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.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.