Susan Bell’s Response

Susan Bell 120×180A copy of Susan Bell’s response to David Miliband’s speech is available for you to read – just click on the link below. We are working on getting Professor Susan Owens’ response- it should be available shortly.

Susan Bell was, until very recently, the Chief Executive of the National Forest. She currently serves on CPRE’s Policy Committee. Susan brings a perspective on forestry issues to the debate and draws on her experience of working with local communities to provide insight into the challenges we all face in redefining land use in the future.

Susan Bell’s response to David Miliband

First of all Mr Miliband, I’d like to thank you so much for a rousing talk. I personally feel and am quite sure most of you who have heard or read it will feel that the debate has got off to a tremendous start and how warmly we must welcome the holistic approach that you propose taking to land use and environmental resource management that you’ve been advocating today. That is very long overdue and extremely welcome.

I think that one point I would make is that this now needs to be reflected across the whole of government – national, regional, and local – that oh so illusive joined-up government. I was very much taken with your description of the development of your thinking in the transfer from the DCLG to DEFRA – perhaps a spell at DEFRA should be a prerequisite for all ministerial appointments.

You’ve outlined with great clarity some of the major predictable changes that we and the land we inhabit and manage face. Can I just stress, and this is a personal feeling, that the countryside is not merely the other undeveloped side of the urban coin. This implies a vacuum. It is in fact intensely developed – but for a different set of purposes – it just hasn’t been built over in order to carry them out. It’s very vulnerable as those purposes change and weaken, unless what replaces them, such as the uses that you have been talking about, are as purposeful and as highly valued. These purposes – you describe them as environmental security and environmental assets – are certainly needed, but only strong and consistent government-led support, political and financial, will ensure that they are valued by all at this stage, rather than when crisis point is reached.

We all need to recognise that essentially, form follows function, and that we need to be realistic about the demands on land that are being and will be made in the not too distant future. The changes that these will bring to the use of the land will consequentially lead on to changes in the landscape. My argument would be that this must not happen incrementally and by default. We need to have a positive attitude and a vision of what it is we want from these precious resources of land and wider environmental resources – their functions and their appearance – and to be bold enough actually to state what we want and to set out and try to achieve it proactively. Some 30 years ago, Nan Fairbrother advocated this with her still pertinent New Lives, New Landscapes and I can only recommend that we all revisit this. It’s a path that I’m really delighted that the CPRE is now embarking on. It’s a brave path, because to put something down, and then to try to get support for it is bold – but it can be done. It may involve radical change. But as you’ve seen this morning in Thames Chase, and I very much hope in the not too distant future you will soon see in the National Forest, if handled forthrightly, honestly, and with full landowner and community involvement, it can not only be put up with, but it can be welcomed, rather than resisted.

That said, be assured that the determination of the CPRE, amongst many others, will not falter in ascertaining and fighting for what we regard as valuable and valued – and that could be valued for all sorts of reasons, not just because it’s designated as being of particular scientific interest or whatever. Those characteristics could be at a broad landscape scale and the more intimate local scale. What distinguishes the countryside from the town and makes localities distinctive is a matter of culture and feelings, as you’ve pointed out, as well as accountable characteristics. You didn’t particularly mention community engagement in the process until towards the end of your talk. It is absolutely vital, and I speak with experience in the National Forest, just how vital it is. But I think we should be under no illusions about how complex, difficult and time-consuming it is to achieve, if, that is, we are to go beyond so-called consultation to genuine dialogue and involvement by the people that all of this is going to most impact upon.

I was particularly pleased to hear the importance that you’ve given to forestry, trees, and woodlands. At last, recognition is being given to this cinderella of land uses – but we remain one of the EU’s least wooded countries. Deforestation on a world scale is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and yet we are being ridiculously coy about adding the climate-change mitigation case for planting trees in this country, to all the other benefits that can be gained from woodland. I hope that this can be reversed. Public and private funds are deliberately being directed elsewhere in the world, for good purposes – yes – but we’ve still got an awful lot to prove here. We are under-wooded.

Finally, may I urge stronger recognition of the value of the planning system – a planning system that is capable of holding the ring and being the centre of land use decisionmaking. This means that it must encompass social, environmental, and economic criteria, but perhaps as important, be trusted, transparent, and accessible. Our statutory planning system, as you have acknowledged, has served us really well, but I’m very far from convinced that most people would ascribe to it those latter characteristics in its present form, or in the form that we might anticipate it from the new reforms which are upcoming, and perhaps we just need a period of stability to assess just how effective the land use planning system is in its present form and how we might engage the community in the process more.

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