CPRE conference: thoughts from our man in Birmingham

CPRE Kent’s Supreme Court victory over the Farthingloe Valley should have a positive impact for branches and supporters across the country

Now the dust has settled after a crazily busy time for everyone at CPRE Kent, capped by last week’s victory over Farthingloe Valley in the Supreme Court, communications and PR manager David Mairs shares his thoughts after a day in Birmingham at the CPRE Autumn Conference. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of CPRE Kent…       

Less than six weeks after joining CPRE Kent as communications and PR manager at the end of September, I was hurtling (well, trundling) out of Euston towards Birmingham New Street station and, ultimately, the CPRE Autumn Conference.
A delayed train had at least afforded the opportunity to meet fellow CPRE travellers from Sussex and London and of course our own county chairwoman, Christine Drury.
A fascinating day lay ahead, certainly, but a dodgy ticket turnstile at New Street meant I was suddenly on my own and looking for The Studio in Cannon Street single-handed.
Not so easy, given that more than three decades had elapsed since my last visit to England’s second city, but, no matter, I was soon wolfing back canapes before selecting a table in place for the first presentation of the day.
This came from Crispin Truman, CPRE’s new chief executive, who was giving his first impressions of our organisation.
He got under way by presenting “CPRE Town” – a model town that might, if you peered very hard, look just a little like Richmond in North Yorkshire.
Either way, the idea was to show how our towns could be:

  • Offering new affordable housing
  • Community-led
  • Surrounded by beautiful, and accessible, countryside
  • Building on brownfield land where possible
  • Consideration of the town’s historic centre (avoiding the ‘doughnut effect’ of a sugary ring with an empty centre)
  • Strong local transport
  • Litter-free
  • Green space within town
  • Church and/or mixed-use community space
  • Sustainable economy

Idealistic maybe, but what’s wrong with that? Further, aren’t all of these principles desirable and something that all local authorities should be trying to achieve?
Crispin told how he found CPRE to be a positive organisation and he had been unable to find any nimbys – rather, he had discovered positive people who were simply struggling with current government policies.
He spoke of the democratic deficit, where planning policy was being undermined and bypassed, and the unfortunate adversarial approach to housing and roads now evident.
As for the future, Crispin felt we needed to give clearer, simpler messages with more focus. We should be clear in communicating what we do.
And there’s clearly a willing audience, the chief executive pointing out that one of young people’s main concerns is loss of nature.
Other issues he covered were the fact that members wanted more connection between national office and local branches; the concept that CPRE was about solutions as much as about problems; and the need to develop new initiatives and strengthen community fund-raising.
Crispin was impressed and excited by CPRE’s access to government, but we couldn’t do all that we wished on our own – there needed to be collaboration, both internally and with other organisations.
Aside from the need to work better together, one of the lasting questions we were left with by the chief executive was how could we broaden our appeal. This was a theme that was to run throughout the day.
Next up on the podium was Elvira Meucci-Lyons, CPRE director of fundraising and supporter services, who updated us on the membership review and developments with corporate fundraising and legacies.
She stated the ambition of the organisation, which was to broaden its appeal as, if we are to achieve our mission, we require more help. We need greater volume, value and frequency of support from broader audiences than we currently attract, Elvira told us.
And how to do it?… Tell our story better and offer a more relevant experience to the audience we wish to attract.
After Elvira’s presentation came what for me was one of the most interesting and valuable parts of the day: a look at the charity landscape.
Given by a lady whose name I missed from the GOOD Agency, which has worked with such big hitters as the National Trust and RSPB, the analysis painted a bleak picture for organisations such as ours.
The number of donors is dropping (7 per cent in five years); voluntary giving is slowing (a 25 per cent decline in six years); and less than 7 per cent of charity giving goes to environmental causes. As if all that were not enough, the cost of recruiting donors has gone up.
We learnt that most giving is sporadic and occasional, while fewer than half of people aged under 35 give regularly but 79 per cent of over-65s donate on a frequent basis.
We were urged to rewrite the rules of engagement, whatever that meant, and see things from the perspective of supporters, who needed to know why we do what we do.
Finally, CPRE’s position should be moving from that of gamekeeper to facilitator, while Oxfam was given as an example of an organisation that had thought about how to give people of all ages a role.
A workshop followed in which we were asked why does CPRE exist and what is its purpose. Everyone seemed pretty much on the same page with this one, while the idea was mooted of CPRE possibly being “a distress purchase”. You can look that one up…
The final morning session, A Strategy for One CPRE led by branch and regional development manager Antonia White, focused on national office, the regions and the branches “being strong together, working constructively and effectively to common objectives to have the best possible impact for the countryside and the public”.

Four aims were set out:

  • Branches and regions being strong on their own
  • Branches and regions being strong together
  • Branches and regions supporting national office effectively
  • National office supporting branches and regions effectively
  • National office being strong on its own

This was one of the more interactive sessions, with a range of contributions from the floor, while one of the more positive facts to be shared was that CPRE intranet was on its way. We await…
There was also a set of commitments given by national office:

  • Menu of training (essentially more training, especially in relation to campaigns)
  • Fundraising support to branches
  • Addressing planning need through more focus to region plans
  • Planning support work
  • Policy-Campaigns annual cycle
  • Consolidate and update volunteer documents and toolkits

Next up was lunch… and what a splendid treat that proved to be! I plumped for the curry option, as ever, and it was a delight… possibly the best food I have had at such an event.
The only negative was that my time to savour it was limited as I had to head to a lunchtime workshop (such devotion to the cause!).
This related to CPRE’s planned new website and was, for some of us anyway, a tad disappointing with little in the way of new ideas or proposals to get us thinking; we already had a strong idea of what we wanted to do – what we needed was more guidance in helping us deliver it.
It was soon, and perhaps predictably, established that we sought to increase footfall to our national website and encourage visitors to return more frequently. E-newsletters were cited as an obvious way of driving people to the site.
Some of those present felt the current website looked old-fashioned, while others highlighted how in future it could be used to supply information to interested parties, especially in planning matters.
Suggestions as to what the new CPRE site could include, meanwhile, included a Twitter feed down the side of the home page, a simple user guide, objection-letter templates, an archive of old documents, campaign information, case studies, volunteering opportunities, a range of national content with greater local relevance, multimedia content such as videos and live streaming from events. More than one person also expressed the desire for an easier CMS (content management system).
It was all getting a bit techy for me as I concurred wholeheartedly with those who asked for greater IT support in such areas as analytics. Time to move on…
to Tess Kingham (a Kent resident, by the way), who gave us her thoughts having spent time running CPRE campaign training sessions over the past year or so.
Our power potential was enormous but not fully exploited, she said, while also noting that MPs’ fear of CPRE did not equate to the number of people we had on the ground.
She had perceived our strength in planning but also our weakness in social media and having broader campaign strategy PR. Perhaps we should set up a skills audit, she suggested.
Other observations included the requirement for a tailored campaign pack for more integrated operating; a pressing need for more volunteers; a lack of training provision (although there are lots of opportunities to share skills); and the importance of writing letters to the printed media and the sharing of success stories and personal tales rather than constant planning minutiae.
More off the cuff, perhaps, Tess told us we should make sure our research facts and figures were credible and accurate, which probably didn’t need saying; that booklets such as Warwickshire in Crisis were useful tools to send to the decision-makers; and that some local authorities would pay the postage for CPRE deliveries (really! … apparently).
Referring to the training days themselves, Tess had found one-day sessions in campaign training “a bit tight”, saying training should be either generic or bespoke and not mixed, while there was possibly a productive paradox in that reactive work dominated our agenda but it was of course keystone to what we did.
A lady sat next to me thought a review of training sessions that the majority of us hadn’t even attended was not a good use of time. I got what she was saying, and this section could have fallen flat, but thankfully Tess’s more general observations on CPRE were illuminating and valuable.
After this, there was a slight shuffle of the set agenda as CPRE director of campaigns and policy Tom Fyans and campaigns manager Lucy Hawthorne led a review of how we were tackling the issues that concern us:

More political: for example citing the concept of developer v community interest. As a more specific case, the narrative should be set as affordable housing, not the Green Belt. Essentially, “If you think building on the Green Belt will bring down house prices, you’re wrong”.

Also, more media, more interest, more relevance.

More proactive: witness our efforts in relation to NPPF reforms, the Housing White Paper and the Green Belt, among others. Policy is analysis, it’s not influence, said someone, and it was a statement that drew a general murmur of agreement across the room, as did the idea that we should be more positive in how we framed our message.

More integrated: cases included, again, the Housing White Paper, Green Belt Under Siege and the Oxford-Cambridge Working Group.

We were informed of CPRE’s new principles for 2018:

  • More collaborative
  • More positive
  • More human (there are heroes and there are villains!)

The last point related to what we, as people, are doing. It’s not just the technical stuff.
All was not sweetness and light, however, as a lady from Oxfordshire declared her ire that national office had not given more notice to the branches of its forthcoming AONB report, which, we had just been told, had been seven months in the making.
Tom accepted the criticism and, if you couldn’t speak out here, then where could you? We were among friends, after all.
Other speakers from the floor, meanwhile, said that – given all the talk of a homes crisis – there was more per capita housing than ever before; farmland, especially with planning permission for development, was the fastest-growing asset in the country; and CPRE branches were subject to a postcode lottery with a big disparity in funding.
And CPRE in 2018? Key priorities included influencing the NPPF, with a consultation expected to be released early in the year; a campaign on rural affordable housing; a submission on the Raynsford Review of Planning; and the government’s 25-year plan for the environment.
And so it was time to review the day. Going back to where we began it all, chief executive Crispin noted the desire among many present to change CPRE’s image, while he had also taken on board our weakness in areas of fundraising.
Of course we couldn’t let things pass without mention of Brexit and the changes it would bring our rural communities, especially in relation to farming. CPRE, urged a speaker from the floor, should be involved throughout this period of great change.
And with the ever-present wish to accentuate the positive, I’ll echo the words of the one who ventured that CPRE planning skills were unparalleled and we could share them with so many others. Hear, hear!
And Hear, hear! to the newly introduced drinks reception, a chance to drink a little, eat a little and talk a little.
Sadly, the chance to then hit the bright lights of Birmingham was not afforded me as David Morrish, the new chairman of CPRE Thanet committee (a post I once held) and a native Brummie, had a family engagement in town and so I was left to head for New Street and home on my lonesome.
It had been a long day, so what were my thoughts upon being immersed in the world of national CPRE?
As ever with such things, some parts of the event were better than others and I got the idea that not everyone had engaged with the speakers or indeed subjects as much as they might.
This wasn’t helped by the layout – during workshops, for example, it was sometimes very difficult to hear people on your own table above the noise from those on other tables.
There was a little too much metropolitan ‘blue-sky’ speak for my liking, but then I’m a Thanet boy and there are few places where English is spoken more earthily.
For all that, it was without question a worthwhile venture, perhaps most of all because you got to meet people from CPRE branches across the country. In truth, this will always be the strength of such events – it is encouraging and emboldening to know that others are as involved and as passionate about the countryside as you are your colleagues are.
It was also apparent that CPRE Kent’s financial position is viewed with some envy. Be under no illusion, your stout yeoman (me!) was on hand to clarify that we weren’t able to simply “to wheel out the barristers” as and when, as someone put it, but I did realise that some branches even in affluent areas you might expect to be core CPRE territory have next to no resource.
Again, it was important to highlight that victories for CPRE Kent in such cases as Farthingloe have national resonance, with all branches benefiting as important legal principles are established.
I had some empathy with the gentleman from Warwickshire who said CPRE needed to be “more combative, less nice” in response to a government that, he believed, had been “working behind our backs” in the way it had foisted housing numbers upon so many of us.
“Be terribly blunt, be terribly open – we’ll get more members,” he said.
Yep, I’ll go with that.
It was evident that many of those present wanted more training in such areas as campaigning and IT, as well as greater support on the “planning frontline”. Again, it’s hard to argue.
And finally? Yes, you can breathe a collective “Phew!”…
CPRE is very much alive and kicking. A cliché, I know, but these are times of extraordinary change and we all need to be able to meet the range of challenges ahead.
I saw that our organisation has people – young and older alike – with a fantastic range of abilities and the passion to fight for what they believe. We have to adapt, certainly, and many of us need to broaden or enhance our skills set, but collectively there’s no one better equipped to fight for the countryside we love.

Thursday, December 14, 2017