Local Group Name - Campaign to Protect Rural England

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Director’s bulletin for August 2013

Thursday, 01 August 2013 15:57

CPRE’s new national campaign: the Charter to Save our Countryside

Charter_CMYK [Converted].epsCPRE’s National Office has launched a new campaign, the Charter to Save our Countryside. The current government has made radical changes to the planning system, primarily the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This sixty-page document replaced over a thousand pages of legislation, and CPRE lobbied hard to ensure that it gave proper protection to the countryside. We thought we’d done quite well, but over the last couple of years, it’s become clear that the NPPF is allowing widespread greenfield and Green Belt development.

CPRE’s Charter is based on three simple demands:

Don’t sacrifice our countryside.

Our open spaces are being destroyed unnecessarily. Previously developed brownfield sites should be re-used first.

A fair say for communities

The cards are stacked in favour of developers. We want a democratic planning system that gives local people a stronger voice.

More housing – in the right places

The country needs affordable homes. They must be sensitively located, with excellent environmental standards and high quality design.

If you agree with these principles, please do sign up to the Charter, whether or not you are a member of CPRE. You can sign up and read more on our national website, www.cpre.org.uk.

Is the tide turning within the Conservative party?

Many countryside and environmental campaigners have been surprised by the attitude that the government has taken on some vital issues. Planning Minister Nick Boles, at the CPRE AGM this year, stated that meeting housing need “…may mean building on low quality, environmentally uninteresting fields.” (Read more about the AGM here). This seemed to many to be symptomatic of a lack of interest and care for the ordinary English countryside; the lack of any true vision for sustainability in the NPPF or indeed elsewhere echoes this lack of care for the landscape that sustains us.

The Conservative Party has deep roots in the countryside, and many long-term Conservative supporters are becoming frustrated with the Government’s seeming lack of understanding for the rural environment. Indeed, one of the most interesting things for me in this job has been to see that right now, young, left-wing urban environmental campaigners and older, Conservative-voting people in rural areas are campaigning side by side on the same issues. A love for the countryside and an understanding of its importance cuts across all party lines.

Nick HerbertHowever, there are signs that this discontent is beginning to reach higher within the Conservative Party. On 14th July, the Guardian published a piece by Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, under the headline “Letting developers vandalise the countryside won’t solve our housing crisis.” And, perhaps in response to concerns from rural MPs , the Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis made a written ministerial statement on July 4th, saying:

“Having considered recent planning decisions by councils and the Planning Inspectorate, it has become apparent that, in some cases, the green belt is not always being given the sufficient protection that was the explicit policy intent of ministers.

The Secretary of State wishes to make clear that, in considering planning applications, although each case will depend on its facts, he considers that the single issue of unmet demand, whether for traveller sites or for conventional housing, is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and other harm to constitute the ‘very special circumstances’ justifying inappropriate development in the green belt.”( https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/planning-and-travellers)

So could it be that the grassroots discontent on planning is beginning to find expression at ministerial level? We can only hope so…

Energy in the countryside: Solar arrays and Fracking

Fracking siteClimate change presents an unprecedented threat. Despite the highly vocal scepticism of some, the scientific evidence on climate change is overwhelming. Meanwhile, the cost of fossil fuel energy is rising fast, leading to increased energy bills, higher food and transport costs and rising levels of ‘fuel poverty’.

One result of this situation is that the countryside faces new pressures, as the need grows for alternative energy sources. The arguments regarding the impact of wind turbines on energy policy and landscape go on, but now large-scale solar PV arrays and fracking – unconventional gas extraction – are increasingly being proposed for the countryside in the West of England.

SolararraySolar arrays are large installations of photovoltaic (PV) panels. Even their most ardent supporters would not claim that they are attractive; fields full of black panels on steel frames, protected by high wire fences, do not sit easily in the English countryside. However, they are at least safe and can easily be removed at the end of their life if new energy sources render them unnecessary. They can also provide valuable new wildlife habitats, by creating ‘unimproved’ grassland environments below the panels, to support wildflower, butterfly, bee and other insect populations.

It would seem therefore that the key to solar PV arrays lies in the details: visibility within the landscape; biodiversity action plans; use of brownfield or less versatile farmland. Ideally, I would like to see building codes changed so that all industrial buildings could support PV arrays on their roofs, but this might not be economically realistic at present. With all this in mind, we welcome North Somerset Council’s work to create a planning policy document on solar PV arrays. Their draft, on which we submitted a detailed commentary, can be seen here: http://consult-ldf.n-somerset.gov.uk/consult.ti/rlce/consultationHome.

Fracking is a more problematic technology. It appears to hold the promise of greater energy independence and lower gas prices; but many analysts say that we are unlikely to see the dramatic falls in gas prices experienced in the US. And the potential dangers are great, from contamination of aquifers and surface water to the widespread industrialisation of the rural landscape.

I was interested to see that Bath and North East Somerset have united in a cross-party agreement to reject fracking, in a full-council meeting on 11th July. More recently, police arrived in considerable force to remove protesters from the site of a planned exploratory bore-hole in Balcombe, West Sussex. There is a highly vocal and active anti-fracking movement in the West of England too, led by Frack Free Somerset (http://www.frackfreesomerset.org/), and I suspect that our area will soon see similar scenes to the Balcombe protests.

The issues around fracking are complex. Some argue that by using imported gas, we simply pass the environmental damage caused by its extraction on to other countries; others point to the value of energy security. But CPRE feels that the landscape damage and loss of tranquillity; the impact on increasingly scarce water supplies; the creation of large volumes of contaminated water; and the potential for irreversible underground contamination, together outweigh the potential benefits.

South Bristol Link

No to South Bristol LInk roadAs part of the widely-criticised Bus Rapid Transit scheme, now re-branded as MetroBus, a planning application is in place to build a new road crossing open countryside between the A370 at Long Ashton and Hengrove Park. It seems odd to say the least that funding for public transport in Bristol is being used to build a road across open countryside in North Somerset.

The road, the South Bristol Link, has been discussed since the 1950s as a way to create better transport links to south Bristol. While we are fully supportive of any attempt to improve Bristol’s woeful public transport, we strongly oppose this scheme. It has been shown time and again that new road infrastructure does not have any long-term impact on road congestion. What Bristol needs is better urban rail services; big improvements in its expensive bus services; and serious investment into cycling infrastructure, to make cycling a real option for commuters and families who have no wish to mix with heavy traffic.

CPRE will be working with other campaign groups to produce a joint response to this proposal. You can see and comment on the proposed road development here: http://planningonline.bristol.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=MPM5ZYDN00C00

And you can read some really well-informed plans about how Bristol should be approaching its transport problems here: http://www.tfgb.org.uk/.

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