Sir Patrick Abercrombie was Britain’s greatest 20th century urban planner. He master- planned London and Hong Kong, and helped found the first generation of new towns.
He was also a founding member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), and wrote one of its principal documents, The Preservation of Rural England, in 1926. The CPRE wished to promote the nascent methods of town planning to preserve the character of the countryside in the face of large-scale suburban and rural development. Development in the countryside was inevitable but would, the campaign believed, be of no major threat to its integrity with proper planning. In practice, this meant the cessation of dispersed ‘ribbon’ development, which was occurring along major roads, and its replacement with more spatially efficient new towns.
The CPRE was effectively the rural wing of the UK’s town planning movement; its initial members included the Town Planning Association and the Royal Association of British Architects. It aimed to plan new developments to preserve and enhance the rural landscape, just as the emerging science of urban planning would improve the urban environment.
No doubt helped by the high calibre of its members, the CPRE scored a significant number of successes in the 25 years following its establishment. Ribbon developments were outlawed in 1935, with the CPRE also contributing to the 1947 Town and Country planning act, the basis of the modern English planning system. In addition, the highest quality areas of the English landscape were made national parks in 1949. By embracing the new urban planning, the early CPRE permitted necessary housebuilding while protecting the essential character of the English countryside.
That is a bitter contrast to today. A former pioneer of English planning is now reduced to treating houses like poison. An organisation that once helped settle a million Londoners in new towns now does almost everything in its power to keep housing out of the countryside and inside existing city limits. It denies the scale of the housing shortage, vastly underestimating the number of houses needed. It overstates the case for brownfield industrial sites, by glossing over the fact that there are nowhere near enough to provide sufficient housing where most needed.
The powers that the planning system gives to local communities were partly designed by the founding members of the CPRE to promote good design and appropriate rural development. Now they are mainly used by local groups like a barricade to block every type of housing, even if well planned, designed and affordable. The CPRE may say it is protecting the countryside by minimising building, but this runs counter to its founding values. Housing, irrespective of quantity, should not be anathema to the integrity of the countryside if planned correctly. The original CPRE blocked badly-planned housing too, but it created real alternatives.
The CPRE has become like the “recluse who lives in the country”, once mocked by Abercrombie, which wishes to see the countryside “sterilised” and “all development prevented”.
When did the rot set in? The 1940s CPRE worried more about poorly placed billboards than new towns. By the 1960s, there were jitters about population increases in south east of England, but the CPRE was still broadly appreciative of housebuilding efforts. It was only during the early 1980s that today’s CPRE, with its singular obsession with preventing all building in the countryside, emerged.
CPRE reports from this time boast of battles with the National Housing Federation and fights to cut housing targets. Rural housing, a major priority for the organisation in all reports until then, goes unmentioned. There is no explicit denial of housing need or obsession with former industrial land, but the beginning of the rot can be seen.
Did its nerve simply fail? After all, simple opposition is always easier than finding a realistic alternative. Or perhaps instead, a generation which grew up securely housed due to rising homeownership over the 1960s and ‘70s, took housing for granted and forgot the needs of younger generations.
As the CPRE begins to recognise that the character and social fabric of rural England is imperilled by the resulting housing crisis, it must urgently return to a line from its first pamphlet: “It is not intended that the council shall be merely a negative force. It is part of its policy to promote sustainable and harmonious development.”
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.