The Truman show: CPRE chief executive on his priorities for the countryside

Posted On: 
1st February 2018

The Campaign to Protect Rural England’s chief executive speaks to PoliticsHome about his new position and how this government is approaching the many environmental challenges which the UK faces.

CPRE Chief Executive Crispin Truman

It might seem an unusual career path, to have gone from working in mental health to heritage and ending up with the natural environment. But seasoned charity official Crispin Truman, the fresh faced chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), thinks otherwise.

“Those are artificial divisions. In terms of the audience, people who care about these issues, there’s a strong relationship between all of them,” he says. “In fact, in my last job one of the big projects we did was convert a Grade 1 church in Ipswich into a mental wellbeing centre jointly with Mind. So, I made a connection there with the mental health and heritage. Of course, getting out and about in the countryside is key to mental health and wellbeing, as we know.”

Truman, a former chief executive of the Revolving Doors Agency, joined CPRE in September of last year after 14 years at the Churches Conservation Trust. His varied experience he believes leaves him well placed for the job.

“Running a charity is a lot about fundraising, governance management, structures, finance, a lot of transferable stuff that is broadly the same in every charity. I think you need to care about it, but you don’t have to be a specialist.

“Sometimes organisations, not just in the charity sector, make a mistake by thinking they have to appoint a specialist to the top job, whereas actually a top job is a very generalist job. You need to understand enough, but you also need to work across lots of different disciplines.”

Truman lives in Hackney, east London, but relishes the opportunity to cycle at the weekends to neighbouring Hertfordshire. “I love the city but being among trees and country lanes, you get that feel of a time gone by, it’s a wonderful day out. When I then realised that that bit of east Hertfordshire is threatened by very insensitive and ill-thought through housing development, the whole relevance of CPRE becomes very personal,” he explains.

It has been a “whirlwind” few months bedding in at CPRE, Truman says. “I’ve just discovered this huge area of policy around the natural environment and access to countryside in particular that is highly complex, very interesting, very political. I’m sinking my teeth into it.”

And Truman is not short of ideas of the direction in which he wants to take CPRE. His first challenge is to review how CPRE articulates its purpose. For this, he has revisited the founding principles of the charity when it was established by 22 organisations 92 years ago. “It was never about nimbyism, and I think that’s very important. It was about okay, this is a country that’s developing and growing but let’s do it in a way that doesn’t destroy and lose our countryside. That’s more relevant now than ever before. It’s going back to those core principles,” he explains.

“Our defining principle is around people and the countryside. One of the things we’re going to do a lot more on is explain why it’s important to protect the countryside for people; the people who a) live there and b) like visiting it. We are going to push hard on that.

“The other thing we’re going to do more on is positive solution focussed responses. We’re often forced into a position where we’re fighting something because there are so many bad threats at the moment. But that allows people to paint us as negative. We don’t want to be seen as negative. We’re a positive organisation with a huge number of volunteers who really care about their environment and want it to be beautiful.”

As a result, CPRE will concentrate on fewer, larger campaigns. With the National Planning Policy Framework due to start in March, CPRE is also preparing to run a joint report with homeless charity Shelter focussed on rural, affordable housing. “This issue of needs-led, community-led, often smaller scale, high quality, sustainable housing around rural communities, we want to actually campaign for that. We’re not an anti-housing charity.”

Truman is also keen to empower CPRE’s foot soldiers to make the organisation a “much more bottom-up, enabling, volunteer-focussed charity”. “Where I’m investing in CPRE nationally is on the side that supports volunteers and partnerships, because we think we can do a lot more by supporting campaigners and volunteers out in the counties and working with partners. That’s the broad strategy for the charity.”

Insofar as housing is concerned, Truman believes that current policy has “declared open season on the countryside”. “The previous consensus about how housing, health and access to the countryside are all primary social goods seems to have been lost. We seem to be being sold that you’ve got to trade off the countryside to get housing. That I think is unfair,” he says.

Truman has fears about protections for areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), with five times as many permissions being granted to build on AONBs than in the previous five years. “We’re very keen of course on brownfield. We think there’s 1.1 million sites on brownfield to be used. We think there’s a lot of underused land in the suburbs, often there’s empty homes. It’s more complicated, at the moment it’s too easy to say, ‘let’s build on the greenfield’,” he says.

And though Truman broadly welcomes the Government’s 25-year environment plan, he wants to see joined up thinking between Whitehall Departments, such as the newly beefed up Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Transport Department. As for his views of Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, Truman says he is “very much” happy with the Cabinet minister’s performance thus far.

“The key thing about the 25-year plan is it’s meant to be a cross-government plan. So, it was launched by Theresa May, very significant, you’ve got a resurgent Defra, a strong Secretary of State. Are we going to see other departments the now called MHCLG and the Transport Department – how are we going to see those respond,” he adds.

CPRE is part of the umbrella group Greener UK, which is a collaboration around the environment sector’s response to Brexit. The campaign body is calling for environmental protections enjoyed as part of EU membership are continued after Brexit, and wants to ensure that the newly proposed environmental watchdog has the requisite teeth to keep governments in check, without the European Commission to keep tabs.

“While leaving the European Union leaves us with many uncertainties, we must focus on the opportunity we have to improve areas like the Common Agricultural Policy and paying people particularly for just pure ownership of land, it does seem that talk of focussing public funding and subsidy on public benefits rather than just pure farm size, is right and very strong,” he says.

So how is Truman’s overall outlook, as he embarks on his first full calendar year as chief executive of CPRE?

“It’s very interesting. When you read the Conservative party manifesto, when you see Defra, the 25-year plan, we’ve talked to the Prime Minister’s special adviser on the environment, they say all the right things about the countryside. That greenbelt and AONBs are protected and won’t be encroached on. But in practice something different is happening on the ground. We want to try and close that loop.”