Campaign to Protect Rural England turns 90

PUBLISHED: 11:42 09 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:25 10 April 2018

1927 advertisement for Rover cars

1927 advertisement for Rover cars

Credit: Neil Baylis / Alamy Stock Photo

As Campaign to Protect Rural England marks its 90th year, Liz Hamilton takes the long view of its work in the face of rapid change in the county

Victorian London, hugely overcrowded, began to spread its population into neighbouring counties in the late 19th century, as transport improvements initiated the daily movements of working people we now call commuting. Fingers of urban development spread along road and rail routes running out from the capital. In Hertfordshire the Lea Valley was one of the first areas to be overtaken by this ribbon development. In the first decade of the 20th century around 550,000 people moved out of London to the new suburbs, many of them coming to Hertfordshire. The county’s population was just over 258,000 at the 1901 census. In the next 10 years it grew by a staggering 20 per cent. Growth slowed during the First World War then picked up again, and by 1921 the county’s population exceeded 333,000.

The early 20th century also saw the spread of unregulated housing developments dotted about the countryside, the result of growing car ownership and the availability of electricity in rural areas. In the 1920s the loss of countryside to poorly planned and often poorly designed development became a national issue, but the town planning measures then in place were mainly concerned with building standards and were not intended to protect the countryside.

In 1926 a group of 22 organisations came together to form the national Campaign to Protect Rural England (see Hertfordshire Life December 2016). From its formation, CPRE campaigned for a universal planning system which would give some areas protected status while focussing development in appropriate locations. In the same year in Hertfordshire a group convened by Hertford solicitor Elton Longmore agreed among themselves not to sell land for housing, so disturbed were they by the impact on the county of ribbon development.

Legislation in 1925 promoted the concept of regional planning, allowing local authorities to form committees to advise on (but not control) development in a ‘region’. Hertfordshire was the first ‘region’ to produce a regional planning report (published in 1927). A conference to debate the report was held in 1928, when it was decided that a rural preservation committee should be formed for the county.

At its inaugural meeting this committee agreed to become the Hertfordshire branch of CPRE. Sir Theodore Chambers, chairman of the Welwyn Garden City Company, was the first chairman. CPRE Hertfordshire has been standing up for the county’s countryside ever since (for part of its 90-year history it was known as The Hertfordshire Society).

The 1927 regional planning report (you can find a copy at shows Hertfordshire on the cusp of change. Agriculture, including market gardening, was still the largest employer in the county, but at the same time there were more men employed in construction than in the whole of London. The report anticipated that electricity would soon be available everywhere except in the county’s remotest districts. Further urban growth was inevitable, the report acknowledged, and needed to be properly planned. It revealed that there had been surveys of possible sites for new towns centred on Bayford, south of Hertford, and at Aldbury near Tring, both close to railway stations.

The growth in road traffic was causing many concerns. The number of annual motor vehicle licences issued in the county was increasing significantly and between 1923 and 1925 commercial traffic on the county’s main roads doubled. Many roads occupied narrow streets through towns and villages. To cope with this huge surge in traffic the report contained a long list of proposed road improvements. The photograph of the recently opened Watford bypass is worth a look. By modern standards the contemporary photos of town centres look remarkably traffic free – such as those of St Albans.

Cars have played a huge part in how development has happenedCars have played a huge part in how development has happened

The 1927 report also advocated the establishment of a Green Belt to ensure the permanent preservation of a belt of open country which would define a limit to continuous urban growth. Theodore Chambers reiterated the need for a Green Belt around London at a national CPRE conference held in Welwyn GC in 1930, and achieving this aim was a key element of the group’s campaigning thereafter.

CPRE nationally and locally has played a huge role in protecting the 80 per cent of Hertfordshire which is still countryside today. Thanks to the Green Belt you can walk in open countryside in the most southerly parts of the county, within 15 miles of Westminster. How that came about is a fascinating story, involving persuasion and persistence rather than power, with many unsung heroes and campaigns lost as well as won.

Throughout CPRE Hertfordshire’s 90th anniversary year we plan to publish a series of articles about our history on our website,

Do take a look.

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