Race is on to save planet – and nuclear can be a part
The new President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England has spoken of his determination to spare the
countryside from going to waste.
Sir Andrew Motion says rural campaigners are facing
their greatest challenge in the history of the planet, as environmentalists struggle to
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win the war on litter louts and polluters.
He has lived in "town" for the best part of 40 years, but Sir Andrew Motion still sees himself as a country lad. "I feel the country has been imprinted at a very deep level very early on," he says, speaking when we meet in a pub in North London. "And nothing has been overlaid."
The former Poet Laureate's upbringing on the Essex and Suffolk border is just one of the reasons why he is likely to be a good fit in his new role as the President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).
Sir Andrew talks about the countryside warmly and lyrically, how you might expect from a writer who has received numerous awards for his poetry and published celebrated biographies. He acknowledges that there is a something of a lie in how we perceive "nature". It is, in fact, one of man's greatest creations.
"When we think of ourselves as a country, and what we have done, I think we are the country of Shakespeare," he says.
"We have produced the greatest writer the world has ever seen. And the other really good thing we have done is make the English landscape. What we see is not what God gave – we did it.
"The English did it, we made it, over hundreds of years and piecemeal without many committees. Which is absolutely one of our greatest achievements."
He borrows from Samuel Johnson, who said literature has the power to let us "enjoy and endure". The same goes for the countryside.
"It consoles us, it comforts us, it educates us, it cheers us up, it gives us space to think. The combination of those things – the spirituality, the capacity it reveals in us combined with the fact that we made it happen ... we live in a huge green cathedral. That's how I feel about it. That's why we've got to look after it."
Sir Andrew, poet laureate between 1999 and 2009, takes over from American writer Bill Bryson, who used his tenure to campaign for an end to the blight of littering spoiling the countryside.
There are scores of issues Sir Andrew could have pursued. The march of wind turbines, high-speed rail cutting through rural communities and planning reforms have all prompted concern among residents and campaign groups.
Sir Andrew, though, is anxious to help tackle the disconnect between town and country. He wants to increase access, particularly among young people who might never have set foot outside the their own urban neighbourhoods. As he sees it, the future of planet depends on it.
He said: "The rock in the road is about access. How do we get people to feel they have permission to go to the countryside?
"I want to go to my grave thinking the next generation know what there is to care about. And they only know what there is to care about if they have knowledge of it – and the only way they get knowledge of is by going out there.
"The street I live in down the road is full of kids who have never been to the countryside. And they are not going to get on their bikes suddenly and peddle off to it."
Sir Andrew, whose authorised life of Philip Larkin won the Whitbread Prize for Biography in 1994, is planning an anthology of writing on England published on behalf of the CPRE. But he is also keen to involve young people in writing too. He said: "It's not going to happen without education."
He acknowledges that "every generation" of the CPRE believes the countryside is in an increasingly parlous state.
"But I do think there is reason to think the danger is graver now than it ever has been," he adds.
"Partly because the scale of the thing is so enormous. We have climate change. What are we going to do about that? That hasn't been a clear and present danger before, as it is now."
There is more. "Hedges and littering and light pollution you name it – the great raft of things that CPRE exercises itself about. We have to be on red alert.
"At the same time our global population is rising. We have acute housing shortages. And we're not quite broke but we're a great deal poorer than we used to be.
"How can we reconcile the pressure on budgets with this extra threat?"
He pauses: "It is a very, very interesting time to take this job on."
Sir Andrew, professor of Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College, University of London, takes the helm in the aftermath of a big win for the CPRE, which has been "standing up" for the countryside for more than 80 years.
It was one of the loudest voices in the campaign to get ministers to revise planning guidance for approving new houses, factories and other developments.
Sir Andrew says the eventual climbdown "took everybody rather by surprise".
"It was much more considerate and considered than many expected it to be," he says. "I was bristling and ready to spring into action. But we were very pleased."
Arguably the thorniest issue he faces will be over wind farms, detested by many residents in rural communities for despoiling the countryside. While Sir Andrew is no enthusiast, he is an advocate of green power given the threat of climate change.
"The whole energy provision and how it impacts the countryside is very difficult.
"We know we want to live amidst mixed delivery. I never thought I'd hear myself say I think nuclear should be part of it, but I think nuclear should be part if it. It doesn't charge greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
"Wind farms, well, they can look beautiful in an austere sort of a way but an awful lot of people don't think so.
"And there's manifestly a danger they are going to spoil very large parts of the countryside that we presently have. The CPRE can do various things about that.
"It can make damn sure that everyone affected by them has a proper say.
"We should continue to lean on people who have authority to make decisions about this. So that there are not specific percentages of the overall energy need given to particular forms.
"If you say 'x' percentage is coming from wind farms, but it turns out there isn't the room, desire or capacity – what are we going to do? Just put them there anyway? That seems ridiculous."
The future of rural villages, too, is another live issue. Many have pointed to the loss of post offices, pubs and schools to claim community spirit is, at best, on the wane and, at worst, being hollowed out. It is a trend he is familiar with.
"When I left home 40 years ago, it had two pubs and a village shop with a post office in it," he says.
"Now it's got one pub and a tea shop – good luck to the tea shop but it's not the hub of things it was. It would be ridiculous and literally anti-social to think this stuff can be done online."
Breathing new life into villages and market towns is easier said than done. Housing developments to give young people a place to live in increasingly expensive rural pockets in the Westcountry are often fiercely opposed, especially if detrimental to the natural environment. It is another circle to square.
"Everything that happens has to happen with a tremendously energised local input," he says.
"It's their opinions that are making the decisions. You do it locally, but with a sense of what the over-arching ambition is. Revived communities, sufficient links between people, care about these fixable local initiatives.
"But under the umbrella of the biggest concern of all, which is the biggest concern of our time, which is bigger than wars, and that's looking after our planet."
Yet despite mounting evidence climate change is man-made, sceptics remain. Sir Andrew clearly is not among them. He recalls the "shuddering and terrifying" experience of witnessing the population of gannets on Shetland decimated, the birds starved because changing water temperatures were affecting their food. "Around every nest was a dead chick," he says. "I didn't need persuading much. This was a very dramatic demonstration of how fast it's happening."
He went on: "I'm very puzzled by [sceptics]. I know that they exist. I am absolutely prepared to accept that there are many possible reasons for this happening – but it is happening and if you deny that then I just don't get it."
He explains there was little hesitation in agreeing to become CPRE President, to which he was elected unanimously last week at the group's annual meeting.
"The letter came completely out-of-the-blue – and I hadn't even finished reading it when I thought 'yes'," he says.
"It pulls together pretty much everything I am interested in. Literature, campaigning, my childhood, my middle-age – I could see the ghost of my father clapping his hands. He would have loved it."