Rural life: What is the CPRE actually protecting?

Here in Dorset, we have new-build executive homes coming out of our ears. Acres upon acres of immaculate, toytown-style developments with appropriately rural-sounding names crowd and jostle each other. One smaller project, however, is having problems gaining planning permission, despite the support of the parish council, the local news magazine and its neighbours - not to mention Jonathon Porritt and Kevin McCloud. It's a tiny co-housing scheme that would provide low-cost homes, plus space for communal use.

The space in question is a former farm, so no major building work is required. The project's green credentials are beyond reproach: the proposal is as environmentally friendly as it is possible to make it, and the co-owners plan to car-pool. The blueprint includes an eco-friendly B&B, where visitors will be encouraged to use trains and bikes as they explore north Dorset (tourism is a vital part of the county's economy).

The only objection to the scheme has come from the local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Shelter, the charity that campaigns for better housing and, in particular, for affordable homes, has already sharply criticised the CPRE's opposition to building, warning that the organisation is "wedded to the idea of a rural housing system frozen in time".

The CPRE has campaigned against urban sprawl since the 1920s; this year, it celebrates its 80th birthday. During the 1929 general election, Stanley Baldwin, David Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald wrote jointly to the Times endorsing its work. It was the CPRE that helped instigate the "green belt" system 50 years ago. I joined when I moved back to Dorset six years ago; I could not imagine this could be anything but a Good Thing. Yet I have since let my membership lapse. Maybe things have changed in the past few years. Possibly at the national level it is a thrusting, dynamic, finger-on-the-pulse organisation. But that wasn't my impression.

I mostly received invitations to fundraising cream teas held, courtesy of local grandees, at lovely homes with big gardens. The local CPRE newsletter put out a call for volunteers; I rang several times, but no one called back. I recall one CPRE meeting where a waste-processing plant was on the agenda. The chairman noted that the proposed plant was so new that we didn't have any information on how it would work. However, to the sound of knees jerking across the room, we suddenly seemed to be on course for an instant protest. After a prolonged session of harrumphing, finally someone did suggest that we should at least get more information.

The CPRE is against an awful lot of things: road developments, and even road signs, inter alia. In the village where I live, we have been campaigning for years for more road signs rather than fewer. It has taken four years simply to get painted roundels put up on the roads, to remind motorists that the speed limit as they career past our windows is 30mph, not 60mph. If there were any way we could get the road (pavement-less; and built for horses and carts, rather than car transporters) widened, we would grab it.

One of the CPRE's current campaigns supports the instigation of "quiet lanes". Good luck to them; but those of us whose lives are blighted by speeding motorists on A and B roads would be quite happy simply to have existing speed limits observed. If more signs contribute to that, then so be it. (And, as someone who has often simply wanted to get from A to B but found herself stranded in Q or Z due to the inadequacy of existing signs, I am, on balance, pro-signage.)

Meanwhile, our local Tesco hyper-mega- supercentre went up despite protest sit-ins at council meetings and the felling of some 150-year-old sycamores. Had Prunella Scales, the jolly public face of Tesco, still been president of the CPRE at the time, I would have been tempted to rejoin solely to campaign for her removal.

The Tories have historically been the party of the countryside, but now David Cameron is setting his sights on voters who are more urban. Labour has never made country issues a priority. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, has espied this rural gap in the political market. He talks of social housing, public services, the importance of small businesses; how those who live and work in rural areas need affordable homes, transport, jobs and services. Well, blow me down. Actually, we already knew the countryside isn't solely a place one drives to for Sunday cream tea. Does the CPRE?