When did the CPRE start hating houses?

New houses in Harlow New Town, 1951. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.