses, major charities, international governments and senior politicians. She is particularly well known for developing innovative ways to bring decision makers closer to their stakeholders.

Martin Stockley, deputy chair, HS2 Independent Design Panel

Martin is a leading authority on the application of engineering in the design of infrastructure and the built environment. As a practising engineer he has worked on the design of major civil engineering, on buildings (both new and historic) and on streets, parks and public spaces. He has advised the UK government on the design of schools and is an advisor to English Heritage. He has been a member of the Crossrail design panel in London, PlacesMatter! in the West Midlands and the regeneration panel in Bath.

Ralph Smyth, Head of Infrastructure & Legal, Campaign to Protect Rural England

Ralph leads on CPRE's work on infrastructure and legal issues, focusing on transport. Ralph is a member of the Highways England’s Design Panel and is a frequent commentator in the media on transport issues. He has represented CPRE in examinations, a hybrid bill and judicial reviews of nationally significant infrastructure projects. Ralph led the environmental sector’s work to influence the road elements of the Infrastructure Act 2015, securing major amendments on environmental regulation and sustainable travel.

Chaired by Su Sayer, CBE, Chair, Campaign to Protect Rural England

Su is the co-founder and was previously chief executive of United Response - a major national charity that supports people with learning disabilities, mental health needs and physical disabilities. It is now a charity with a £75m turnover and a workforce of over 3500 people. Su has been the chair for Campaign to Protect Rural England since 2014.

The Campaign for National Parks, the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England believe that the protection for National Parks should be strengthened. This briefing summarises the key findings from recent research we commissioned from Sheffield Hallam University examining the planning process for major developments in, or just outside, National Parks and sets out recommendations on how to improve their protection.

National Parks… designated for their national significance, natural beauty, cultural heritage, wildlife and recreational opportunities. In England we are lucky enough to have ten National Parks, the most recently created being the South Downs in 2009, receiving the status after a long fought campaign by CPRE and many others. And only last year, the Government confirmed extensions to the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, forming a ‘bridge’ between the two parks. So it seems that the Government recognises the importance of National Parks and the vital role they play – both for the economy and people’s wellbeing. Research by National Parks England found that there an astounding 90 million day visitors to National Parks and surrounding areas each year, who spend more than £4 billion and support 68,000 jobs.

National Parks hold the highest level of planning protection and have done so since their creation in the late 1940s – yet, in practice, they are at a real risk of inappropriate developments, both larger and smaller, that can cumulatively have a major impact on a Park. This is an issue that CPRE has been concerned about for many years – a view shared by our dedicated county groups who engage with planning cases at the local level. In 2013, we published Going, Going, Gone? England’s disappearing landscapes – a report based on 23 planning cases that threatened National Parks, AONBs or undesignated countryside. One of our main recommendations was for Government to strengthen national planning policy for designated landscapes – but no improvements were made. Since then, one of the most high profile major developments in recent years, the world’s largest potash mine, was approved in the North York Moors National Park after Government declined to call it in for a Public Inquiry.

We believe that more needs to be done to ensure the long term protection of England’s National Parks. So, when the opportunity came up for CPRE to work alongside the Campaign for National Parks and the National Trust to commission independent research about major development in, and on the edges of, National Parks, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

After much finessing of the project brief, we appointed Sheffield Hallam University to carry out the research. The project investigated, in unprecedented detail, the national policy to control major development in National Parks. The researchers interviewed National Park Authority planners across the country and examined the decisions on 70 planning applications, the majority from the past ten years, with 15 case studies explored in more detail. These included controversial cases such as a 14 hectare solar farm in the New Forest National Park, which after much to-ing and fro-ing was finally refused by Government in 2016. Other examples are a road bypass scheme on the edge of the Lake District which was approved in 2003 and a football stadium on the boundary of the South Downs which was approved by Government in 2007; both were permitted due to ‘local benefits’, despite the national importance of the parks.

National Parks' (and AONBs') level of protection means that major development should only be allowed in exceptional circumstances. However, Sheffield Hallam University’s research found that interpretations of ‘major development’ vary between the National Parks, and decisions to approve planning applications often reflect the Government mood at the time, with policy changes that lean toward economic growth rather than putting landscape protection first. This ambiguous approach means that what is considered a major development in one part of the country may not be so somewhere else. We’d like to see improvements to national planning guidance so that there is more clarity about both the interpretation of ‘major developments’ and what ‘exceptional circumstances’ may allow them.

The research also found that European regulations such as the Birds and Habitats Directives play an important role in safeguarding biodiversity and wildlife in National Parks – it is vital that protections for nature are maintained post-Brexit. We’d also like to see Natural England, the Government’s advisors on the environment, take a more active role in ensuring that National Parks are protected from unsuitable major development –by producing a yearly update, for example.

Based on Sheffield Hallam University’s research, CPRE, the Campaign for National Parks and the National Trust have just published National Parks – Planning for the Future, which presents the many recommendations we believe will help improve how major development is managed in, and in the settings of, National Parks. This should begin with Government reconfirming its commitment to National Parks in the forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment, by clearly setting out exactly how they will ensure their long-term protection and enhancement.

What it all boils down to is that England’s National Parks are not ours, but ours to look after. We’re certainly not saying that these places should be set in aspic – they are living landscapes – but if they are chipped away by inappropriate development then we risk irreparably damaging the ‘crown jewels’ of the English landscape. With that in mind, we’ll be working closely with CNP and the National Trust to do what we can to improve the future of England’s astounding National Parks, for the benefit of current and future generations.

Find out more

Read the report

More about our work on landscapes

View Emma's profile

Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) have joined forces to produce this 'Future Energy Landscapes' report. It aims to bring communities together to share their passion for local landscapes with their enthusiasm for a more sustainable future.


An edited version of Shaun Spiers' speech to the Local Government Association conference on 6 July 2016:

"CPRE celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and throughout our history we have engaged actively with major infrastructure projects. The years since 1926 have seen the growth of aviation, the development of motorways, the spread of electricity to all parts of the country, and much else.

CPRE has not been saying ‘no’ throughout these years. In the words of our founder, Sir Patrick Abercombie, our aim has been to “achieve a balance between existing features – natural and historic – and new growth”. CPRE’s first President, Lord Crawford, a former Minister of Transport, said: “We have got to have new roads and bridges, new suburbs, new villages and perhaps new towns. Our desire is that they shall be comely, and shall conform to modern requirements without injuring the ancient beauty of the land.” And our first statement of aims and objects declared: “It is part of [CPRE’s] policy to promote suitable and harmonious development.” 

What are the prospects now for “suitable and harmonious development”? And how easy will it be to get consent for the new infrastructure the nation needs? CPRE is calling for a new approach to infrastructure planning, one where national and local aspirations go hand in hand.

  1. One that engages and really listens to local people and local authorities – nothing is more alienating than a consultation where the decision has already been made
  2. One where national infrastructure helps make rather than break places it passes by, and
  3. One which recognises that infrastructure is not all about big schemes

The National Infrastructure Commission offers a great opportunity to help deliver our vision. Already we have had good dialogue. We welcome the Government’s decision in May to include quality of life within the Commission’s scope. There still needs to be a substantial shift in emphasis, however, particularly on full engagement. And that’s the area I’ll focus on first.

1 Engaging with people

Whoever you’re speaking with about planning and barriers to infrastructure, the same refrain is repeated. The problem is public mistrust. And the problem is getting worse. It is not enough to draw on experts to establish the facts. We saw in the referendum campaign how facts were disputed and expertise discounted. In that campaign, the Treasury failed to persuade the British people that leaving the European Union would be a serious economic mistake. That was partly because the economic consequences of Brexit seemed diffuse while the perceived consequences of membership – a lack of school places, for instance, or poor housing conditions – were immediate.

So it is with infrastructure. The benefits for the nation may seem clear, but the nation is an abstraction. The dis-benefits for those living near the infrastructure tend to be clear and immediate. So the National Infrastructure Commission has an uphill task, however well something similar works in Singapore. With experts out of favour, there needs to be another piece in the jigsaw. I am not saying experts and evidence do not have a role. But we need to build consensus to build infrastructure. And for that we need a new way of doing things.

Rather than the Far East we should look closer to home – to France. The French have developed one of the finest processes for public debate on infrastructure projects. First developed in the 1980s after public outrage over a high speed railway proposed through vineyards, they have continuously improved it. Here, we are still using Victorian procedures to give consent to 21st century railways. Over two dozen consultations on HS2 and the battles are still running. France’s Public Debate Commission has representatives from user groups, the courts, industry, environmental NGOs, courts and local politicians, not least those from rural areas.

Crucially this commission makes suggestions rather than decisions. And of the dozens projects it has considered, a third have been fundamentally changed. In some cases, such as the planned route of Charles De Gaulle Express air rail link, the objectors’ proposal became what was approved. Scheme promoters welcome its feedback, as it means they get things right early on. We believe a similar Commission should be set up here through the Bill. It could carry out debates on the top three most controversial issues identified in the 2017 consultation on the National Infrastructure Assessment vision, allowing the NIC to focus on what it does best, building the evidence base. It could also streamline and supercharge pre-application consultation on Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, taking responsibility for this from developers.

Putting all your infrastructure eggs in an expert basket is not sensible post Brexit. The NIC has made an impressive start and may yet establish its independence from the Treasury in the way that other bodies such as the Climate Change Committee and the Monetary Policy Committee have. But the Committee’s Chair is appointed by the Chancellor and its Chief Executive by the Treasury. The outgoing Chancellor – for all his admirable qualities, and his commitment to improving the nation’s infrastructure – has had a tin ear when it comes to hearing concerns about how and where stuff is built. He has a disdainful view of the planning system, regarding it merely as a barrier to getting things done, rather than the means by which we can build well and make better places.

And this worldview is not unique to this Chancellor. It is the Treasury View. J.M. Keynes identified it in 1939 when, in an essay for CPRE, he railed against the “sub-human denizens of the Treasury… nourished on dry husks”. I could never use such disrespectful language. But consent is vital, and something akin to the French Public Debate Commission would help achieve it, complementing the expertise of the National Infrastructure Commission.

2 Making not breaking places

Although we can hark back to Victorian stations and signature bridges, much of our ordinary infrastructure is frankly awful: pylons running across some of our finest landscapes; cut and paste concrete viaducts; ugly, noisy, light polluting roads. For far too long it has been acceptable simply to consider ‘minimising harm’ to the environment. Mitigation has been the name of the game. With so much being invested - rightly - in updating our infrastructure, we need to do better. What we build today will say so much about us tomorrow. And for many years to come.

So we need to take care how we build. We should aspire, in Abercrombie’s words, to create ‘new forms of beauty’. Poor decisions can ruin places. But good design need not cost more, even leaving aside the economic value of beautiful places, and the cost of ugly places which no one wants to look at, still less live near. Research published earlier this year by RICS shows that better placemaking can command a premium of as much as 50% on the value of houses.

How should the route strategies that Highways England is preparing take account of opportunities to make better places. The removal of the A14 viaduct in Huntingdon or the tunnelling of the A3 under the Devil’s Punchbowl are well known. But there are other, smaller potential opportunities, not least in rural areas. This debate should not simply be about how infrastructure looks, but about how it can fundamentally change perceptions of places. 

Other countries are far more ambitious than we are. The city of Hamburg is grassing over the autobahn that passes through it. This is not just to reduce air and noise pollution but to create new space for houses and allotments.  In response to the Government’s roads reform agenda, CPRE made the case for a ‘roads retrofit’We are pleased that the Road Investment Strategy includes a £500 million Environment Fund to help deliver this. We hope that Highways England will shortly announce plans to deliver green bridges over its network, to restore landscapes and connectivity for wildlife and communities. The Netherlands has over 60; we only have half a dozen.

Architects firm LDA Design have given the example of a Swansea tidal lagoon. By adding landscaping and networks of cycle paths, it could transform run-down areas of the city, on top of generating power. In the Victorian era, London’s Embankment addressed flooding, sewage, the tube and road travel. Achieving more than one thing from an infrastructure project makes even more sense now, in our densely country. Too often projects have narrow objectives set early on. The best megaprojects ‘flex’ through their development.

3 Fair split between local and national

There will always be competing tensions between investing in large and small scale infrastructure. But once we start thinking about infrastructure as networks - rather than discrete, individual schemes - the importance of the local becomes clear. When it comes to rolling out broadband, leaving out the last few miles is a false economy. There is little benefit in having a superfast fibre cable to your town if you cannot get it in your home. 

Likewise with energy, we will need to improve the local distribution of energy as we get more decentralised, ‘smart’ power. The emphasis should be on small scale local improvements. In fact investing at the local level can reduce or remove the need for infrastructure in the first place. Improving energy efficiency is at least as important as building power stations.

On transport, CPRE has been highlighting the gulf in investment between strategic roads and local transport. Even if you could build your way out of congestion - and the evidence is pretty clear that you can’t - we will never have enough money to build bigger local roads to feed into bigger national ones. And the impact on places would be devastating. The proposal for a National Road Fund, announced last year by the Chancellor, has been dropped from the forthcoming Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. It would have given all Vehicle Excise Duty to Highways England, who run just 2% of our roads. Drivers who rarely venture out onto the motorway but face a bumpy ride on potholed local roads will be hoping the idea has been dropped for good.

There is a need for adequate funding of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy. While London has over £10 a head, rural areas are getting less than £1.40 on cycling and walking. Of course cycling never mind walking is not an option for longer journeys. But Department for Transport research shows that congestion on long distance routes is usually where these roads also have to cater for short distance traffic around towns. This investment is sorely needed to give people travel choices.

Our railways keep on getting busier. That’s a great thing. But in some places, without more network capacity, hard choices are being made. Better services between cities or protecting stops at rural stations? Value for Money calculations tend to prioritise incremental improvements for those travelling between cities over a decent service for those living in between. But the impact on leaving country towns with a just a skeleton service can be devastating to their continued viability.

We should not forget the benefits of construction either, such as for local business and skills. The Government gives the examples of Crossrail and the Olympics as infrastructure projects that have driven supply chain investment and skills, whether for large companies or Small and Medium Enterprises. We all remember the enchanting scenes of farmyard animals running riot round the green and pleasant land at the Olympics opening ceremony. But both of these projects are predominantly urban projects. If interurban projects like HS2 are to deliver benefits to the supply chains in areas they pass through, a different approach will be needed. CPRE welcomed the £30million HS2 Environment and Business Funds, which we had been calling for since 2011. It is a start, a small start. More needs to be done through procurement and promotion to help smaller rural businesses benefit, such as from landscaping and environmental mitigation works.

In all these examples, change is happening quickly. There are real risks that some people and some areas will not share the benefits. We need better evidence about network effects for new forms of infrastructure and better debates about how the costs and benefits should be distributed across society.

We need and better informed debates about how the costs and benefits from infrastructure investment and management should be distributed across society. Key to this is recognising that financial formulae cannot tell the whole story.


Today I have set out CPRE’s approach to infrastructure – let’s call it a vision. A vision that engages all sections of society in decision-making. Those who would benefit directly from new infrastructure as well those who it would simply pass through. We need what could be called ‘Place Responsive Infrastructure’. We are not a country with vast areas of emptiness, but one that is densely populated country. And finally, we need a call for a new balance between investment in local and national needs, and proper consideration of when new infrastructure might not be the right option.

I hope we can get this right. Buildings can enhance the landscape. Few lovers of the countryside would now wish unbuilt the great Victorian viaducts, country houses, dry stone walls or lovely villages. But where we have to build, we should try hard, in the words of John Buchan, launching CPRE Oxfordshire in 1931, to “replace old beauty with new beauty and not with new ugliness”. And if we can do that, we will find it much easier to get public agreement to development.  

Responding to the Government publication Broad Options for upgraded and High Speed Railways between the north of England and Scotland, Ralph Smyth, Head of Infrastructure and Legal at CPRE, said:


"With capacity and resilience as important as speed, we welcome this major study on the way forward for our railways between the north of England and Scotland.

Reducing travel times between Scotland and London is critical, if we are going to shift people from air to rail. Although it may be the headline, it should not however be the only consideration. Because of the priority given to intercity and freight trains on the mainline, many rural communities in areas like Cumbria have limited or no local rail services. Investment has to deliver for people in the countryside, if a national case is to be made. So it’s only right that a range of different ideas has been put forward, rather than presenting a new high speed line as a single, inevitable ‘option’.

The West and East Coast Mainlines pass by one World Heritage Site, three National Parks, four Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and five Green Belts. It will be vital for any detailed proposals to protect these cherished landscapes. The willingness to consider a range of speeds, rather than insisting on a world beating 400km/h, is a sensible start."

This landmark speech was given in March 2015 by the Rt Hon John Hayes MP, when he was roads minister, to CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport. It outlines a noble vision of greater harmony between our road network and our priceless countryside. This publication includes a foreword by Sir Andrew Motion, CPRE President, and an introduction from Colin Matthews, Chairmain of Highways England. More information about the speech is available in our features section.


A new report by environment and transport groups including the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Campaign for Better Transport is calling for £3 billion to be invested over the next five years in a range of 'green retrofit' improvements for existing roads in the upcoming Road Investment Strategy, which will be published by the Government this Autumn.

The first ‘Boris Bike’ cycle hire scheme in the countryside faces being scrapped on Tuesday on the basis that local residents believe it is not ‘right to introduce more cyclists onto New Forest roads’.

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