THE first formal meeting of a new society to protect local scenery took place in Sheffield on October 8, 1924. It was convened by the young war widow Mrs Ethel Gallimore, daughter of the Sheffield industrialist Thomas W Ward.
Around the table were some of Sheffield’s leading citizens, drawn from industry, the professions and academia. They were united in their concern to protect the countryside, and especially the Peak District, from “incongruous and promiscuous development”.
They were not alone in their concern. By 1926, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (now the Campaign to Protect Rural England, CPRE) was established nationally and soon the Sheffield Association for the Protection of Local Scenery (as the group called itself) was invited to join.
In his foreword to a book about our history, Protecting the Beautiful Frame (Mel Jones, 2001), the mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington described the organisation as “the pace-setter and model for local environmental organisations in every part of the country to follow” and went on to say “whatever else is forgotten, they will go down in history as a major force in environmental conservation because of the achievement of its two grand purposes: the designation of a national park in the Peak District and the creation of a permanent Sheffield Green Belt”.
But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. Ever since green belts and national parks were created, they have been the most popular and best understood of all planning designations but still often the most threatened.
Governments of all hues agree on their value but these precious areas of countryside remain vulnerable to huge development pressures and sometimes ill-thought out changes to the planning system. We are currently in one of the darker periods of threats to the countryside. The main threat comes from large housing developments.
CPRE agrees that we need more houses and particularly more affordable housing that meets identified local needs. But developing green field sites should be a last resort and not the default which is currently the case, according to new research published by the CPRE nationally.
Our experience in South Yorkshire and wider Peak District is similar. Developers are targeting local authorities whose Local Plan is not up-to-date. House builders are making speculative applications for the most profitable green field sites, which would cause huge damage to the countryside. Local authorities often refuse permission but then lose when the case is referred to central Government on appeal. Unsurprisingly, communities are angry when “localism” becomes a sham and national policies override local democracy.
National parks are also under the cosh too, although there is still a strong presumption against open market housing at any scale. Here the threat is more insidious as planning and its implementation is weakened by budget cuts as well as small, but significant, increases in the range of developments not requiring planning permission.
Happily some of those threatened changes have been fought off, for example not allowing the barns of the Yorkshire Dales and Peak District to be converted without planning permission. But concern remains that the level of protection for our precious National Parks is being weakened. This year will see a new application for a huge potash mine in the North York Moors National Park. The outcome of this case will be a vital test of how National Parks assess major developments, using criteria first put in place in 1949.
Our sister organisation, the Campaign for National Parks, has already expressed grave reservations about the need for a second potash mine in the North York Moors and the potential environmental impact of both the minehead and an underground pipeline to Teesside. On our patch in the Peak District, the most quarried national park, mineral extraction remains a key concern, with a constant pressure to extend operations into the future.
And what of the health of the organisations, such as ours, that seek to marry protection of the countryside with sustainable rural economies? We are definitely a broader movement now and many conservation groups, such as the National Trust, the RSPB and Wildlife Trust, number millions of members. We cover many more diverse aspects of countryside and environmental protection and put our case firmly and with good evidence to decision makers.
The scope and breadth of protective regulations is huge compared with ninety years ago, but it is clear that the countryside (even disregarding idealised notions of rural idylls) is radically changed from the early 1920s, often for the worse. But a key tenet of our fight throughout this period has been the concern to maintain beauty, now seen as an unfashionable word, unless applied to supermodels.
Thus, as part of our 90th anniversary, Dame Fiona Reynolds, the former director general of the National Trust and now the first female Master of Emmanuel College, will be giving a special public lecture at Sheffield Hallam University on October 25 which will describe the inspiration behind the countryside conservation movement – the campaign for beauty – which has shaped our movement in Britain, born out of the clash between beauty and industrialisation.
The campaign led to the establishment of National Parks, nature and countryside protection, the safeguarding of historic buildings and monuments, and the gradual “greening” of farming and forestry policy as these industries, too, industrialised in the 20th century. We hope this will inspire another generation of campaigners for the next 90 years.
• Andy Tickle is director of CPRE South Yorkshire and Friends of the Peak District. The group’s 90th anniversary will be celebrated on October 25 when Dame Fiona Reynolds speaks at Sheffield Hallam University. Log on at www.friendsofthepeak.org.uk or call 0114 279 2655 for details.