This article was amended at 15.00hrs to correct a minor cock-up.
The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England likes to think itself a supporter of affordable housing. It even supported a report by Shelter calling for an additional 3.1 million social homes over the next few decades. But to quote its former president Sean Spiers, “It is easy to say that one supports house building; the test comes when new houses are proposed for a specific place.”
The CPRE almost always fails this test. The only time I ever came across my local CPRE group in relation to social housing was when they were blocking it. My local council, in partnership with a housing association, proposed building 217 genuinely affordable homes for low-income workers. Alas, it fell foul of the standards of the ever-watchful CPRE Sussex as it was located on a part of the rural-urban fringe they liked. They objected, supported protests, and the scheme was scrapped. This is in a city where the number of people waiting for social housing is over 10,000.
This is not just my experience. CPRE Avonside suggested that the homeless and those in temporary accommodation should not be added to housing targets and then proceeded to demand a reduction in Bristol’s affordable housing target of 5,842 homes. In addition, they requested measures be taken to stop young families moving into the local countryside. CPRE Oxfordshire displayed even worse behaviour by insisting that the affordable housing provision for Oxford, a city with an average house price of £450,000, be cut from 1,400 homes a year to merely 776 (page 5).
The late planner Sir Peter Hall observed that many rural planning restrictions existed to keep lower-class housing out of the affluent shires. The CPRE may dispute that. But the behaviour of the CPRE about the prospect of affordable housing in their backyard gives strong support to his claim.
It is not just the opposition to affordable housing that proves Peter Hall's point; it is also the disgusting attitude of many CPRE members. For example, at the West of England Joint Spatial Plan examination, the CPRE representative referred to lower-income residents as “strays and single mothers”.
The entire planning ethos of the CPRE is to keep people away from where its wealthy supporters in the countryside live. It is effectively a consultancy firm funded mainly by the elites of the shires to promote policies to preserve their areas in aspic. When the CPRE says it wants affordable housing, what it means is that it wants this affordable housing to be shoved in inner urban areas as part of “regeneration” projects. CPRE London, for example, has demanded that 360,000 homes be built on existing council estates.
Instead of allowing some affordable housing in the countryside they promote the “intensification of low-density housing estates” (paragraph 2). They appear to be advocating a process which involves demolishing the homes of low-income council tenants. Whether the current inhabitants actually want their homes demolished is not considered.
Granted the CPRE likes to pretend this is just about protecting the countryside, but this is clearly debatable. It likes to say that it believes in developing previously developed “brownfield sites” – but that isn’t always true. It doesn’t support developing these areas near their members, and instead prefers them to be designated greenbelt. It is surprisingly easy to build many things in the greenbelt: motorways, landfill, barns, even mines… just not housing. In fighting for the greenbelt the CPRE is not defending the character of the countryside from development, it is defending it from newcomers.
Sean Spiers celebrates a case in which “empty land that had been used for landfill and gravel extraction” was “protected” from having several thousand homes built there. It says a lot about the CPRE that, in its campaigners’ immediate surroundings, they prefer wasteland to the prospect of new neighbours.
So why do the CPRE even pretend to support affordable housing when nearly all of their policies are designed to make it impossible to build and most of their members would fight it? After all, there are only 1 million brownfield sites in England – most of them not where they are needed – and a need for 3.1 million social homes. Of course, the CPRE don’t have an answer to where the 2.1 million extra social homes should go.
It is probably because their talk of “affordable housing” is mainly a PR exercise. Supporting housing in the abstract is easy; after all, there is currently no major programme of social housebuilding in England. If one actually begins and, God forbid, builds housing too close to the shires, they will no doubt change their tune.
Simply put, the only affordable housing the CPRE will ever support at scale is the affordable housing that is never likely to be built.
Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.