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1941 – 1960: from National Parks to Green Belts

Lone walker looking on path high above lake
Our campaigning for national parks finally came to fruition in the post-war period Stewart Smith/Shutterstock

The aftermath of the Second World War saw the passing of the landmark Town and Country Planning Act 1947 which was at the core of so much of CPRE’s subsequent work, and our aspirations for national parks finally realised.


Having been appointed by Winston Churchill to head a commission looking at ‘Land Utilisation in Rural Areas’, CPRE’s honorary counsel Lord Justice Scott concluded that ‘long overdue’ National Parks must ‘be preserved for the enjoyment of the whole nation’, with boundaries drawn up within the first year of the peace.

A 1943 memorandum to the Ministry of Health called for funds to be made available for rural homes with proper sanitation at a time when a third of England’s parishes had no piped water, and half had no sewage systems. A follow-up submission called for high-quality housing design to ‘produce an environment that encourages good citizenship’. Both demands became government policy.


The recommendations of a CPRE-convened conference arguing for the listing of buildings of special architectural or historic importance were implemented in the Town and Country Planning Act 1944.

Ethel Bright Ashford led a CPRE deputation to the Minister of Health to recommend the ‘utilisation of our diminishing fuel resources with the greatest economy’, and strict enforcement of penalties for polluters.


CPRE campaigning encouraged the Attlee government to increase subsidies for the rural housing required to house the 100,000 permanent workers now needed on the land.

Ethel Haythornthwaite was appointed to the government’s National Parks Committee, which built the successful case for the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949.


CPRE opposed the New Towns Bill of 1946, making it clear that the ‘building of new towns should not be undertaken’ on virgin countryside until the full potential of ‘depressed industrial areas’ and suitable war-damaged sites had been realised.

The same year saw CPRE successfully oppose two proposed new towns in Cheshire on the grounds of the loss of productive agricultural land.


The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 achieved many of CPRE’s ambitions for planning in the countryside and laid the foundations of the planning system we still use today. The first effective regulation of development in the countryside, the act meant landowners now had to apply for the right to build from a democratically elected local planning authority.

The historian Tristram Hunt has said that the planning system created in 1947 was a ‘legislative monument to the work of CPRE’ in defeating ‘laissez faire sprawl’. It also introduced effective controls over roadside advertising – another longstanding aim – after CPRE submitted a lengthy evidence-based memorandum on ‘The Case against Outdoor Advertising’.


CPRE pressed the government for adequate publicity for planning inquiries. The Town and Country Planning Ministry agreed to a system of examination of all appeals prior to the inquiry stage, with full publication of cases in the local press.


The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 paved the way for the creation of National Parks after CPRE’s 20-year campaign. The Act gave the new National Parks Commission the powers to designate Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) with the same planning protections, and a new Nature Conservancy powers to create and manage Sites of Special Scientific interest (SSSIs) and National Nature Reserves.

The Act also secured more public access to open country, with CPRE welcoming its powers to penalise misleading notices (such as ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’) designed to deter the public from using rights of way. CPRE was represented on the new Central Rights of Way Committee, with its local volunteers helping to survey public paths.

Shortly before the Act was passed, CPRE hosted a meeting of representatives of the agricultural, landowning, rambling and amenity interests, brokering an agreement that increased access for visitors must be in harmony with the protection of agriculture and the interests of those who live in National Parks.

The Act also gave the National Parks Commission a duty to record, maintain and improve public paths, and create a new network of long-distance National Trails.


The Peak District was the first of ten English National Parks created under the powers of the 1949 Act. Much of the area covered by the National Park had been acquired by CPRE Sheffield and Peak branch, thanks to Ethel Haythornthwaite’s passionate 1928 fundraising appeal to the public. 747 acres of the Longshaw Estate – threatened with development at the time – were purchased in 1931 and donated to the National Trust.

After conferences between government ministers and CPRE, the Women’s Institute and the National Trust, the government launched an anti-litter campaign to ensure Britain looked at her best. The campaign slogan was ‘Keep Britain Tidy‘.

Thanks to CPRE campaigning, the Forestry Act 1951 encouraged the Forestry Commission to plant for native broadleaves (that is, trees without needles), avoid good quality farmland and make greater concessions to ‘amenity’ in new planting.


At a series of public inquiries into refuse dumps on farmland, CPRE gives evidence in favour of what would have been pioneering recycling plants, built on derelict land, ‘where the refuse can be sorted and used in the national interest’.


In the spirit of patriotism and community, CPRE made the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June the hook for new campaigns for commemorative village greens and village hall facilities for young people. A ‘Tidy Village Competition’ was the third element of CPRE’s coronation celebrations and their county-based ‘Best Kept Village’ competitions were soon being run in the majority of counties.


Housing minister and future PM Harold Macmillan addressed CPRE’s AGM saying, ‘the main battle of CPRE has been won after a very long fight. There is a general acceptance that in so small an island one can not allow the complete individual freedom which might have been possible in more primitive days.’


A government circular in response to CPRE pressure accepted the need for strongly protected Green Belts around England’s largest towns and cities, and encouraged their establishment up and down the country. Minister Duncan Sandys’ introduction said: ‘I am convinced that, for the wellbeing of our people and for the preservation of the countryside, we have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent the further unrestricted sprawl of the great cities.’

At the WI’s AGM, CPRE’s Herbert Griffin seconds their resolution to establish a Keep Britain Tidy Group.


The Manchester Guardian publishes a leader in support of a ten-year-old CPRE campaign, suggesting that the Central Electricity Generating Board should establish a fund to finance the laying of underground cables where rural amenities should be preserved. ‘Such a fund would not absorb much of the industry’s surplus – and the whole community would benefit from a bonus that rightly belongs to the community.’