I’d like to begin by thanking CPRE for giving me the chance to become a campaigner. My last two jobs have relied upon tact and decorum, so it has been wonderful to be able to climb onto the barricades and fight for a cause I believe in so deeply.

Being President of CPRE has been a way for me to connect things that are primitively important to me, and to join with you in confronting some of the huge problems facing our environment and our society. In particular, I’m glad to stand shoulder to shoulder in the struggle to prevent the needless smearing of concrete across our irreplaceable countryside, compromising the green belt in a misguided attempt to kick-start the economy. I have relished the chance to speak out about this.

A year ago I thought most of my CPRE time would be spent arguing on behalf of the campaigns we already had running, and to add a conversation about access – the need to involve more young people in our work. And I have spent a good deal of time with such things. But there are always “events, dear boy, events”, as Harold Macmillan famously said – and in this past year the reasons to speak up for the green belt have become more and more urgent.

Some of the things we’ve heard from ministers in my first year as President of CPRE have been pretty astonishing.

Nick Boles, first:

The Planning Minister has spoken eloquently at times on the need to protect the green belt and to build more affordable and better-quality housing. But in denying the potential of brownfield sites, and refusing to acknowledge their great suitability for the kind of housing we most need (not ranch-style homes in green places, which maximise developer’s profits, but smaller-scale projects for those getting their first feet on the property ladder, and couples later in life), he does a great harm.

He leapfrogs brownfield sites and lands with a bricky crunch in the open countryside. He speaks up for greenfield housing estates rather than the green fields themselves. He says another 2–3% of the countryside could be built on with no great loss. An area of land two and a half times the size of Greater London? No great loss? He even justifies tacking 7,000 greenfield homes onto Grantham as the only way to get a John Lewis in the town.

Now Michael Gove:

I greatly admire Michael Gove, the Minister for Education, for his staunch support of poetry in schools, and I’m deeply grateful to him for his support of my Poetry by Heart scheme. But I was dismayed to read him saying that critics of the government’s planning reforms cannot believe in social mobility. Shaun Spiers, the Chief Executive of CPRE, was absolutely right to reply that people who fight to protect the countryside are “community heroes”, not obstacles to progress. Furthermore, I have yet to hear of a CPRE objection to these reforms that simply pleads for the status quo to be maintained, and doesn’t instead advocate an alternative solution that is more beneficial and less damaging for local people. The opposite of what Michael Gove said is in fact the truth of the matter. Building housing estates on open countryside is terrible for social mobility, for the simple reason that it puts people further away from jobs and services and makes them dependent on cars. And the housing itself is rarely genuinely affordable.

Now George Osborne:

The Chancellor has insisted that tarmacking new roads across priceless landscapes is the best way to achieve growth. Really? How about re-routing that money instead to repair the many existing roads that are presently falling to bits? We welcome the announcement of £10 billion for these repairs – but this was dwarfed by £18 billion for major road building. First they came for Combe Haven; now they’re dreaming up a South Downs motorway – what a way to treat our newest national park.

Elsewhere we find George Osborne saying that local councils should be able to ‘swap’ bits of green belt like carbon emission quotas, an idea that would be chaotic and catastrophic for everyone – except presumably developers. The whole point of green belts, Chancellor, is their permanence!

Now Nick Clegg:

The Deputy Prime Minister has spoken of the need to fling new ‘garden cities’ across an arc of countryside from Oxford to Cambridge. He seems to think that by putting new green belts around these new towns, they will magically become ‘sustainable’. But, Mr Clegg: a new town on a greenfield site is not a sustainable development – it is a wilful act of sabotage, and a gross kind of neglect, since we have large areas of our existing towns and cities in desperate need of regeneration. As the architecture writer Jonathan Glancey told CPRE, “We should be giving our existing cities a shot in the arm, and only consider building new settlements when they can be self-sufficient and have the potential for a character of their own – not as some instant policy hit to solve ‘housing crises’.”

Now Eric Pickles:

In this case there seems at first to be better news. In a number of planning decisions, Eric Pickles has spoken up for the green belt as a way of preventing urban sprawl. For instance, at the 2011 Conservative party conference he pledged that his party would protect green belts – prompted, no doubt, by 6,000 emails from CPRE activists (something his cabinet colleague Owen Paterson might have regarded as a cyber-attack). But here the better news runs out, because the reality that has flowed from this rhetoric is often so disappointing. Many CPRE members know this as well as I do, having helped in the preparation of our report in August 2012, which identified plans for green belt developments totalling 80,000 houses.

Working with the government

Having laid all these charges, and remembered all these dismal pronouncements, I want to insist that CPRE doesn’t enjoy whingeing, and can’t be dismissed as a bunch of NIMBY reactionaries. On the contrary: our history tells a story of constructive debate. We don’t want to be constantly at loggerheads with ministers. We want to work with them to find common ground. And we want to work with politicians from all parties to reverse the gradual erosion of planning and local government.

Neville Chamberlain helped found our organisation in 1926 and soon appointed members of the CPRE executive to act as official advisers on the design of rural buildings. As prime minister, he appointed our representatives to be consulted in siting aerodromes and arms factories in 1939, so that what would become England’s national parks would not be built on in the hurried preparations for war.

And this narrative of cooperation goes on. As housing minister with responsibility for planning, Harold Macmillan was a keen advocate of the planning system and worked closely with CPRE to ensure his new towns avoided the best farmland. When he spoke to our AGM 59 years ago, he pledged that the planning system would never be “subordinated to the need for budgetary economy”, saying: “If, in a period of national stringency, good planning is sacrificed merely on financial grounds, it will probably never be regained.”

In his closing statement to that AGM, Macmillan said: “The main battle of CPRE has been won after a very long fight – planning has now become respectable. There is a general acceptance that in so small an island one cannot allow the complete individual freedom which might have been possible in more primitive days.”

There are clearly lessons the present government could learn from this. Easy lessons. Yet it seems we must fight the battle to make planning respectable all over again.

Which reminds me to say that’s the most frustrating thing about planning campaigns. The bad applications keep coming back – because the powers that be rely on campaigners giving up. Terence Blacker’s summary of his battle with a wind energy developer will sound depressingly familiar to many of you: “A local council rejects an application. Their decision is supported by the Planning Inspectorate. Thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money are spent in a lengthy, careful process to get the right and just decision. The developer then makes a small adjustment and reapplies. That feels like corporate bullying, a cynical exploitation of the planning system and a war of attrition against our local community.”

Thankfully the CPRE’s men and women are made of strong stuff. But acknowledging the effort this requires means I want to say how immensely grateful we are for your resilience – especially over the last couple of years, when the government seems to have reneged on or thrown out even the most basic planning principles. This behaviour makes me even more determined that local people should have the same rights of appeal as developers, and that local decisions should be respected – not challenged repeatedly until local councils are beaten into submission.

Why it all matters

Our principles are fundamental in the most literal sense, because we are a species that evolved in the countryside and only very recently adapted to living in towns. Inside us all, wherever we live, however familiar we might or might not be with the countryside, is an absolutely primal atavistic need for green places and open spaces. The more we are bombarded by the demands of modern life, the more important it becomes to enjoy peace and quiet, more darkness, more solitude, more beauty, the pleasures of uncluttered ground. In the countryside time slows down, longer perspectives open, richer thoughts accumulate – because in the countryside we enjoy the essential things about being human; the things that link us with our better selves, and even allow us to see our less-good selves more clearly.

I’m not talking here about a particular way of burying our heads in the sand – or in the grass or green leaves. I’m not talking about escapism. I’m talking about making original connections; about describing and confirming our humanity.

But precisely at the moment when we should be defending the countryside and making it more accessible because it gives us all what we need more freely than anything else under the sun, we are at grave risk of losing it.

Why is this? The charges I’ve laid against the government are the disgraceful expression of a long process. And the process begins, I think, with the way people have come to look at the countryside during the last long increasingly urbanised generation. With the way people have become cut off from the countryside and so idealise it (if they think of it at all). With the way TV and cinema and advertisements and every other form of media you can think of produce a constant stream of chocolate-box images. Images that make us feel soothed but not engaged, and that increasingly turn the countryside into a lifestyle choice – something that is nice to have, rather than something vital for our sense of self. We end up looking on anything that doesn’t live up to the cinematic ideal as being scruffy or dull; as being expendable.

Too many of us, too much of the time, have stopped looking thoughtfully at the real facts and details of landscape and instead have begun to admire it half-blindly. And although it sounds like a paradox, this way of seeing the countryside – safe, predictable, cheesily aestheticised – is adjacent to indifference. It is the reality of the landscape that allows us to understand it; the actual details, the combination of given things and worked-for things. Only once we’ve grasped this can we appreciate that when we look at the English countryside we see our great collective masterpiece. And only when we’ve grasped this can we feel that what we see is truly ours.

Plenty of sensible people say the built environment can inspire awe in just the same degree. And that is – well, it’s perfectly sensible. I’ve lived in towns for the last 40 years, and I feel it myself. But I also feel that town pleasures are different from country pleasures in at least one fundamental way: we don’t have the same kind of species-connection with townscapes. We don’t have the DNA link. Those green fields that Nick Boles argues have less value to society than the houses he would build on them are the bedrock of everything. If we lose green fields, we lose something essential to our selves.

Poets understand and have always understood what I’m trying to say here. That’s why the history of English poetry can’t easily be separated from the history of the countryside. John Clare, for instance, with his badgers and woodcock, his creepy-crawlies and his skylarks, his deep relish for the significance of the apparently insignificant thing. Alice Oswald, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie among our contemporaries. For them, the poetry of a place lies in its details, no matter how minute they might be. For us, whether we’re poets or not, the details are indispensible to our feeling of really belonging.

And by details I don’t just mean the clues our ancestors left behind – the drystone walls, the abbeys and burial mounds, the made landscape. I also mean the living things we share our world with. The trees and plants, the birds and animals – they are beautifully themselves, and they are also the landscape’s acutely sensitive nervous system, making its beauties manifest, expressing its harms and hurts. This is partly why details matter, and why we must pay attention to them. We need to know the sounds of a nightingale, and to recognise an ash tree, so that we can make sense of their importance to the landscape, and understand why we must defend them when they’re under threat.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I think our countryside is in greater danger than it has ever been in my lifetime – or yours. For the first time, I really believe that the warning Philip Larkin gave us in his poem Going, Going will come true. The warning that a great wash of concrete and tyres will smother our green places, so “that will be England gone” will come true – that is, unless we win the fight to oppose it. Chamberlain and Macmillan were right – we should never use the pretext of an emergency to suspend planning. They knew that this would risk the destruction of large parts of England, which can never be reconstituted. They knew that a short-term boost could never justify the high price the countryside would have to pay.

Concrete cannot be scraped off. Roads cannot be gouged out. Endangered flora and fauna cannot easily be made safe again. Lives cannot suddenly be made whole, if they never knew “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky”.

The damage to our home will be irreversible. The damage to us will be irreversible.

This is an edited extract from Andrew Motion’s speech to CPRE’s 2013 AGM.

Andrew Motion is a former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and the current president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).