Lancashire's countryside charity out to hijack people's innate love for all things green

CPRE Lancashire is the countryside charity.

Thursday, 29th October 2020, 7:00 am
Crispin Truman OBE, Chief Exec of CPRE (right) and Debbie McConnell (left) present former Liverpool University professor Dr Des Brennan the Countryside Medal, CPRE's prestigious Volunteer Award

Dedicated to preserving the great British outdoors for future generations, it protects tranquil spots of nature from the encroachment of modern life so that they can be enjoyed by everyone and anyone.

“I’ve been passionate about the environment since I got my first set of binoculars when I was eight,” says CPRE’s Chair, Debbie McConnell. “We want to hijack people’s inner greenness; our causes are universally popular, so it’s about giving people opportunities to fight and have a say in nature, to protect the greenbelt and countryside for people’s mental and physical health.”

Having been instrumental in the creation of the greenbelt in the first place as well as in the formation of national parks, AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and the first comprehensive planning legislation, CPRE want to channel British love for all things green into concrete positive action.

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The Pendle countryside (credit Holly McConnell)

“Understandably, people are focused on getting by day-to-day, so we want to make it easier for them to have a say in local planning decisions,” explains Debbie, 60. “If someone in Burnley or Preston has a development on their doorstep which isn’t in a good place, which doesn’t have good access to public transport, and which only allows access to schools and shops with a car, we want to help them object.”

To do this, the charity runs neighbourhood planning workshops, lobbies MPs on environmental issues, and has a dedicated planning manager, Jackie Copley, who regularly attends planning application hearings, public inquiries, and hearings. Their ‘Eyes and Ears’ volunteers also scrutinise local planning applications, resulting in vast swathes of the greenbelt being saved from housing development.

But CPRE’s cause is far from facile Nimbyism; in fact, the charity advocates house-building and development, provided it happens in the right places.

“There’s enough brownfield land in England and the North West to build all the houses we need, but property developers and builders won’t use it because it’s more expensive,” says Debbie, with CPRE’s own research showing that releasing land from the greenbelt for development does not lead to more affordable housing.

Stargazing with astronomer Robert Ince at Beacon Fell, Lancashire's Dark Sky Discovery Area

“We want homes to be affordable,” adds Debbie, who is from Oxfordshire and grew up in York and Preston. “People who’ve grown up in the stunning areas of Lancashire should be able to afford to live there, not be forced out by rising house prices caused by developers whose only raison d’etre is making money.”

Having previously been nominated for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, it’s no surprise that CPRE Lancashire - which has 41 volunteers and counting - gets results.

“When it comes to things like the climate crisis, we all need to do our part and so one of our most significant victories was over fracking,” explains Debbie, who lives in Pendle and has been involved with the charity since 2017. “It’s strictly a moratorium, but we’re pretty confident it’s over because of things like the seismic activity, pollution, noise, and the fact that it’s completely unsustainable.

“What’s the point of the government saying ‘here’s legislation for us to do our bit for the climate’ and on the other saying ‘we’ll approve fracking’; it’s so frustrating,” she adds. “At times it can be completely overwhelming but, as Sir David Attenborough says: there’s hope if we act. That’s why the volunteers are our bedrock; we’re proud of the work we do, but we couldn’t do it without them.”

An appreciation of nature is innate in all of us, and so the chance to nurture that appreciation is vital. For that reason, CPRE holds events such as stargazing, pond-dipping, country fairs, and nature walks, whilst campaigning for every schoolchild to have a day in the countryside and a night of stargazing as part of the natural curriculum.

“During lockdown, people will have walked through fields, climbed over stiles, gone for a wander in the village, heard birdsong, and they will have thought ‘this is fantastic’,” says Debbie. “We want to harness that enthusiasm to help people.”