Campaign to Protect Rural England Standing up for your countryside

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The future of the countryside

Young people and farmers will be crucial to the future of the countryside  Young people and farmers will be crucial to the future of the countryside © Shutterstock

Having grown up on a farm in rural County Tyrone, I undertook BSc and MSc research into the trickle-down impact of the EU and its strategic investments on employment and transport infrastructure in rural communities. Environmentally and economically, rural communities depend much on agriculture, and I appreciate the budgeting concern at leaving the EU – concerns I’m sure are shared in rural England.

Fortunately, the English countryside does not seem to share some of the substandard housing design I found in rural Donegal (which is also in contrast to the more effective design strategy for rural Northern Ireland). But it is clear there is not enough consideration of the environmental impacts of development amongst hard-pressed local authorities, and it could be a testing time for environmental advocates in the countryside, including CPRE.  

Parish potential
The fluctuating national governance here in England has brought many changes to the planning system, perhaps most positively the simplified focus of the National Planning Policy Framework (reducing over a thousand pages of planning policy to about 50) and the introduction of statutory status for parish councils in the Localism Act 2011. In my mind, it is parish councils who are now to be tasked with advocating the interests of the countryside, and I am already seeing them take on this role in parish submissions and plans.

I would like to see parish councils extend their social networking to help challenge ‘development at all costs’ agendas, particularly whilst unrealistic housing targets are placed on local authorities. There is real potential for parish councils to mobilise grassroots networks – including through crowdfunded planning appeals – to challenge unsustainable development.

The power of collaboration
In my career, I have spent much time analysing development feasibility and working at a very local level within communities, both in education and planning. There is much to be shared between professions on how best to promote an understanding of the planning system, and greater public engagement with it.

Having worked with architects and for developers, including on rural and urban masterplans in the Republic of Ireland, I would advocate tackling rural projects through a ‘charette’ approach – a workshop format that encourages local people to collaborate with specialists to develop a vision for their community. So the Localism Act’s introduction of pre-application consultations and neighbourhood planning have been positive changes to planning in England, helping local people and developers/architects understand each other better.

Sustainable development?
Much has been said about the drive toward development in the countryside since removal of regional planning – with every county now aspiring to highest potential growth levels, regardless of the capacity of the region as a whole to handle such growth. Having been trained in planning during the regional era, I recognise the change in approach when considering large housing applications in the countryside for CPRE Bedfordshire.

Through my membership of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), I have realised that in the short term, the biggest threats to the countryside are actually coming from the planning system leaning toward an inadequate definition of sustainability. At a micro level, habitat and species are not likely to be helped by the implementation of regressive policies on global issues like climate change – so it is important that Brexit outcomes provide some certainty on the environment.    

Reasons for optimism
In challenging times, opportunity comes from our youth. It remains to be seen what our young people will want to do for the countryside, but technology can empower them in their efforts. In the end, this will dictate what the next 15-20 years bring. It is paramount that CPRE engages with this technological age, to let young people know that they exist and are ready to do the right thing for the environment and society.

In fact, all conservation groups must engage with rural voices, to understand what they want and need, and then educate them in using planning and regulations. I feel there is a shared responsibility for this, at what is such a crucial time in history for the countryside. The RSPB have been doing excellent work in this regard, educating the farming community on the regulatory changes resulting from EU membership. I know first-hand that farmers can adapt where they can see a clear business case; and with CPRE arguing for a new system of farm support post-Brexit, we could see increased incentives for managing the land in a way that provides even more benefits for communities, landscapes and the wider environment.


Kieran Devine volunteers as a planner with the Bedfordshire branch of CPRE. Want to get involved with CPRE? Find out more in our Ways To Volunteer section.

There is real potential for parish councils to mobilise grassroots networks to challenge unsustainable development.

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