CPRE’s position on Brexit

Jonathon Porritt, the distinguished but dyspeptic environmentalist, has attacked CPRE for not taking sides on Britain’s membership of the EU. Jonathon likes a scrap, particularly with his own side, but I do not accept his criticism of CPRE’s position.

Jonathon argues that our neutrality is a betrayal of leadership, that any organisation has a responsibility “to develop a collective view of what is undoubtedly the single most important decision regarding the future prospects of the UK – including… rural England”.

He goes on to characterise CPRE’s position on Brexit as an example of “that sad little Englandism that has never been far from its often confused persona”, and to imply that  we have capitulated to Charity Commission pressure to keep out of the referendum debate.

On the last point, I have written umpteen times in this blog and elsewhere in defence of campaigning charities. For what it is worth, I tweeted a comment on the Charity Commission’s initial guidance on Brexit campaigning (it has now been modified, possibly not as a result of my tweet). It is absurd to suggest that CPRE has allowed itself to be gagged.

On the charge of ‘little Englandism’, consider our President Andrew Motion’s 2014 AGM address: “Given the political mood of our times, let me say this. In my own view, and in the true spirit of CPRE, Englishness has never been about being small-minded and insular. Englishness is tricky to define, not least because it tends to shun large gestures and rhetorical flourishes. But traditional attitudes, such as pride in our countryside, exist in a wonderful, big melting pot of Englishness, together with our pride in absorbing new cultures and our refusal to make Englishness an issue of race or birthplace.” This was, if you like, an ‘official’ Presidential statement, and one we publicised as much as we could.

National identity should be an important part of the debate on Brexit. The nightmare for liberals (like me) is that the UK withdraws from the EU, Scotland withdraws from the UK, and we see the rise of an insular, touchy, flag-waving English nationalism. But CPRE’s idea of Englishness is explicitly progressive. No one who has been paying attention to what we say could accuse us of little Englandism.

I take more seriously Jonathon’s first point, that Britain’s membership of the EU is of such importance that CPRE should take a collective view. I agree that it is of huge importance, but how much would be gained if CPRE took a position, and how much would be lost?

CPRE has a branch structure and a lively democracy. We have passionate debates on many issues and our policy positions are developed with the full involvement of our branches. We could have spent time developing a policy position on Brexit, but there has been little internal appetite for that. This is not so much because views are divided, but because everyone involved in CPRE recognises that times are very tough for the English countryside and that we need to focus our limited resources where we can have most impact.

Planning is being progressively weakened; implausibly high housing numbers are being imposed on local authorities, forcing the release of greenfield sites; the Green Belt is being eroded by stealth; and we face the biggest road building programme for 50 years. CPRE’s core business is protecting the English countryside. I am confident that we are making a difference, that things would be much worse without our efforts. But we do not have resources to spare for a big internal debate on Brexit, and we would need such a debate before we took a position.

What difference would it make if we advocated a particular vote or gave a view on whether staying or leaving would be better for the English countryside? Most CPRE members will vote on the basis of a whole lot of things, most of them unrelated to our cause. An internal debate on Brexit might have little influence on anyone’s vote. But it would certainly detract from our vital work on the housing and planning bill, the revised National Planning Policy Framework, countless local plans across the country, and other important campaigns.

Tomorrow I will post a blog giving my personal perspective on some of the issues involved in the referendum.

26 Responses to “CPRE’s position on Brexit”

  1. 1 Alice Crampin April 4, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    One must hope and believe that the last sentence in paragraph 8 is not disingenuous, and look forward to your post tomorrow.

    • 2 sspiers April 4, 2016 at 5:02 pm

      Alice, not disingenuous, but perhaps badly phrased. Views within CPRE are divided on this issue – as, of course, they are in every conservation organisation – but then they are also divided on other issues (e.g. wind farms or fracking) where we have felt it necessary to arrive at a collective position. In the case of Brexit, particularly given current pressures arising from the housing and planning bill and the NPPF, we have decided that the influence we might have over the debate does not justify the time it would take to agree a position. My post tomorrow will therefore give a strictly personal view.

    • 3 Tony Golding May 9, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      Shaun, we had a small debate on Brexit at our Warwickshire branch meeting, and I accepted the views around the table that CPRE are not a political organisation and we should remain neutral. However, there is a huge amount of building going on in Warwickshire encroaching into our countryside. One of the main demands for this building is the explosion of the population mainly due to the fact on average 300,000 EU citizens each year are migrating to our green and pleasant land. In my view the only way to curb this is to leave the EU and protect out land from this migration. It is difficult to have a balanced view with all the spin going on, The Warwickshire Wildlife trust is in favour of staying in the EU on environmental grounds, which I understand, however I think they will have an uphill struggle to protect wildlife with all this building going on. I was surprised by CPRE’s stance after all we are here above ALL to protect RURAL England, and I think being in the EU is the biggest threat to it. Yours Sincerely Tony Golding

      • 4 sspiers May 9, 2016 at 9:34 pm

        Tony, thank you for your comment. The EU certainly provokes great passions on either side – which is one reason for CPRE’s neutral position.

        I think the point you make about immigration and population growth is an important one. Immigration is one of the big issues in the referendum campaign, and it certainly the biggest environmental issue that is getting any attention (though it is not generally seen as an environmental issue).

        However, I am not sure quite how much impact leaving the EU would have on the level of immigration. As I understand it, if the UK remains in the European Economic Area, it will be as open to migration from EU countries as it is today (and as Switzerland and Norway are). If we could wholly control our borders, how many of the EU citizens migrating to the UK each year would be kept out? It is likely that we would still want migrant labour to pick our crops or keep our ‘hospitality industry’ going. Assuming that the economy kept growing and continued to be an open economy, we would probably still admit EU bankers, builders, entrepreneurs etc. So the impact of leaving the EU on immigration would depend on whether we remained in the European Economic Area, the political and economic choices made by the Government, the strength of the economy etc. etc.

        So like many things in this campaign, the issue is not clear cut. But it is clearly important, particularly from the perspective of a charity like CPRE. Thank you again for your comment.

      • 5 A Clarke June 6, 2016 at 10:11 pm

        I agree with Tony, as does my local MP – Dr Liam Fox……

        Memories Of Green: The Cost of Uncontrolled Migration


  2. 6 Lynn Crowe April 4, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    A very cogent explanation of CPRE’s position, Shaun – for which I have some sympathy. But I feel this is a huge decision affecting rural England in so many ways – it would have been good to have the CPRE perspective, rather than the constant focus on £s in pockets (which appears to be the usual level of argument in most debates).

    I feel there are issues over the future of agricultural reform, transnational environmental issues, and just straightforward UK environmental protection (where many of our current laws and regulations are underpinned by EU law), which make the risks of `Brexit` fundamental to anyone who cares about the future of our countryside. And people need to hear those debates also.

    Fellow CPRE members may be interested in this report from the Institute of European Environmental Policy – http://www.ieep.eu/publications/2016/03/brexit-what-would-be-the-environmental-implications–1493. I appreciate its source – but it’s an interesting overview.

    • 7 sspiers April 4, 2016 at 6:02 pm

      Thanks, Lynn. I agree that the IEEP report makes a very good case for the EU. It was one of the (too many) links in my blog.

      The IEEP report was produced with three groups with whom CPRE works closely – the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and WWF – but it illustrates how our perspective can be a bit different.

      The report comes from a perspective of species conservation, rather than land use in a more general sense. It has a very good section on the CAP, but it does not mention housing or transport, big CPRE concerns, and has little to say on infrastructure (though environmental impact assessment is rightly listed as a key EU achievement).

      There is no mention of population growth. It may be a red herring to suggest that the UK’s growing population growth is a result of our EU membership, but a growing population clearly has an environmental impact and given the prominence of the issue in the referendum campaign, it is interesting that it is ignored.

      Finally, the section on energy includes a good paragraph on energy conservation (which is too often overlooked) but does not consider the landscape impacts of renewable energy. The ‘rapid recent growth in the deployment of renewable energy’ is listed as a key achievement without any qualification. Many people within CPRE would regard it as a key achievement – but most, even those most strongly in favour of wind and solar farms, would regard their location as problematic. Targets, whether from the EU or the UK government, take little or no account of location.

    • 8 sspiers April 5, 2016 at 9:06 am

      Lynn, my apologies, I didn’t link to the IEEP report in the blog I posted yesterday – the link was in the draft ‘issue’ blog I intend to post today.

      • 9 Robert Flunder April 5, 2016 at 12:44 pm

        While the greenbelt is being sacrificed and eroded, I DISPUTE Shaun’s Spiers and CPRE’s assertion that it is being done ‘BY STEALTH’.
        It is being done openly by the mechanism of ‘Objectively Assessed (Housing) Needs which the publicly published NPPF requires all Local Authorities to undertake.
        Two of the major inputs into an LA’s Objectively Assessed (Housing) Needs calculation are the projected increase in the LA’s future population and the projected increase in the LA’s future household formation.
        Its not rocket science to understand that if very large inputs go into the calculation very large ‘housing needs’ come out the other end.
        So large in some cases that greenbelt housing development is inevitable.
        Its patently obvious that this is caused by an ever growing UK population, but the CPRE hierarchy are so loathe to admit this that they pretend some secret stealthy subterfuge is resulting in greenbelt development.
        Its just not the case, greenbelt is being lost due to the very public process of local authorities responding to an ever growing population.

  3. 10 Robert Flunder April 4, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    With 53% of last years increase in UK population coming from Net Migration, immigration from EU countries to the UK is undoubtedly intensifying housing demand pressures and adding to development in the countryside.
    Therefore CPRE should be highlighting this point loud and clear.

    • 11 sspiers April 4, 2016 at 9:11 pm

      Robert, as you say, about half the UK’s population increase comes from immigration, the other half from increases in the birth rate and greater longevity. But as I understand it – please correct me if this is wrong – marginally more people settle in the UK from non-EU than EU countries. So around a quarter of the UK’s population growth it attributable to immigration from the EU – and presumably we would continue to accept at least some EU immigrants even if we had total sovereignty?

      • 12 Robert Flunder April 5, 2016 at 11:57 am

        Shaun, you appear not to dispute that high levels of immigration are leading to housing development in the countryside, but appear to be sanguine about this.
        The point is that of the two components of Population Growth, ‘Natural Growth’ and ‘Net Migration’, the UK government can control the latter if it chooses to act as a sovereign country.

  4. 13 Alex Hills April 4, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    I am with shun on this. CPRE is a fact based organisation. So far there has not been enough facts given by both sides for anyone to form a fact based opinion

  5. 14 Robert Flunder April 4, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    re Andrew Motion – Members ask CPRE to try to protect the English countryside, but AM/CPRE end up trying to redefine ‘Englishness’.

  6. 15 Richard P Beauchamp April 5, 2016 at 7:30 am

    Regarding Sovereignty and what we can do with it, surely “every little helps”. Every individual is a committed consumer, not only of generally accepted consumarables but of housing, food, water and land.

  7. 16 CPRE Local Supporter April 17, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    There is no official CPRE position on the Europe Referendum. There has been no decision by the Trustees as to whether CPRE (National Office) should take a position, let alone what it is. There is no media release on the CPRE website on the subject. The only indication of a CPRE ‘view’ on whether the UK should leave the EU or remain in it comes in this blog by the Chief Executive, which fortunately perhaps is only found by those who know the website.
    The Prime Minister announced the referendum on UK Membership of the EU on 20 February 2016. The CPRE Trustee Board met on 10 March, almost three weeks later. The Agenda for that meeting, published on the CPRE website, does not include the subject of CPRE’s position on the Referendum and there are no papers for it listed among the Appendices. It would be odd if something of this significance were handled under AOB, when it could have been put in the Agenda. The two following CPRE Policy & Media Round-ups of 18 March and 1 April do not mention the subject: evidence that it wasn’t discussed by the Board on 10 March. If it had been the Round-up would have said so.
    The first time the issue has appeared in any CPRE paperwork since 20 February is in the above blog dated 4 April. That the ‘CPRE position’ has been issued by the Chief Executive in this curious way, without a Trustees’ resolution and without a media release, is worryingly typical of the way that CPRE ‘positions’ are arrived at and (sometimes) made public.

    • 17 sspiers April 17, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      Mark, the board minutes for September 2015 read: “Shaun Spiers raised the issue of the EU referendum. It was likely that CPRE would participate with other green NGOs in a project to raise awareness of the implications of the referendum for the environment, but it was not intended that CPRE would become heavily involved in the campaign or take sides in it. The Board agreed with this position.” The draft minutes for March 2016 state: “It was agreed that CPRE should retain its position of neutrality on the EU referendum.” I have discussed our position with a number of branch Chairs and other CPRE members, as have trustees. We have not posted our position on the website – no position is not news – but we have made it available to anyone who has requested it. A number of branches have asked for our statement and have adapted it for local purposes. And, as you acknowledge, I have also set out CPRE’s neutral position in my blog, which we publicised in the fortnightly round-up (which goes to hundreds of people involved in CPRE) and through Twitter.

  8. 18 CPRE Local Supporter April 26, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    The reply above explains that CPRE’s position on the European Union Referendum was set in September 2015. Evidently CPRE’s Trustee Board did not have any written paper on the Referendum before it on 10 March 2016. It appears that the Trustees only discussed CPRE’s position to take during the actual campaign (not triggered until the Prime Minister’s announcement of 20 February) under Matters Arising or AOB.
    The September 2015 minute that says “It was likely that CPRE would participate with other green NGOs in a project to raise awareness of the implications of the referendum for the environment” presumably cannot be implemented because some green NGOs have come out in favour of ‘Remain’ (FoE, the Wildlife Trusts). Nothing more has been heard of that.
    No one has added to this set of comments in over a week, which suggests that there is (perhaps fortunately) little interest in CPRE’s position on the Referendum. Few read this blog whereas many see the fortnightly round-up – where the subject has not been mentioned now in three editions that have been circulated since 10 March.

  9. 19 David Astor June 8, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    As a former chairman of the CPRE I understand why we can’t hold an official position on the Referendum. We didn’t hold one on the Channel Tunnel or on Fox Hunting to give two other high profile examples. Having said that, as a conservationist and a farmer I feel that it is imperative that we stay in the EU. Our membership has actually helped us to protect our beautiful countryside, just think of the countryside stewardship scheme and the various Entry Level schemes. If we vote to leave, Scotland will hold another Referendum and will surely vote to leave the UK and then negotiate to join or remain in the EU. And, worst of all there is the danger that Boris Johnson, the British Donald Trump, could become Prime Minister. That is not something we can allow to happen to this lovely country of ours.

    • 20 Robert Flunder June 8, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      Free of Brussels, free of Scotland, free of Cameron – you’re making a damn good case for Brexit David.

  10. 21 Robert Flunder June 9, 2016 at 9:45 am

    With UK population growth heading for 550,000 a year (greater annually than the entire population of Sheffield, or twice the population of Tower Hamlets for example), and inward migration now the majority of this growth, an unrestricted right to seek work in the UK for over 500 million inhabitants of the EU is having a contributing negative impact on the countryside with over 700,000 homes planned for the greenbelt.
    There are farmers queuing up for planning permission for housing estates to be built on green field agricultural land they own and EU membership fuels the demand.

  11. 22 A Clarke June 9, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    Robert – I think you are basically correct – population increase is, in my view a driving factor; but maybe not the only one? In that respect I think that CPRE ought to have a position on Brexit – though I understand why they don’t want to say anything publically which might alienate their support.
    Personally speaking I do wonder about the level of financial support I will give the CPRE in future – protecting our environment and countryside it very important to me but unless our population growth is bought under control we will continue to have to be engaging lawyers to fight planning; it’s beginning to feel like a futile cause.
    So yes I think CPRE ought to be saying something about population growth. You’ve certainly made your thoughts clear; maybe it’s best to leave it there?
    Did you watch the 1 min fox video I posted in an earlier response? Dr Liam Fox is certainly of the same opinion as you – and my experience he’s a very perceptual man.

    • 23 Robert Flunder June 10, 2016 at 11:37 am

      Hello there – A Clarke.
      Whether it’s best to leave it there depends on whether you think the fight to protect the English countryside is going well or whether you think it is being lost.

      What is your view ?

      • 24 A Clarke June 10, 2016 at 7:34 pm

        Robert, as I said my view is basically aligned with yours. I am worried that net immigration is probably 10X above a sustainable level (just my view) and despite the benefits I feel we would have more control on this important aspect of our society if we took back control.. I’ve also recognised that it’s all too easy for people to be turned off if supporters of Brexit just keep on – however compelling the argument. I’m suggesting that the CPRE membership will not be enough to sway the vote either way. Whatever is said here is not going to change the CPRE’s stance. Best to take the message elsewhere and convince the wider population – you asked for my vie, I’ve given it.

    • 25 sspiers June 10, 2016 at 11:49 am

      Thank you for your comment, and your support for CPRE. I have said a lot on this blog about population growth, and the issue is being discussed next week at the County Branch Forum meeting of branch Chairs. We are not dodging the issue, but my constant refrain is that I don’t think it is straightforward.

      On Brexit, Population Matters’ statement is interesting: http://www.populationmatters.org/population-eu-membership/ If I read this right, it suggests that Britain’s main environmental group campaigning to limit population growth doesn’t think it will make a huge difference whether we leave the EU or stay. Of course, I recognise that many people disagree with this view.

      In the meantime, CPRE continues to have significant campaigning successes and to save countryside that would otherwise be lost. Even with a rising population, we are able to do a valuable job. Indeed, while the population is rising, it is even more important that CPRE is around to fight so that land is used sustainably.

  12. 26 Robert Flunder June 11, 2016 at 10:33 am

    CPRE membership is shrinking because the public question its relevance in protecting the English countryside. They form their opinion by looking at what is happening to the countryside and CPRE’s response.

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