Sir Patrick Abercrombie was Britain’s greatest 20th century urban planner. He master- planned London and Hong Kong, and helped found the first generation of new towns.
He was also a founding member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), and wrote one of its principal documents, The Preservation of Rural England, in 1926. The CPRE wished to promote the nascent methods of town planning to preserve the character of the countryside in the face of large-scale suburban and rural development. Development in the countryside was inevitable but would, the campaign believed, be of no major threat to its integrity with proper planning. In practice, this meant the cessation of dispersed ‘ribbon’ development, which was occurring along major roads, and its replacement with more spatially efficient new towns.
The CPRE was effectively the rural wing of the UK’s town planning movement; its initial members included the Town Planning Association and the Royal Association of British Architects. It aimed to plan new developments to preserve and enhance the rural landscape, just as the emerging science of urban planning would improve the urban environment.
No doubt helped by the high calibre of its members, the CPRE scored a significant number of successes in the 25 years following its establishment. Ribbon developments were outlawed in 1935, with the CPRE also contributing to the 1947 Town and Country planning act, the basis of the modern English planning system. In addition, the highest quality areas of the English landscape were made national parks in 1949. By embracing the new urban planning, the early CPRE permitted necessary housebuilding while protecting the essential character of the English countryside.
That is a bitter contrast to today. A former pioneer of English planning is now reduced to treating houses like poison. An organisation that once helped settle a million Londoners in new towns now does almost everything in its power to keep housing out of the countryside and inside existing city limits. It denies the scale of the housing shortage, vastly underestimating the number of houses needed. It overstates the case for brownfield industrial sites, by glossing over the fact that there are nowhere near enough to provide sufficient housing where most needed.