It’s autumn, so it must be the Autumn Conference…

David Mairs, CPRE Kent campaigns and PR manager, shares his thoughts from this month’s Autumn Conference held in Birmingham. The views are his alone, while this piece is not intended as a detailed report of events – rather, the impressions he gained from a long but ultimately positive day

Could it be that a year had passed since my first Autumn Conference? Of course it could – a year that had essentially been my first at CPRE Kent in the role of campaigns and PR manager.
An early alarm call and before I knew it, still a little blurry-eyed, I was admiring the interior of St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, before wending my way to The Studio, the nearby venue that has hosted this annual event since, well, at least last year.
Breakfast pastries were wolfed back with an enthusiasm bordering on recklessness and then it was time to listen to Su Sayer, national chair, open proceedings with the message that this was a day of listening and learning, agreeing priorities and working together… One CPRE loud and clear.
We were shown a video on the organisation’s recent Green Clean campaign, which helped demonstrate how the forthcoming deposit return system would work.
There had been 23 litter-picks across the country, with 120 volunteers signed up as a result. And, if you needed any more convincing, one member had reportedly declared their litter-pick “the best day with CPRE I’ve ever had”. Lessons for us all there, perhaps, and maybe for the character involved.
Today, however, was largely about the Purpose Project, or, to put it another way, Realising Our Purpose: to 2026 and Beyond, or yet another, developing CPRE until 2026 with the view to “realising our potential”.
Chief executive Crispin Truman offered a gentle apology for the time the review had taken – and it would be carrying on for a few months yet – but the project had, we were assured, “reached a new watershed”.
Excitingly, by the end of next year, it would be “all systems go”.
After 92 years, why were we digging so deep for a new direction? Well, not making changes when they were needed was a bigger risk than making them.
A driving force of the Purpose Project was to better explain how joining CPRE could help people make a difference.
It would also help the organisation position itself. As a recent example, we had been quoted on the subject of affordable housing in a Daily Mail article.
We would try to bring planning back to where it was and to what people needed, for example “rural-proofing” policy so local people on housing lists were not forgotten.
Local examples of our work included supporting the creation of Green Belts in Norfolk and Hampshire, along with work was being done in Lancashire and Devon schools showing youngsters why their countryside was important.
With regard to the CPRE communications machine, we were promised a lively year ahead, with a new website set to make its long-awaited introduction… although this was dependent on the Purpose Project. And then there was the intranet, another work in progress.
Three groups have been leading work on the Purpose Project: a trustees subcommittee, a network group and a staff group.
Elvira Meucci-Lyons, director of fundraising and supporter services, and colleague Caroline Jenkins then told us how the Purpose Project had come about: essentially, we all needed more support and resources.
With a loyal but ageing membership, the organisation had peaked 40 years ago and endured a sure but steady decline since.
Recent research had identified issues:

  • We struggle to explain what we do and why it’s so important
  • We don’t offer ways to get involved
  • Not everyone realises CPRE is a charity
  • We are perceived as old-fashioned and negative
  • “We can’t be beaten” on heritage and credibility and punch above our weight, but there is low general awareness of the organisation
  • Support may be short-term and issue-specific… communities would ‘use us’ but there would be little in the way of building relationships
  • We should clarify that we want to help shape the future rather than simply protect history
  • We need a positive campaign (similar to Green Clean) to balance the ‘protect’ side of what we do

Enough of the issues, how would we move forward?

  • We all have different ideas, needs, priorities and challenges
  • There had been eight months of consultation and research
  • Clarify the purpose – an internal manifesto… the ‘why’
  • We don’t offer ways to get involved
  • There is a need for a consistent way to summarise why we do what we do, why it is important and why people should care. It was suggested that the phrase ‘Positive progress for the countryside’ would capture our purpose

It was now time for John Croxen, chair of the London branch, to offer some thoughts. We had the conclusions from the consultation, he said, and the prospect of a mission statement, but how would it work in London? No idea, he conceded, but it would have to work in some way.
Another gentleman took the mic and asked how we should become more open. We were perceived as middle-class, staid and keen to say no – we needed to become more engaged and inclusive, something emphasised by the fact that only 3 per cent of the population recognised CPRE.
Debra McConnell from Lancashire branch offered well-received stories of how CPRE had been active ‘on the ground’ in the North West, although there was the disturbing tale of Rimrose Valley in Sefton, through which Highways England had elected to drive a dual carriageway.
Moving to happier matters, it was stressed that CPRE was a strong initial brand, while “the age thing” doesn’t need to be viewed as a negative as people of, for want of a better term, an older generation are often very generous.
Anyway, the next steps involve this month’s creative work on our strapline, logo, look and feel being presented to the three groups; consultation and external testing; selection and refinement of a chosen route; and, in January 2019, the creation of a brand toolkit and guidelines. There will be a phased implementation through the year.
A burst of Q&A included such snippets as an Instagram best-photograph competition having proved popular in Hertfordshire; Elvira stating that digital would feature strongly in what we did; and Peter Collins telling us that Oxfordshire branch was “a little bit unhappy” with how the consultation had worked, while the strategy should be developed before the purpose was identified. He also questioned whether CPRE needed a strapline.
To the latter participant, Crispin responded that it was a chicken-and-egg situation, with purpose coming before strategy – “enhance before protect” – while there had been a huge effort on consultation and, if people felt they hadn’t been heard, they could keep “feeding in”. He also felt a strapline was indeed needed.
Another speaker from the floor urged we remember people in the cities, otherwise it might appear were only for those who lived in the countryside. Someone else took it further, saying that until we captured the towns we could forget the countryside – as it was in the towns that decisions were made.
The last session before lunch entailed Part I of the strategic review (scene setting).
Bob Empson (a strategist, as luck would have it) posed the rhetorical ‘Why strategy?’. To which he gave the answers:

  • Setting goals and directions ensures we have more impact
  • Establishment of a long-term strategy means we’re sustainable
  • We work in a range of environments, so we must be flexible to change
  • Shared agenda for the national network

Bob said the resulting strategy document should be short and concise – about 10 pages – and something that could be widely used. The process would unfold thus:

  • Planning, mobilisation and launch (the launch being today)
  • Initial consultation and analysis
  • ‘Consultation green paper’ and directive
  • Refine and approve strategy (March-June)
  • Communicate and operationalise

We heard from strategic champions – Jill Gettrup of Avonside and Kent’s very own Hilary Newport – who repeated the message that the day was about speaking to delegates, ensuring the network got a say. There would be four or five workshops in February, while so far there had been engagement with the CPRE board, staff and managers, Purpose Project research and consultation and external environment and SWOT analyses.
Lunch was as splendid as it was last year, with the curry Jamaican rather than Indian (there was also a fine Chinese dish), while the break also gave time to look at and share posters brought along by delegates to highlight successes, failures and lessons from the past year.
But there was no time to waste and it was soon back to business and, in particular, part II of the strategic review and our input into it.
Suggested issues to be addressed included:

  • Beauty, tranquility and health and social value of the countryside
  • Importance of agriculture and horticulture
  • What is land use and its value?
  • Young people should be targeted as potential members
  • Beauty, tranquility and health and social value of the countryside
  • Image promotion so more people know about CPRE
  • Political side of things – we’re a campaigning group
  • How big does CPRE want to be?
  • Need to use new technologies such as JustGiving
  • How do we increase income on a sustainable basis?
  • Countryside is important no matter where you live

Emerging themes, meanwhile, were to:

  • Connect people and the countryside
  • Promote thriving rural communities
  • Empower our people and network
  • Grow our organisation

Observations from the floor (human variety) included that recent documents had made no “no mention of villages” and there was an absence of the word ‘planning’.
Crispin replied that if planning was not there, it was accidental as this was an important tool in the kit. The theme was taken up by Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy, who agreed that planning was indeed the most important tool in the kit but not the only one – we needed more political support.
One of the most important aspects of the Autumn Conference is the opportunity to hear about CPRE work across the country, and Lucy Hawthorne, head of campaigns, led a session highlighting five case studies.
Kia Trainor, Sussex director, was up first and related the impressive efforts of her branch in joining forces with other groups in the formation of SCATE (South Coast Alliance for Transport and the Environment) in the wake of plans for A27 “improvements” that could prove horribly environmentally damaging.
She told how funding had been secured (£10,000 from Lush, for example) as the group produced a weighty analysis of the road scheme, the publication A New Direction and a highly impressive YouTube film that caused quite a stir across the room.
Kristina Kenworthy (a name familiar to CPRE Kent after her efforts in the Farthingloe Supreme Court victory) detailed battles fought by CPRE Surrey in partnership with others before Gloucestershire’s Patricia Broadfoot stressed the importance of getting members involved (more than 100 had been at the branch AGM) and joining the debate on the future of their county; as part of this, her branch had put together the campaign There Is a Better Way.
Andrew Fane from Suffolk told the enviable tale of how the leader of the county council had been so impressed with a branch presentation that he had secured £340,000 from central government towards updating the county’s design guide.
Finally in this session, Richard Cowan, regional chair for the North East, a region with relatively few CPRE members, related how a journalist had been employed as social-media consultant. The move had delivered results, but had it raised membership? No, it hadn’t. Ho hum.
It was time for a review of the day… and indeed of the past year.
Better land use had been one of the principle themes to emerge from recent discussions, while we needed to identify better who are CPRE’s beneficiaries.
We had to support the more marginalised in our countryside, otherwise we were failing in our charitable role… an interesting point, I thought.
Elvira said CPRE was a large network with a holistic remit.
Being involved with CPRE sometimes feel an uphill struggle as we battle a seemingly remorseless onslaught of development, especially in this corner of the land, so it was uplifting to hear so many positive stories from across England (incidentally, we had been joined by colleagues from Scotland and Wales).
And if you want evidence of the level the CPRE message can reach, we were told that ‘land value capture’ – a term coined by our organisation – had been “all over” the recent Tory Party conference.
Talking of which, with reference to PM Theresa May’s Dancing Queen moment, we were encouraged to instead focus on another Abba favourite: Money Money Money. Yes, CPRE, like anyone else, needs it.
CPRE Kent’s chair Christine Drury wrapped things up before the drinks reception. “We’ve had the sort of discussion we just would not have had five or six years ago,” she said.
Christine’s Kent role comes to an end soon, so it was timely for her to share her one CPRE ambition: “to get Gladman out of the scene”. An ambition shared widely, surely (other land agents are available).
Otherwise, her final message was: “Keep on fighting, keep on promoting, keep enhancing the countryside.”
As for me, I took back to Kent a range of ideas sparked by the activities of colleagues – some of whom were present, some of whom I have never met – who are nothing but an inspiration.
And the Purpose Project? Sure, it is necessary. CPRE needs to adapt, even change. Not many would argue with that.
In truth, though, some of what I had heard at this year’s Autumn Conference I had heard 12 months ago. I don’t doubt that a lot of work has gone into developing a strategy for how we embrace the challenges ahead, but it’s time to crack on.
I hope the timetable will be stuck to and the substantial consultations of recent months will help mould this great organisation into something that is still relevant, respected and strong a hundred years from now.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018