ECOS 38 (2)
22 IDEAS THAT SAVED THE COUNTRYSIDE
Peter Waine and Oliver Hilliam
Campaign to Protect Rural England
Hardback RRP: £25.13
Review by Marion Shoard
What are the ideas which have compelled tens of thousands of people to devote time and effort to resisting the forces which might have destroyed the English countryside? Which of them have succeeded in overcoming the claims of housing, industry, infrastructure and so on? This book, published 80 years after the founding in 1926 of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), seeks to tease them out.
Authors Peter Waine and Oliver Hilliam, a former chair of CPRE and its senior communications and information officer respectively, divide their book into 22 chapters, each devoted to what might be deemed an idea, such as ‘the country code’, ‘the right to roam’, ‘National Parks’ and ‘keeping villages alive’. In each case a well-known figure such as Max Hastings, Jo Brand, Fiona Reynolds and Kate Adie has penned a couple of paragraphs by way of introduction, but the meat of each chapter is provided by Waine and Hilliam.
This is a well-produced book with attractive colour illustrations that provides an effective chronicle of the history of the landscape conservation movement in England. Nonetheless, when approaching topics like ‘nature reserves’ or ‘saving our forests’ it does not really pin down the underlying ideas that gave rise to them. Yet it is these ideas that need to be laid bare as conservationists face the possible transformation of our farmed countryside after the removal of the EU’s agricultural subsidy régime.
Take, say, chapters such as ‘green belts’, ‘taming the octopus’, ‘anti-litter’ and ‘cutting the clutter’. Designating a girdle of countryside around a town to separate it from its neighbours as green belt, banishing litter or demarcating country from town with clean lines, all stem from an underlying belief that a chaotic landscape is undesirable and tidiness is superior. The lovers of England’s landscape who are the heroes and heroines of Waine and Hilliam’s story were repelled by litter, free-standing advertisement hoardings, messiness, scruffiness and urban sprawl. There must be no messy advertisement hoardings littering the landscape. Urban development must not be allowed to sprawl out along roads, octopus style.
One of the challenges we face in trying to base countryside conservation on an antipathy to untidiness is that a large part of our landscape would be viewed as untidy by traditional countryside conservation campaigners. The last quarter of the 20th century and the whole of our own have seen the emergence of a type of landscape neither rural nor urban – the edgelands. These consist of a heterogeneous mix of rubbish tips and car scrapyards, equestrian establishments and superstores, business parks and derelict industrial buildings, traveller encampments and fragmented, frequently scruffy farmland. This type of landscape surrounds many of our settlements and occupies huge swathes of land yet it is pretty well ignored by Waine and Hilliam and CPRE, whose insistence that new development must be on brownfield rather than green field sites reduces the edgelands to second-class status. And yet, wildlife often flourishes in this in-between landscape far more than on pesticide-drenched, tidy green fields. Many edgeland environments harbour features of historical and archaeological interest. To make matters more challenging still for the traditional CPRE view, artists such as film-makers and photographers often seek out the edgelands because they value special aspects such as the aura of excitement and apparent lawlessness in abandoned industrial plant. At the same time, the edgelands offer huge opportunities to improve the environmental sustainability of 21st-century life and thus reduce greenhouse emissions – for example, through the installation of solar panels on the massive roofs of warehouses.
Another idea which proved extremely influential in the 20th century but may be not quite right in our own age (even assuming it was well-founded) is the belief that moor and mountain is superior in landscape terms and thus more deserving of protection than lowland landscapes. This belief bore fruit in the decision to focus on mountain and moor when National Parks were selected for designation, largely in the 1950s and 60s. But is this idea of the innate superiority of upland landscape right for our own times? After all, it is our lowlands which face the greatest pressure, for building in particular. What ideas can we find now to convince others of the need to conserve the ordinary yet utterly unique landscape of field and wood, hedge and down, pond and stream which characterises lowland England? How then do we counter the assumption that exotic is best, which we see anywhere from Attenborough TV programmes to our Windows screensaver?
The campaign to save rural England in its early years was not only fuelled by campaigning leading lights such as Patrick Abercrombie. The glories of the English countryside they valued were celebrated elsewhere. For instance, anthologies of Georgian poetry, published in the 1920s and largely celebrating the traditional English countryside, sold tens of thousands of copies. Today our challenge is not only to find ideas which others will find compelling, but also to broadcast them to wider society.
Do read this book – but use it as a first step to considering what the ideas for our own day should be and whether they bear any relation to the ideas that won over campaigners and decision-makers in the past.
Marion Shoard is a vice-president of BANC. Her essay in 2002 on the edgelands won an award and is displayed on the landscape tastes section of her website, at www.marionshoard.co.uk.