Campaign to Protect Rural England Standing up for your countryside

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Getting started

CPRE has a strategic objective to promote sustainable travel in rural areas CPRE has a strategic objective to promote sustainable travel in rural areas © david martyn hughes / Alamy

It’s a wonderful feeling to be starting my first day in the office as CPRE chief executive. And as part of my preparation, I’ve spent the past month enjoying the countryside that this great organisation has done so much to protect – not a bad introduction to a new job!

The campaigning edge that gave the nation Green Belts, National Parks and a town and country planning system was the thing that most attracted me to CPRE, after 13 very special years at the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). I must pay tribute to my predecessor, Shaun Spiers, who has stoutly defended those historic achievements while shaping the national debate on affordable housing, urban regeneration, litter, greener transport and so much more. 

Of course, Shaun was ably supported by a passionate team of national office staff, and a network of local volunteers renowned for their determination and expertise. This combination has been at the heart of all CPRE’s success, and is the reason why it is a highly respected organisation with a very exciting future.

Immediate priorities

A quick glance through our 2016/17 Annual Review shows that CPRE remains hugely influential, and there are certainly plenty of areas where our influence is required! Brexit brings uncertainty, but creates the potential for stronger environmental protections and a greener farm support system. We also have a chance to push for reforms in the way housing targets are calculated: the status quo is failing to deliver the affordable homes we need while putting needless pressure on our precious countryside.

One way to alleviate this pressure would be to make better use of the previously developed sites that could provide at least 1.1m homes and revitalise our cities. The introduction of ‘brownfield registers’ (thanks, in part, to CPRE’s ‘Waste of Space’ campaign) is a good start, but I look forward to working on further practical steps to ensure that ‘brownfield first’ truly underpins housing policy. 

The introduction of the plastic bag charge was another recent win for a coalition in which CPRE played a major role. I hope we can make sure it is swiftly followed by a deposit return scheme for drinks containers – a simple, sustainable solution that would vastly reduce the litter that endangers wildlife and spoils our experience of the countryside. Finally, as a keen walker and cyclist, I’m delighted that we have an objective to promote sustainable travel in rural areas, and excited about building on the CPRE work that led to the UK’s first ever Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.

My hopes for CPRE

Though all that sounds like a fairly daunting in-tray, I’m confident that we can and will achieve our immediate goals. At the same time, I’m conscious that we are working towards longer-term ambitions, including a more democratic and strategic planning system, and joined-up national strategies to protect our landscape and environment.

Our 2026 Vision also aspires to a fairer deal for rural communities, in terms of access to services and affordable housing. It’s important to me that CPRE continues to be a powerful advocate for these things, having become deeply enmeshed in rural life at CCT - we looked after a lot of historic churches in villages where all the other community assets had gone. My hope is that CPRE will be able to work with other rural organisations to establish some positive good practice to help reduce rural deprivation and make village life fit for the 21st century.

As a Hackney resident, I also appreciate the importance of urban green space – not just for fresh air and physical exercise, but also for the mental health benefits of being around nature, beauty and tranquillity. With 80% of us living in urban areas, millions of future countryside lovers will make that vital connection with nature in their local park or Green Belt. That’s why I thought CPRE’s report last year on the recreational and wildlife potential of the Green Belt was so interesting, and a brilliant way to give an old concept new meaning.

Just as the Green Belt can be far more than a buffer against urban sprawl, so we need to challenge the worst stereotypes of the wider countryside: just a nice view, and thus expendable in the name of commercial gain. We don’t need to lay waste to our countryside when we know we have enough space to build the houses that people need elsewhere.

If my time at CPRE takes us significantly closer to our ultimate vision of ‘a countryside valued and enjoyed by us all as a huge national asset’, I will be very happy indeed.

We don’t need to lay waste to our countryside when we know we have enough space to build the houses that people need elsewhere.

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Hay field harvest

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