Inside the work of The Suffolk Preservation Society
PUBLISHED: 11:52 11 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:52 11 September 2019
The Suffolk Preservation Society is 90 this year. Paul Simon catches up with its director, Fiona Cairns, to both look back at its past achievements and future aspirations for our county
Fiona Cairns is adamant. "The Suffolk Preservation Society is not against change in itself - far from it. But the society does believe that, today, Suffolk faces an unprecedented coalition of forces that, unless directed and moderated by local communities, will result in a county that is not fit for either its residents or those who visit us."
Fiona fronts up an organisation with a 90-year tradition of campaigning against the many insensitive ways in which Suffolk's beautiful buildings and landscapes are all too often treated by developers and planners.
Rather as today, in 1929 Suffolk was at a crossroads, exposed to rapid change. Many of its old buildings were neglected and in poor condition, and the landscape was vulnerable to insensitive alterations.
Fiona takes up the story. "Enter Muriel Schofield, who had moved to Otley in 1925. She had an interest in architecture and archaeology, and fell in love with Suffolk. She persuaded people of goodwill to join her in her quest to 'rescue' Suffolk, and the Suffolk Preservation Society was founded.
"Thanks to helpful publicity provided by the local press, floods of letters flowed in with many complaints.
"It was the fate of watermills and of windmills that caused the greatest agitation, as most had been completely lost by the 1930s. The society successfully saved one, Pakenham Water Mill, which survives today and is a valuable contribution to social history and the rural landscape."
Since then, and with its countywide expertise very much to the fore, the society has broadened its remit by working with more local amenity groups keen to preserve the best of the past and shape the future for the better.
The society also runs a series of practical workshops, aimed at empowering local communities to better understand key conservation and planning issues, and photographic competitions to raise awareness of the sheer diversity of the county.
In spite of concerns that the issues the society deals with might not always be top of the agenda of younger residents, its membership has held up over recent years, totalling over 1,600 individuals and groups.
"Reaching the ripe old age of 90 hasn't meant the society is slowing down. In fact, we are using our birthday celebrations to redouble the efforts we expend to ensure a Suffolk that retains its unique features in a way that is both accessible to all and sustainable," Fiona explains. To take the Suffolk Preservation Society onwards to its centenary, it has recently launched a new 10-year programme called A Manifesto for Suffolk.
This beautifully produced document, containing some stunning photographs, clearly sets out the challenges facing Suffolk, the role that the society has in managing them, and a call to action to everyone who loves the county.
"Fundamentally, the key issue is one of population growth and new housing numbers in particular. In the 1980s, Suffolk's population was around 550,000. By 2017 that had grown to nearly 760,000 and is projected to reach over 820,000 by 2039.
"This would be less of a concern if the new developments being built owed something to their surroundings and were sustainable in terms of the knock-on impact on the environment, services and the roads network.
"Sadly, we have a tide of standardised designs, resulting in bland 'anywhere' houses that are identical whether they are located in Suffolk or Surrey or Sussex, and which are far away from suitable public transport links."
The future of energy generation also presents particular challenges for Suffolk. The county is host to a number of current and future nationally important energy infrastructure projects.
The society recognises the importance and value of such projects, not least in terms of addressing climate change as well as job creation during their respective construction and operational phases.
Its concern is that Suffolk is expected to shoulder such projects with insufficient consideration given to their environmental and community costs.
As Fiona analyses: "Without a government-led holistic plan that links together all the energy projects either taking place or which are likely to take place in Suffolk, the county risks being degraded forever."
The society's manifesto is not a defeatist or minimalist response to these massive challenges. Fiona is quietly optimistic that the worst excesses can be avoided and, through smart campaigning, local communities have once-in-a-generation opportunities to enhance Suffolk's villages, towns and landscapes for decades to come.
"We are investing more of our expert resources in supporting and advising not only local campaigners, but hard-pressed planning departments, councillors, MPs, architects and, yes, whenever they wish, developers as well."
Fiona believes the growth of Neighbourhood Plans in Suffolk is another reason to be cheerful - as long as the number continues to grow.
"The term 'NIMBY' is used whenever communities object to having development imposed on them. Yet many towns and villages in Suffolk not only recognise the importance of ensuring that their communities thrive in the future, but are willing to help shape that future.
"Neighbourhood Plans are a crucial means of ensuring that local knowledge and aspirations are incorporated into our communities' growth and development. The latest National Planning Policy Framework gives even greater weight to these plans than previously, especially where borough and district councils have failed to identify a five-year housing land supply."
So what would Fiona suggest to readers of Suffolk magazine who want to be part of this movement?
"Well, firstly, please think about joining the Suffolk Preservation Society! The more members we have, the stronger our campaigning voice becomes and the more backup there is for our small professional team and volunteers.
"Secondly, get involved in your local amenity and historical societies, as well as supporting the two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the county.
This builds awareness, knowledge and empathy for our county that really comes into its own when buildings and landscapes are under threat from inappropriate development.
"The future of Suffolk is very much in all our hands."
Want to know more?
Suffolk Preservation Society is about "standing up for Suffolk's special qualities - its historic buildings, towns, villages and landscapes." It strives to protect the environment through the planning system campaigning for appropriate development and high quality design.
SPS also represents the Campaign to Protect
Rural England (CPRE) in Suffolk, campaigning for the local countryside at national level.
More information at suffolksociety.org