Community collaboration is at the heart of preserving our countryside

After celebrating its centenary this week the chief executive of the Peak District and South Yorkshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England has reaffirmed the charity’s role in ensuring the countryside remains a place that everyone can enjoy.

However, Tomo Thompson, who took on the role in 2018, also says that while many of the issues are the same as when the charity was formed in 1924 the way it goes about working with local communities has changed significantly.

The charity formed by Ethel Haythornthwaite, daughter of Sheffield scrap metal merchant Thomas Ward, originally made use of its network of wealthy contacts but Thompson says the ways of the 1920s are very different to the 2020s.

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Peak DistrictPeak District
Peak District

“The stuff we’re campaigning about has fundamentally not changed,” he said. “But we no longer have the money to buy our way out of the problem so we need to campaign more acutely, with a community and have engagement focus to enable us to do stuff.

“There is a thread to the issues – energy, transport, and housing needs to be affordable and sustainable. There are issues that Ethel would have sat around the table chatting about on May 7 1924 that we talked about on Tuesday.”

To celebrate its hundredth year the charity hosted an event at Whirlow Brook Hall, a venue on the edge of the Peak District but just four miles from Sheffield city centre, which encapsulates Sheffield’s relationship with its nearby rural areas.

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And for Thompson it was a chance to reflect on past achievements but also to look forward: “There are recordings of Ethel campaigning against flooding the Derwent Valley in the 1920s and 30s and we did that again last year. There was work against the disfigurement of the land through electricity pylons in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, collaboratively we toppled over one of the last pylons at Longdendale two years ago,” he said.

Tomo Thompson, chief executive of the Peak District and South Yorkshire branch of the CPRETomo Thompson, chief executive of the Peak District and South Yorkshire branch of the CPRE
Tomo Thompson, chief executive of the Peak District and South Yorkshire branch of the CPRE

“The last few years we have been campaigning for solar and wind renewables and against fracking and also against the extension of some of the quarrying licences in the Peak District. Back in the 30s, 40s and 50s the charity was working for alternatives.

“We do say yes as often as we say no. If the thing you want to build is sustainable, affordable, promotable and necessary then we will be in your scrum and will go forward with you. If what you want to do is build a gated community for millionaires in the Loxley Valley we will take you to court every year if we have to.”

Thompson says the work the charity is doing with local communities is vital to ensuring the countryside is protected: “What is harder is the funding – it is terribly expensive. There are various housebuilding plans that have been on the horizon for 15-20 years. We increasingly try to work with communities because back in the day there were some things that were decided round the table of CPRE such as going to buy the farm (where the development was planned for).

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“What we do, for example, is look at the threat of fracking and we go out and chat to those communities and find out if they are pro or anti fracking. Then there is an educative process when essentially rather than being the campaigner we support the local community wherever we can through, in some cases, money, in other cases education where we train them to be a competent campaigning body among themselves.

The Peak DistrictThe Peak District
The Peak District

“What this charity stopped being able to do 20 years ago was the kind of philanthropic approach to protecting the countryside Ethel and her contacts had. We pivoted slightly into needing to do far more engagement, telling of the reason why we exist and encouraging people to support what we do while also still having the core of planning – we still have a professional planning officer on the staff.

“We have fundamentally stuck to our core MO on this, which is the long game and the cerebral approach of understanding what it takes to protect the landscape. We absolutely do need this current era’s environmental passion to change stuff but you also need to understand the laws and policies, which is where the charity sits.”

Thompson added the charity has a very clear goal: “There are some evolutions. Renewables wasn’t a thing in the 1920s and we’re banging our head against the appetite of some people around the climate crisis. At the centre of the four things we focus on is the climate crisis. We always think is ‘this thing’ going to contribute to the slowing down of the climate crisis.”

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