Leisure explosion threatens rural calm: Council warns of pressures on land

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The Independent Online
A NOISY, suburban, floodlit countryside of golf courses, holiday villages and roads full of traffic is the dismal prospect for the next century, the Council for the Protection of Rural England warned yesterday.

The pressure group believes the leisure explosion is now as great a threat to the value and atmosphere of rural Britain as the damage done by intensive prairie-style farming and the sprawl of suburban housing and out-of-town shopping centres.

The CPRE foresees a countryside riven by conflicts between rival groups wanting to use it for different purposes - rambling, horse riding, holiday cabins and caravan sites, theme parks, mountain biking, war games and noisy sports such as power boating. Groups as diverse as huntsmen and New Age travellers add to the complexity and confusion.

The broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, president of the 45,000-member council, said at a conference in London: 'There are growing conflicts between the needs of tourism and leisure and the protection of our precious environment.' He was launching a report from Lancaster University, commissioned by the CPRE.

Neil Sinden, one of the council's officers, said most people still desired a countryside of peace and solitude, rich in wildlife with a sense of space. Even city dwellers who rarely left town wanted such landscapes.

A survey of public attitudes carried out by the Lancaster University researchers found that there was an element of hypocrisy - people wanted an unspoilt countryside, yet were unwilling to accept the restrictions on their own leisure activities and motoring that were necessary to preserve it.

The need for farmers to find alternatives to agriculture due to dwindling subsidies is accelerating the change. So is the attitude of local and national government to tourism and leisure - which are now recognised as major growth industries worthy of promotion because of the jobs they create.

The CPRE believes that organisations such as the English Tourist Board, the Sports Council and the Government's Department of National Heritage, must change their thinking. The report urges a 'radical restructuring' of the English Tourist Board, altering its remit to include on the board representatives with a more long-term, 'culturally sensitive' outlook.

Mr Sinden said that the Government and its leisure and tourism quangos 'have all shown some awareness, but they don't seem up to the task of dealing with these increasing conflicts in the long term.'

They believed they could 'have their cake and eat it' - continuing to favour exploitation of rural areas without facing up to the gradual devaluation of the essence of the countryside which resulted, he said.

The report says that new planning regulations are required which will allow local councils to crack down on currently unrestricted leisure uses and developments in the countryside.

Attending the conference yesterday were senior officers from the organisations under fire, including Peter Moore, managing director of Center Parcs, which owns holiday villages in Britain and on the Continent.

The company recently won planning permission to build a 400-acre complex of chalets and a domed leisure centre for 3,500 visitors in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near Longleat, Wiltshire. The development was singled out in the report because all visitors will have to come by car. Mr Moore rejected the criticism, pointing out that cars are banned within the holiday village itself.

Leisure Landscapes; CPRE Publications; 25 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W OPP; pounds 10.