John Wotton, the new chairman of CPRE Kent, talks to David Mairs about how he thinks this organisation should develop and shares (some of) his background as a lawyer in the City
“Where I am now is that I’m not a lawyer any longer!”
John Wotton, new chairman of CPRE Kent, was cheerily setting the record straight during a discussion in which he set out his ambitions for this organisation.
It would be remiss to introduce John without referring to his life in the legal profession, during which he worked for more than 30 years as a City lawyer with an international corporate law firm.
Suffice to say, a stellar career included such roles as president of the Law Society of England & Wales and chairman of the Law Society’s EU Committee and has been winding down with the chairing of Competition and Markets Authority inquiries for the past five years.
Now “spreading his wings” and focusing on a range of very different interests that include, of course, his role at CPRE Kent, he is strengthening his involvement with charities, notably in the world of wildlife conservation, and in education.
Born in Hounslow and brought up in Sunbury-on-Thames, he was able to call this county home when he moved to Marden in 1983 just as he and wife Linde were starting a family. ‘Children’ Ruth, Tom and Sophie are now all in their 30s.
“We moved into what one of the rich farmers in Marden referred to as a gentry house – we had the smaller, older half of it. It was tucked away, set well back from the main road, but had a relatively small garden.
“All around were orchards and hop gardens, half of which have now been built on. I was told there were once 80 working oasts in Marden parish and there were still five when we moved there. Now there’s not a hop grown in Marden.”
Despite the changes and so much loss of what many regard as the county’s heritage, it was in Marden that John got “a feel for Kent”. He moved to nearby Cranbrook in 1992.
Although fresh in his chairman’s role, John is of course no stranger to CPRE Kent, having chaired the Historic Buildings Committee for the past three years. Initially a joint operation between the Kent Archaeological Society and CPRE Kent, it is now run solely by the latter.
How did that particular interest develop?
“I’ve always been attracted to older buildings. A university friend – he’s still a good friend – went straight from his architecture degree to conservation and showed us around his patch in Suffolk. I found that interesting.
“Thinking about it, my interest may even date back to university. Jesus College Cambridge, where I studied, retains the medieval chapel and cloisters of the nunnery formerly on the site, now surrounded by fine buildings from every century since the foundation of the college in 1496. I fell in love with the place the moment I first set eyes on it.”
Historic buildings do not necessarily come to mind as falling under the CPRE remit – indeed Kent is the only branch to have such a committee – so how does John view their place in the wider scheme of things?
“Historic buildings can be overlooked in the work of CPRE branches. A lot of what we do is protection of the countryside, but the built environment is hugely important. The character of most settlements depends on historic architecture and protecting the fabric of old buildings and historic monuments is terribly important.
“The National Planning Policy Framework also protects the setting of heritage assets, so there’s often a very good ground for opposing or seeking to change an undesirable planning application, even where the historic structures themselves are unharmed. Protecting them in this way is highly congruent with the aims of CPRE, to protect the countryside.”
John acknowledges the challenge of following in the footsteps of predecessor Christine Drury, who worked tirelessly to make CPRE Kent such an effective organisation during her five-year term. What changes might we expect under his chairmanship?
“My main concern is my comparative lack of detailed planning knowledge. Even though I was a lawyer, my practice didn’t involve planning law.
“Externally, what concerns me most is our limited resource in combating undesirable applications and providing critical review. Local councils are subject to huge and conflicting pressures where planning is concerned and are hugely overstretched, which combine to increase the risk of bad developments being approved.
“I think we have to work very hard to bring in more people with the time and skills to intervene effectively.
“Even though we have some endowment, from a very generous benefactor, which provides us some financial security, we don’t have a big annual budget.
“We need more professional planners and more volunteers with the time and skills to intervene effectively in the planning process.
“I would like to instil a giving culture among our supporter base, one in which more of our members and other supporters make regular donations and leave legacies to CPRE Kent. It’s what other charities do and we don’t need to be reticent about it.
“We have to explain why one large windfall some years ago doesn’t enable us to do everything we need to do. But, of course, we can only expect people to support us financially if they see the value of what we do and believe their contribution will make a difference.”
Even bearing in mind the relative health of the Kent branch, it is no secret that CPRE needs to attract more members. There is no silver bullet, but how does the new man at the helm see us tackling things?
“Many other membership organisations are in the same position and unfortunately people generally seem less willing to get involved. I’m hoping that the work being done nationally on the CPRE brand and image will help us at branch level. But for the sterling efforts of the Charing team and volunteers in promoting CPRE Kent at events around the county, we’d be a good deal worse off than we are.
“Successful campaigns are key. A high-profile campaign is what attracts people and makes them think we’re worth supporting.
“We sometimes get new people at meetings but often don’t see them again, so we have to ask if we’re projecting the right message. The existing supporter base have signed up to and accept what we are, but most of us also see why we might need to attract a wider audience.”
That national work should help CPRE clarify what it’s about and a rumoured greater focus on green issues chimes with the new Kent chairman.
“CPRE as a conservation body should be concerned with protection of biodiversity in the countryside, as well as cultural, aesthetic and social considerations.
“We understand the environmental impact of planning, as well as the importance of green spaces and biodiversity to the health and well-being of people.”
John’s agreement to take the chairman’s seat can only be welcomed, but is there a danger of CPRE being viewed more widely as an organisation catering largely for high-end achievers?
“The greater danger is more, I think, that we are seen as a crowd of people with substantial houses and substantial gardens telling people that they must live in high-density housing to protect the countryside.
“We can only tackle that by explaining how the countryside and access to it are of benefit to people’s well-being.”
Which brings us to the issue of how much CPRE can influence housing policy.
“Housebuilding doesn’t make housing affordable,” says John. “I don’t see how we can meet the need for rural affordable housing without significant funding and other incentives being provided for social housing – genuinely affordable housing that will remain so, in the places where the need is greatest.
“Housing ceases to be a problem when there’s an adequate supply of low-cost housing for people without substantial means, and that includes housing in the private rental market. When I was young, it was very difficult to get anywhere to rent.
“I do believe we need a mixed housing market, with three primary types – social housing, private rental and home ownership – but government is only promoting one of them.”
Difficult times, unquestionably, but for John Wotton retirement does not entail the surrender of all other responsibilities.
Trustee of the Cranbrook School Trust and Great Dixter, council member of Fauna & Flora International and, of course, front man for our own cherished organisation… before you even consider the maintenance of his garden, orchard and mini-arboretum, opened regularly for charity, it is apparent the demands on his time will be rich and varied.
You can but sympathise when he says that, after three years chairing the Historic Buildings Committee, he wants to step aside from that particular task “but didn’t manage it in the meeting we just held”.
So there you are, dear reader: a new challenge could be yours. Who know where you might end up?
Monday, May 13, 2019