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Talk of the county

PUBLISHED: 05:48 16 February 2015

St Benets Abbey. Chris Glasel

St Benets Abbey. Chris Glasel

Archant

In the first of a new series of essays by guest columnists on issues facing the county, James Parry, chairman of CPRE Norfolk, our branch of The Campaign to Protect Rural England, asks "What price tranquility?"

James Parry, chairman of CPRE NorfolkJames Parry, chairman of CPRE Norfolk

Ask people what they value most about the English countryside and “peace and quiet” is sure to come near the top of the list. The good news is that research by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has revealed that Norfolk is the most tranquil county in the East of England and in the top 10 nationally. Sixty-five per cent of the county is deemed to be largely undisturbed by “noise and visual intrusion”, much of it not in protected areas like the Broads or North Norfolk coast, but in the agricultural heartland.

That we have managed to retain so much beautiful countryside in such a densely populated and industrialised island as ours is nothing short of miraculous. It’s testament to the foresight of early campaigners like Sir Patrick Abercrombie, who helped create CPRE in 1926. Their efforts to prevent uncontrolled development and the destruction of rural character have been continued by generations of enlightened landowners, environmental campaigners and conservationists. Nearly a century on, can we now afford to relax?

The short answer is no. Norfolk’s tranquil places are under intense pressure as the demand for land grows. While the county continues to be a major food producer, its countryside is also called upon to satisfy our need for more housing, more energy in the form of solar farms and wind turbines, and expanded infrastructure and services such as roads, schools and retail parks. Some 37,000 new homes are currently proposed for the greater Norwich area alone, and further large-scale housing developments are planned in market towns and greenfield sites across the county.

What about maintaining places for those who enjoy rural landscapes for their scenic value, recreational opportunities and tranquility? It’s not only those of us who live in the county who appreciate these qualities; they are a primary reason why people visit the countryside, so a tranquil Norfolk is good for tourism too.

Squaring the government’s push for development with the concept of a county that continues to offer unspoiled views, starlit night skies and wild places where the only sound is bird-song will be a very tough ask. Our countryside is too precious to leave this decision solely to local or national politicians, so we urgently need a proper public debate to help decide what sort of countryside we want to live, work and relax in. CPRE Norfolk is organising a conference in March at which school students from across Norfolk will discuss how to strike the balance between competing – and often apparently conflicting – forms of land use. What Norfolk will look like in 30 years’ time will be shaped partly by such discussions and by how much – or not – we value hearing the song of a skylark over the building of dual carriageways.

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