Over the years I went to many of the Countryside Commission’s press conferences and launches. I sat at the back and asked an awkward question or made a critical point. Then on 14 December 1998, at the end of the commission’s era, it launched the landscape character map for England. Again I sat at the back and I put up my hand. There was no doubt trepidation, then surprise, when I said that this was the commission’s last public event and I thanked it for 30 years of excellent work.
For all my criticism at the time, I look back on the commission’s reign (1968-1999) as a golden era compared with its equivalent now, Natural England. The commission had money and government support and it made things happen.
So I was delighted to go to the commission’s fiftieth anniversary event, organised by former staff, on 7 July in Cheltenham, the commission’s home from 1974. It was a fabulous do at Gloucester University, with more than a hundred staff present, to celebrate the commission’s achievements and to meet old friends.
The day was organised by Jenifer White and Katharine Hope, who did a grand job.
There were displays of memorabilia to enjoy, including this photo from about 1983.
We gathered outside for various group photos.
After lunch we went to the lecture theatre for excellent talks by Adrian Phillips (director, 1981-92), Michael Dower (director general 1992-69) and Marian Spain (former countryside officer in the south east region).
They told of the history and the dynamism of the commission, born of a time when attention was turning to the everyday countryside close to people’s homes. An early director, Reg Hookway, mercurial and ebullient, introduced ideas from the United States of countryside interpretation; he brought together a young team and drove people forward. Balanced by emollient and influential chairmen, he won the attention and support of government.
The commission achieved much because it used its powers of experimentation and innovation, to invent countryside stewardship, parish paths partnership, millennium greens and much else. I should have appreciated more the work it did to highlight and nurture the rights-of-way system: ‘the single, most important means of access to and enjoyment of the countryside’. It found ways of funding local authorities to do rights-of-way work. In 1987 it set the target of all paths to be in good order by the year 2000 (they were not of course, but it focused attention on them).
It championed common land, setting up the Common Land Forum. It strongly opposed the deregistration of commons, exposing loopholes in the law and defending Dallowgill Moor common in North Yorkshire against removal from the register. It was prepared to take court action to establish important legal precedents—Sunningwell village green in Oxfordshire was thus saved following a hearing in the House of Lords.
It also believed in protecting our most beautiful landscapes, and courageously appeared at public inquiries in opposition to government departments, such as the Sharp inquiry into military training on Dartmoor in 1975 (against the Ministry of Defence) and the Okehampton bypass inquiry in 1979-80 (against the Department for Transport).
It invented millennium greens as a way of securing permanent green spaces with public access in towns and villages. And it backed statutory access to open country, when the Labour government appeared to be wobbling on its manifesto pledge.
As Adrian explained, the commission trod the fine line between criticising government (for example over the privatisation of the water companies with the associated threat to public access to water-gathering grounds) and stepping in to help, as it did after the 1987 storm by swiftly creating Task Force Trees. It hatched Groundwork and the National Forest.
Michael Dower observed that the commission had an impressive degree of delegation, with equal opportunities and advancement of women and men. The National Forest was an important legacy, created because the commission was light on the ground and worked through landowners. Its countryside stewardship invention was later embraced by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Fight for beauty
Marian Spain looked to the future. We must fight for beauty, talk about it and measure it. We must provide leadership for the national movement of national parks, and secure proper restoration of nature there. And we must continue to promote rights of way which are under threat from austerity: we need statistics to hold landowners and local authorities to account. She is so right.
I am so glad I was there, and I was delighted to recognise so many people with whom I had worked in both the commission and its immediate successor the Countryside Agency. I had invited myself but then discovered that the event was for former employees and commissioners, and I was the only person who had been neither. Fortunately no one minded and they were much more welcoming than in the New Yorker cartoon below.
Indeed, as we all agreed, one of the best features of the commission is the people. If only we could have it—and them—back!