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Campaign to Protect Rural England celebrating its 90th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 09:26 13 September 2016 | UPDATED: 09:26 13 September 2016

Director of CPRE Sussex, Kia Trainor

Director of CPRE Sussex, Kia Trainor

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The unplanned development that would become Peacehaven caused uproar among residents of the Sussex coastline. The result was the establishment of the Campaign for Rural England, which this year celebrates its 90th anniversary. Jane Watson finds out more

One hundred years ago, with World War I raging in Europe, Sussex found itself at the frontline of a very different battle. This new, home-grown skirmish began in the idyllic setting of the Sussex coastline, and was the catalyst for a campaign which has been protecting the English countryside ever since.

In 1916, the first of a new breed of property developers saw a business opportunity in the growing numbers of people seeking the peace and quiet of country life. Land agent Charles Neville bought a swathe of land along the Sussex coast and held a competition in the Daily Express offering hundreds of “free” plots as prizes (omitting to say that he would then charge a conveyancing fee). The result was a sprawling settlement of caravans, shacks and kit bungalows with no roads, power or sanitation. A further competition in 1917 named the resulting town Peacehaven.

This burgeoning, unplanned development along one of England’s most beautiful coastlines caused national outrage and inspired the president of the Town Planning Institute, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, and the president of the Royal Institute of Architects, Guy Dawber, to set about the business of protecting the beauty of rural England.

“The time has come when definite steps should be taken to prevent the further destruction and disfigurement of rural England,” wrote Dawber in The Times in 1925.

The result of this initiative was the formation of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

However, having inadvertently inspired the birth of the CPRE, it seems that Sussex has never been allowed to rest on her laurels. The combination of natural beauty and perfect location has attracted all kinds of unsuitable proposals over the years.

In 1939, with England on the brink of another world war, Sussex was yet again in danger of an invasion of a very different kind. Property developer Sidney Toms had set his sights on the pretty Sussex village of Ditchling as the location for a new garden city. He bought 700 acres of prime farmland bordering the South Downs and submitted his proposals to the district council. The Southdown Estate was to provide 2,800 homes for 10,000 people.

In the very same week that Britain entered World War II, local newspapers published their first reports outlining Toms’ plans for Ditchling’s new garden city. He had timed his proposal perfectly – just as the government, busy with the war effort, had cancelled all official inquiries into unsuitable housing developments.

Local people expressed their outrage in a letter to the Mid Sussex Times: “Residents of Ditchling, almost without exception, declare that the execution of any such scheme must inevitably deprive the village of every vestige of charm it now possesses.”

Once again the CPRE stepped in, describing the proposal as an “urban blot on the Weald” which “no amount of revision would be likely to render other than monstrous from a countryside preservation view point.”

Three years later, after a hard-fought battle by determined local villagers backed by CPRE Sussex, the Ministry of Works and Planning finally put a stop to Toms’ proposal.

The CPRE has come a long way in 90 years – evolving with changing attitudes and landscapes into a modern organisation. No-one has seen this transition more clearly than the campaign’s Chichester representative, Richard Hill who at 96 is CPRE Sussex’s oldest active member:

“As the population increases there have got to be more houses,” he says, “It’s inevitable – they have to go somewhere. The overall prospect of a rural countryside is decreasing, it can’t be helped. But what you can do is to ensure that when you build, you build in a good place and not a bad place.”

Today, the Sussex countryside is yet again in unprecedented danger as planners across the county consign thousands more acres for development. CPRE Sussex has responded with new vigour and determination.

Director Kia Trainor is a busy working mum and understands what needs to be done to inspire a new generation of countryside campaigners:

“For many years there has been concern that we are ‘disconnecting’ with nature,” she says, “but I think now there is a growing awareness of the value of our countryside, not just to support us with food and leisure opportunities, but also to provide nature corridors, mitigate against climate change and alleviate flood risk. There is the issue of how much we value our countryside and wildlife and what sort of legacy we want to leave for our children. This year we are also expanding our events programme to include tours and talks for children.”

One of the vital services CPRE Sussex provides is expertise on the ever-changing planning process – a process which, says Kia, has become highly problematic: “Local councils increasingly bear the brunt of criticisms that we are not building enough houses,” she says. “But although councils can allocate land for development, they cannot control how fast these sites are built out, which is an issue controlled by other factors such as the economy. The houses which are most profitable are not always the houses which are most needed by local communities.

“Most of our volunteers are ‘barefoot planners’ – scanning weekly planning lists to flag up proposals which may cause harm to the countryside or give support to plans which provide affordable housing and protect our landscapes and wildlife.”

Standing on the South Downs drinking in the wide green beauty of the Sussex landscape it is easy to see how vulnerable this beauty is. Surely we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those barefoot planners…not to mention the campaigners of old.

“CPRE is not nostalgic but determined to play our part in sustaining the countryside for future generations,” says the chairman of CPRE Sussex, David Johnson.

“Sussex is more than London’s dormitory or playground – Sussex deserves better.”


Get involved

• CPRE has been working to protect rural Sussex for 90 years.

• Nationally the organisation campaigns for better legislation to protect the countryside, rural economy and the environment.

• Locally, CPRE Sussex now has 2,500 members protecting rural communities across the county.

• Join the campaign at: www.cpresussex.org.uk

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