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Bill Bryson's Top 10 CPRE Successes

Bill launches CPRE's Stop the Drop campaign with The Wombles Bill launches CPRE's Stop the Drop campaign with The Wombles Photo © CPRE

Now that Bill Bryson has handed over the presidency of CPRE to Sir Andrew Motion, we remember some of the highlights of his term in office – and look forward to his staying on as Vice President.

1. General Election 2010
In the run-up to the last General Election, Bill scored a scoop for CPRE when he interviewed all three main political party leaders for The Times newspaper. He admits he hopes the current Government’s record on rural issues improves, especially given the ‘genuine passion’ for the countryside he sensed in David Cameron and Nick Clegg then. ‘It’s not that the Government are always doing things that are actively bad for the countryside – it’s just a sort of benign neglect,’ Bill says. ‘Although it also entirely possible for them to do things that are actively bad – particularly with respect to planning.’

2. The South Downs
Bill was a keen champion of our newest National Park, which was given the go-ahead in November 2009. Bill’s support for the new designation, and the inclusion of the Western Weald of the downs within it, effectively finished a CPRE campaign for national park status that began with a letter from founder member Patrick Abercrombie to Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1929. Bill remembers it as a highlight of his presidency: ‘It is a miracle to have that much exceptional landscape within an hour of Trafalgar Square – and it was also a miracle that it was saved,’ he says. ‘A lot of people put in a lot of effort to make that happen and they weren’t disappointed – that doesn’t always happen in life.’ The Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, Hilary Benn, personally thanked Bill for his efforts.

3. Bill on Panorama
Four million viewers watched Notes on a Dirty Island, an episode of Panorama filmed by Bill, on BBC One in August 2008. The programme was a passionate look at the rising tide of rubbish in Britain. ‘Litter is my personal bête noire, and countryside litter particularly concerns me,’ he says. ‘Much of the litter that is dropped in the cities gets swept up, whereas the rubbish you get along the A1 or the A40 tends to stay there permanently. I thought, “Surely there must be other people who get angry about this?” That led me to CPRE in the first place, and it’s heroic of them to take it on. I always feel embarrassed asking CPRE to do it, because it’s not an anti-litter organisation as such – but if we don’t, nobody is going to.’

4. First litter round table
Bill was instrumental in putting litter firmly on the political radar, and bringing key stakeholders together. After initially pressing for a high-level debate on the issue at a meeting with Defra in October 2009, Bill reminded Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the proposal during their pre-election interview. Defra subsequently held its first litter round table in March 2010, attended by public and private sector organisations including big players such as McDonalds and Coca Cola, followed by a wider ‘litter summit’ the following year.

‘I think CPRE can pat itself on the back because we’ve really got litter onto the national agenda – but there’s clearly still a lot of work to do,’ says Bill. ‘I don’t think that Government at any level is taking anything like enough action to deal with litter – either in persuading people not to drop it, or making it harder for them to do so.’

5. Media star
During his time at CPRE Bill has generated huge amounts of press interest in our work, from being interviewed by all the broadsheet newspapers to appearing on every major news channel. He has every intention of speaking his mind. ‘What CPRE is there for is to protect the countryside, and it’s very frustrating when you run into people who think you’re making a fuss about nothing,’ he says. ‘A lot of people believe the countryside is somehow immutable and self-sustaining. You have to say to those people, “No, if the Government is allowed to make such-and-such a decision, that could be really bad news for the landscape.”’

6. Save our forests
When Defra announced it was planning a major sell off of publicly owned forests in England, Bill was one of nearly 100 leading public figures to sign an open letter protesting the decision. The letter, which was published in The Sunday Telegraph in January 2011, called the decision ‘unconscionable’. Less than a month later, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would be reversing his own Government’s policy. An independent panel is now due to report on its recommendations for the future of the Forestry Commission.

7. Facebook champion

By promoting CPRE’s campaign messages to his Facebook fans, Bill helped spread the word about our work in cyberspace and contributed to 40,000 online campaign actions taken during the two years he remained on the site. You can now keep up to date with our work directly by liking CPRE on facebook  and following CPRE on Twitter

8. Challenging pylons

Unsightly electricity pylons have long been a bugbear of Bill’s, and he helped CPRE engage with National Grid over the issue. In 2009 he spoke out against plans for new high-voltage power lines through some of our most prized landscapes, pointing out that ‘more pylons do not equal progress’, and urging the Government and National Grid to work together to reduce their impact on the countryside. CPRE’s campaign against intrusive pylons continues – follow it here

9. Cambridge clear-up

In February 2011 Bill spearheaded CPRE’s legal battle to force train operators to tackle rubbish on our railways. He threatened Network Rail with a Litter Abatement Order to compel the company to tidy up its tracks in Cambridgeshire. ‘Railway operators and Network Rail are not the only offenders, but they are responsible for far too much uncollected litter,’ he said. ‘The first impression for a visitor arriving in a town is often formed by their view from a train carriage, and it is a disgrace that the view is so often a degraded and dirty one that suggests a lack of pride in the area.’ The result? Network Rail announced a spring clean. Find out more about how to use Litter Abatement Orders to tackle rubbish hot spots on our Litteraction website 


10. Icons of England
Bill’s involvement helped make CPRE’s book celebrating the countryside, Icons of England (Black Swan), a publishing hit. HRH Prince Charles paid tribute to Bill’s campaigning efforts in his foreword. Bill’s own favourite icons of Englishness included the traditional seaside pier: ‘magnificent while having no evident purpose at all.’

I think CPRE can pat itself on the back because we’ve really got litter onto the national agenda – but there’s clearly still a lot of work to do.

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