CPRE and Mrs Thatcher: the untold story

Earlier today I debated with the Planning Minister, Nick Boles, at a Conservative Home event.  In preparation Oliver Hilliam, CPRE’s archivist, dug out a file marked ‘Margaret Thatcher’s strong support for CPRE’ and I was able to use a couple of choice quotations in the debate.  It is not often that I use Mrs Thatcher’s words to bolster my arguments, but I hope today will mark the start of Nick Boles’s conversion to a more countryside-friendly, Thatcherite approach to planning. 

I will pass over her letter of 20 October 1988 to David Astor, CPRE’s then Chairman –  ‘I am glad to see that the Council [CPRE] supports the principle of a high speed link between the Channel Tunnel and London’ – and quote from a letter of 6 March 1986 to David Puttnam, CPRE’s then President. 

Mrs Thatcher said that she welcomed the chance to ‘set out clearly and explicitly this Government’s commitment to the protection of the British countryside and to pay a warm tribute to the CPRE’s role over the past 60 years in increasing public awareness of the importance of protecting our natural heritage.’  It was, she said, ‘vital to protect an inheritance of such unparalleled beauty and variety as our British countryside’. 

The Government had increased grants to environmental organisations – ‘including of course our support for the CPRE’ (those were the days!) – and had more than doubled the area of confirmed Green Belt since 1979.  Mrs Thatcher also said: ‘Our priority is to re-use previously developed land, particularly in urban areas, and we have increased resources available to reclaim derelict land for redevelopment.’  What a pity that the current Government has ended the ‘brownfield first’ policy and cut the money available to remediate brownfield sites.

The letter concludes: ‘The Government will continue to pursue policies which protect our environment and which fully reflect our people’s concern to treasure their natural heritage.  I am glad to congratulate the CPRE on its work over 60 years to highlight the importance of looking after our precious countryside, and I wish it continued success for many years to come.’

CPRE did not pack up shop during Mrs Thatcher’s administrations, safe in the knowledge that the countryside was safe in her hands.  Nor am I suggesting that she was personally particularly stirred and motivated by beauty and the great outdoors.  But these letters do suggest that today’s Conservative MPs and Ministers can learn a few things from Mrs Thatcher’s approach and that of her Ministers, perhaps above all her validation of the fact that the British people really do love the countryside and want to protect it, and that the desire to protect it should not be lightly dismissed as selfish or unreasonable.    


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