New Chairman at CPRE Cambridge

10:20 Tuesday 25th January 2011
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY HARPER: Well earlier we heard about fears for the future of England’s forests. But joining me now is a man who’s concerned about the future of rural Cambridgeshire. Michael Monk is taking over as Chairman of the county branch of CPRE, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. Despite the 10,000 home new town of Northstowe being stalled, there are still large developments planned across the county. But life for the local people living in villages outside of the main cities is becoming increasingly difficult, because of the rising cost of petrol, for instance, but so many other things as well. So can CPRE help? Well let’s find out. Michael, good morning to you.
MICHAEL MONK: Good morning.
ANDY HARPER: So first things first, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, what is it?
MICHAEL MONK: We’re an organisation which is dedicated to looking after the countryside and rural communities. I suppose you would best regard us as a watchdog on rural affairs. We’re a pressure group. We try to cover all the sort of concerns that affect people when they think about their countryside, their village, their small town.
ANDY HARPER: And are you predominantly country lovers, rural people, trying to protect and retain what you grew up loving?
MICHAEL MONK: I suppose so. I think we as an organisation recognise that changes are inevitable. And as you’ve just pointed out, in Cambridgeshire, there’s quite a lot of change going on, and due to come onstream in the future. So we know that change is going to happen. What we feel that we need to do is to try and protect those very qualities that people love about the countryside, and our rural communities.
ANDY HARPER: It’s a difficult balance to strike, isn’t it, because we do know that people need places to live, and we do know that places must grow, but on the other hand, even on a small scale, if a village suddenly finds that a much-loved meadow or orchard has been sold for development, the people don’t like it. And it’s the same with small developments as with large developments. Where they are planned, for the most part, people just don’t want them, do they? They don’t want to see a couple of houses squeezed in where there used to be a bit of open land. And yet there is a necessity there.
MICHAEL MONK: There is a necessity there. And CPRE isn’t about saying no to all forms of development in all places. The right development in the right place, something that can actually enhance our communities and our countryside. Let’s take two examples. If we build no houses in some of our villages, the population’s are going to go down, and they become less vibrant communities. Let’s think about the issues surrounding affordable housing, where young people in a village would find it very difficult to find a new home if there was no new building going on. There are opportunities to enhance the countryside through additional tree and hedge planting for instance. In fact my village, in Great Stukeley and Little Stukeley, came together at the weekend to plant 160 new trees. So those are the sort of initiatives which we can all take to improve the quality of life in our villages.
ANDY HARPER: You mentioned village life. But one of the big problems is that village life is becoming increasingly available to people, let’s say, like you and me, to people who are mobile. The heart and soul of villages when I was growing up in rural Norfolk, and indeed when I first moved to where I live now 25 years ago, were local people, who very often didn’t go anywhere, didn’t go very far. But they of course have disappeared. Because the only people who can live in villages these days are people who are mobile and have got a few bob.
MICHAEL MONK: Absolutely. We have to recognise that that change has happened. The origins of a village, where it was the people working on the land, and the people serving the people who were working on the land, has all gone. We’re in a different situation. We’re in a different world now. As you say, people are more mobile. But there is something very special still about living in villages, that sense of a community coming together, which I don’t think you get in a city. In a city, you choose the people that you socialise with, because they are of like minds, or like backgrounds. In a village it’s very different. You’re all in it together. And I think that’s the strength of our small rural communities.
ANDY HARPER: What about the basic policies then, of CPRE? Most people would think well really what you don’t want is any change. How are you going to sell that to people who don’t want any change, and I include myself amongst that. I’m quite unashamedly a country dweller who wants it to remain as it was in the 1950’s when I grew up. I don’t mind admitting it. Now are you going to sell it to me, and also to people who believe that that’s what CPRE is, full of dinosaurs like me, and, I’m not going to say you, but there must be others.
MICHAEL MONK: Yes, well, I come back to my point. One of the reasons why people are so averse to change is that they see changes for the worse. In actual fact there can be opportunities to improve things, sensitive development. It’s the quality of the design that we also need to recognise. I understand your point about the degradation of some of our built environment, and fully sympathise with that. But, there have also been some developments in more recent times which are really quite pleasant and exciting. And they blend in. And you think to yourself, actually I think that looks better than what was there before. Nobody wants to see vast tracts of attractive landscape destroyed behind the bulldozer. But to come back to the point that things are on the change. You yourself have said we’ve got to build additional houses for the people who are growing up here. And people indeed, and this is a particularly relevant point for Cambridgeshire, we’ve got a lot of people wanting to move into Cambridgeshire, because this is where the jobs are being developed. And so we’ve got to accomodate them. The trick is to try and keep you happy. I say you. Looking at you very straight there. Trying to keep you happy, whilst at the same time also keeping happy or making happy those people who need to come here.
ANDY HARPER: That’s the broader picture. What about specifically for Cambridgeshire. How do you look at this year, next year, however long you are in office? Are there specific issues that you are going to have to address? We don’t have any Forestry Commission woodland for example. So while you might well support the campaign, that’s not something which is going to affect you directly. Are there any specifics that you are going to be looking at, and saying, this is what we’re going for?
MICHAEL MONK: I think there are a number, yes. First of all, I think I would put down three. The first one is the changes to the planning system, which the new Coalition Government is putting in place through the Localism Bill. And we want to see how that will affect the planning of our towns and villages. That could be a force for good in that it empowers local communities. But I think it very much depends upon how it’s done. We’ll wait to see what the legislation actually brings forth. The second one is a subject which has been quite vexed recetly, which is the proliferation of planning applications for wind farms, and their impact on the countryside. And the third one is, if we’re going to have the significant level of growth which we’re asked to take, then there has to be a commensurate improvement in the infrastructure. And the whole basis of the growth agenda for Cambridgeshire has been based on Government actually putting its hand in its pocket and providing (for) that deficit of infrastructure which Cambridgehsire suffers from. Now given that the Government is telling us that they have very little money to do that sort of thing, I think we perhaps need to re-evaluate the level of growth which Cambridgeshire can accommodate.
ANDY HARPER: If people would like to get involved, and they are of like mind, how do they get in touch? Is it something that they join, and then go to lots of meetings? What are the practicalities of being a member of CPRE?
MICHAEL MONK: As with all voluntary organisations, there are different levels at which you might want to be involved. If you want to become an active volunteer, then join us. You’ll find us a very welcoming organisation. We would encourage you to take part in our meetings. But, a lot of people want simply to add their voice to the sort of issues that we are worried about. And they can become a member. We’re always happy to take their membership money, which helps fund the sort of activities that we need to do to promote the concerns that we have about the countryside.
ANDY HARPER: It’s been a delight to meet you. And I wish you well. Is it an open-ended period of office?
MICHAEL MONK: Until they get tired of me, yes.
ANDY HARPER: Oh right. So it’s going to be for many years to come.
MICHAEL MONK: It’s not a set period though.
ANDY HARPER: It’s been really good to meet you, and no doubt we’ll meet and talk again.
MICHAEL MONK: I hope we will. Thank you.
ANDY HARPER: Thanks for coming in Michael;. That’s Michael Monk, the new Chairman of the county branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.