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Book marks Campaign to Protect Rural England’s 90th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 10:15 09 December 2016 | UPDATED: 10:15 09 December 2016

Chris Howe

Chris Howe

Copyright © 2010 Chris Howe

A book marking 90 years since the creation of Campaign to Protect Rural England shows how groups came together to drive through key protections for the English landscape, Liz Hamilton writes

Chris HoweChris Howe

Ninety years ago this month, in December 1926, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England met for the first time. The idea of Guy Dawber and Patrick Abercrombie, presidents of the Institute of British Architects and Institute of Town Planning respectively, the new organisation united 22 groups with the shared aim of saving rural England from the threat of what Dawber called ‘imminent destruction’. The Spectator said the number of participating bodies was a good omen, since 22 ‘is quite the most English of all the numbers’ being the length of a cricket pitch – 22 yards (also known as a chain) and the basis of the acre (10 square chains).

At the time, there was widespread concern that rural England was being overwhelmed by housing and industrial buildings, destroying the country fought for in the First World War. Growing car ownership and the availability of electricity in rural areas facilitated the spread of this unplanned development. In 1926, Abercrombie published a pamphlet, The Preservation of Rural England, promoting development and economic prosperity without destroying valued countryside, which he described as ‘the most essential thing which is England’. His vision was for a planning system that gave some areas protected status while permitting development elsewhere, and he called for a new body uniting single-issue groups into a strong campaigning force. CPRE was born.

A new book, 22 Ideas That Saved the English Countryside, celebrates the group’s achievements and those of other bodies, with stories of pioneering campaigners and unsung heroes. With stunning photography by leading landscape photographers, including Herts’ Chris Howe, whose image of the winter countryside near Breachwood Green is reproduced here, this is an attractive book which has been meticulously researched.

In the foreword, Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate and CPRE past president, describes the English landscape as ‘our greatest collaborative masterpiece and our greatest gift to the wide world, greater even than Shakespeare’. If today we take for granted National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belt, which protect so much of our countryside, the book reminds us that in the 1920s none of these existed.

Chris HoweChris Howe

A defining moment for CPRE came in 1929 when three parliamentary party leaders, David Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin, united during the election campaign to endorse a CPRE fundraising appeal. In 1934 the ministers of health and transport supported its campaign against ribbon development, an early success for CPRE which demonstrated that it could harness public and political support. It took another 13 years, and the Second World War, for the first of Abercrombie’s visionary ideas to be achieved – the planning system, introduced in 1947. National Parks followed in 1949 and the Green Belt six years later.

The author of 22 Ideas, Peter Waine, has lived in Hertfordshire for many years while combining a business career with practical action reflecting his passion for the countryside. He has chaired the Tree Council and more recently CPRE, which he led for six years. An author of bestselling business books, a novel and poetry, he said that 22 Ideas is the book he always wanted to write, since ‘there is a deep love for the countryside in most people, but they may need help to reconnect with it’. His way of connecting is through walking, which he does as often as possible from his home near Welwyn.

Waine and co-author Oliver Hilliam argue that in 1926 there was a window of opportunity to kick-start CPRE’s ideas, when committed individuals united political and public desire for action. Hilliam is steeped in CPRE history, having been librarian, archivist and information officer for the organisation for the past 15 years. Even so, it surprised him to discover while writing the book how influential CPRE has been. ‘It turned out that in most of the 22 ideas, CPRE was a leading voice.’

How optimistic are the authors for the future, given that CPRE, its title changed to Campaign (rather than Council) to Protect Rural England in 2003, remains as busy as ever?

Herts Green Belt, Chris HoweHerts Green Belt, Chris Howe

‘We continue to take inspiration from the pioneers who have handed down something which remains the envy of the world – the unique beauty of the English countryside.’

The book recounts how in 1902 a Sheffield factory worker sent a small donation to an early National Trust appeal for the Lake District, adding in a note, ‘All my life I have longed to see the Lakes. I shall never see them now, but I should like to help keep them for others.’ A poignant and inspirational reminder, if needed, that every small contribution makes a difference.

22 Ideas That Saved the English Countryside by Oliver Hilliam and Peter Waine is available in hardcover, RRP £25

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