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The grass isn’t always greener

The grass isn’t always greener

Campaign to Protect Rural England

4 min read Partner content

The Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England Shaun Spiers makes the case for keeping the countryside beautiful 

The beauty of the English countryside has been long celebrated in art and literature.

Less poetry has been written, however, about sprawling new build housing estates and dystopian concrete infrastructure projects.

Protecting the former from the unnecessary proliferation of the latter is the aim of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

The group is committed to keeping the countryside intact and thriving for future generations.

Given their aspirations, CPRE is surprisingly sympathetic to Britain’s housing and transport needs.   

Chief Executive Shaun Spiers dismisses the description of the organisation as one which resists progress.

“People call us nimbys all the time – we are not in denial about the need for housing,” he says.     

Their recently released manifesto, A beautiful countryside to sustain us all, sets out a housing policy that advocates ‘the right housing in the right places’.

However, this is not a rigid doctrine but rather a concept that seeks to guide policy in the direction of a considered and thoughtful plan that respects both the landscape and those who live amongst it.

CPRE wants more housing in general, and particularly more affordable rural housing, and would like to see the state step up to meet the increasing demand for homes.

The main thrust of their argument is that any housebuilding should be primarily concentrated on brownfield sites.

In research done last year the group found that local authorities had identified the capacity for at least 1 million new homes on suitable brownfield land in England. 

“We are pretty bloody-mindedly against building within the Green Belt… Green Belt boundaries can be altered in exceptional circumstances, but only as part of a thorough, democratic planning process. Broadly our preference is for regenerating towns and cities,” Mr Spiers says.

CPRE would like to see that happen countrywide to encourage prosperity in all English regions.  

“If you just assume that all the growth is going to be in the south east, or perhaps Manchester or Leeds – a couple of big cities that are doing well - then it is going to be really difficult to protect the countryside in the south east.

“That is partly why CPRE has been supportive of a new, north-south high speed rail line.

 “I say that it in quite careful wording because we have got some criticisms of HS2. “But we are for better regional balance, and HS2 can play a part in achieving that. If you give up on the north and give up on places like Hull and Preston and Bury and the places that are struggling, you not only write off the life chances of thousands of people, you also make it much harder to protect countryside,” he says.

HS2 has won the cautious support of the organisation for this reason, although it still has issues with the initiative. 

CPRE’s second manifesto call is for ‘the right infrastructure for the right reasons’.

The Government’s ambitious rail infrastructure project does not yet meet the campaign group’s requirements and Mr Spiers would like to see “better mitigation, more tunnelling and bigger emphasis on design…

“If you are going to do it, do it beautifully. Let’s have some viaducts that we can celebrate in 100 years like we celebrate the Victorian viaducts, not ghastly concrete.”

He describes the UK’s first attempt at a high speed line, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, as “quite brutalist.”

“I don’t think anybody is going to be celebrating that… there is a lot bad lighting and there is a lot of fencing to keep trespassers off and so on. So, we are just saying let’s do it in a way that is as attractive as possible.” 

Other potential transport initiatives prompt greater scepticism, with the case for airport expansion in the capital top of the hit list.     

“We don’t see the need for airport expansion in the south east, it would have a terrible impact on tranquillity, which is one of the things CPRE has promoted. If it takes place at Gatwick it will have a disastrous effect on the Green Belt and create an awful lot more congestion and housing…

“We just don’t believe the case has been made. There is under-capacity in some airports…

“We are really, really opposed to expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick,” Mr Spiers says. 

He has been Chief Executive of the CPRE for over a decade and does not just call on policy makers to protect the English countryside but also enlists the help of his children, by taking them litter picking.  

“I do it with my kids near my house, which is a bizarre leisure activity because they love it.”

Potential future recruits for the CPRE? The organisation will take all the help it can get to keep this land green and pleasant. 

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