The head of the CPRE: ‘Just looking at open fields and woodland and hills makes you feel great… The countryside has a soul, and people can feel that’

Crispin Truman, the CEO of CPRE tells us about his favourite places in England, the importance of rural spaces, and what he would do if he was the King of the Countryside for one day. 

The CPRE was originally founded as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England; today, it’s known more simply (and more broadly) as CPRE, The Countryside Charity. The organisation has been working on preserving green spaces for over 90 years, having started out as a collaboration between a whole range of groups — including the the Ramblers’ Association and the youth hostel movement — that were concerned about the rapid loss of the ordinary countryside coming out of the crisis that was the First World War.

Surprisingly, I live in the city, in Hackney, which I love very much. It’s a great community, with great parks, and I can walk and cycle everywhere, so I’ve brought up a family with no car. I do miss the green open spaces though, so when thinking about my favourite place in England, I’m torn between the Lake or Peak Districts, the great national parks, which are so uplifting and beautiful. But I also love the Green Belt, especially in Hertfordshire, because its local and real. A lot of our agenda post Covid will be how to get to the countryside via public transport, and without cars. Cars are convenient, but roads are destroying the countryside.

Rural spaces are so important. There’s the obvious stuff, which is the health angle of exercise and fresh air, and there’s the Nature cure: vitamin D, mindfulness etc. What the Covid crisis has perhaps highlighted is that Nature can be procured quite locally. It doesn’t have to be a trip to a national park! So we need to value our local public spaces. Another thing we need to look after is our Green Belt, which is constantly under threat. Our local green spaces need to be invested in, because it’s important for people to get to a space quite easily.

There’s something quite intangible about the countryside. Just looking at open fields and woodland and hills makes you feel great. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it has a positive effect. The countryside has a soul, and people can feel that.

A carpet of bluebells at Micheldever Woods, Hampshire. ©Guy Edwards / Nature Picture Library

If I was in charge of the countryside for a day, the first thing I’d do is knock heads together between the planning department and the environment department, and make them work together. Planning and the environment go hand in hand. I’d cancel the £25bn on roads, and invest all of it on rural public transport, to reverse 50-60 years of decline. It would be about making villages more livable, more pleasant and less dominated by traffic.

I would also do something about housing. We need a more holistic approach to housing, jobs, tourism and transport. At the moment, we’re just seeing new developments tacked on to the edge of towns with no thought to the village they are a part of. We need affordable, well-designed and appropriate housing that communities have a say over.

AONBs should be properly funded, and supported, on a par with national parks. They are such an important part of our countryside.  We do need to do more about protecting and enhancing our best countryside.

For much of the 20th century we were lobbying for green spaces, examples of which are the Town and Country Planning Act and the Green Belt.  Now it’s more collaborative; it’s about working with people and building a movement. Our new vision is mobilising people for a countryside for all. It’s about recognising the power of the countryside for society’s wellbeing, and our national response to climate change. A lot of our work is about driving forward that vision.

We have to encourage the public to take advantage of the countryside and use it. We want everyone to have access to the countryside, and get there in sustainable ways, and contribute to the economy and support it. We’ve got a big job to reconnect people to the countryside, but we’ll do it.

Crispin Truman was speaking to Country Life’s James Fisher. For more information about the CPRE, visit www.cpre.org.uk