We find ourselves at a historic moment as councils across the UK plan to meet the challenges of a recovery from a situation most of us have never faced before in our lives.
But we mustn’t forget that we went into this pandemic grappling with another worldwide and seemly intractable issue – that of dealing with the effects of climate change.
Over the last three months public opinion seems to have shifted rapidly with a resurgence of appreciation for the natural environment where we’ve walked, cycled and exercised during lockdown.
So as council leaders take steps play our part in rebuilding the economy, we are also considering how to use this new appreciation to meet the ambition of ‘Net Zero’ carbon emissions by 2050.
Learning from and working with others is central to the scale and pace of change. That’s why 21 councils have joined forces with UK100 to create and this week to launch the Countryside Climate Network.
As the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, I was delighted to be asked to chair this new network as I am keenly aware of the need to balance economic recovery against environmental catastrophe.
Cambridgeshire may be low-lying and vulnerable to sea level rise, yet far from a rural backwater, it has the highest ratio of entrepreneurs nationally, many focussed on advanced cleantech.
It can be hard to meet our sustainable ambitions when unlike urban areas we have additional pressures of needing to fund essential bus services to remote communities or invest in broadband because the market doesn’t reach isolated areas.
These examples of typical rural disadvantage combined with a funding gap in rural areas twice that of our urban counterparts, diminishes our stretched resources further.
From Cornwall to County Durham we have decided to take a stand.
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Our rural communities can do more than just plant trees, we know first-hand how climate change impacts our land, food crop productivity, rainfall run off, abundance of wildlife and rhythm of nature.
From the Silicon Fen to the Scottish highlands, we must harness this ingenuity.
Rural communities face unfair barriers in trying to decarbonise – it is harder to attract funding for projects which don’t fit traditional cost benefit analyses.
Yet still there are great examples of work being done around the UK by councils in the newly established Countryside Climate Network Cornwall, with part funding from Highways England, is creating the Saints Trail.
30km of cycle and walking tracks to tackle traffic congestion, improve healthy travel options and dispel the myth that cars are the only option for travel in rural areas.
County Durham ‘s Business Energy Efficiency Project (BEEP) provides advice, support and grants to rural businesses, so far helping more than 300 reduce both energy bills and carbon emissions by 1700 tonnes.
Canterbury District Council ‘s support for a ‘green hydrogen’ plant, drawing electricity from offshore windfarms to create hydrogen to power buses.
The Cambridgeshire village of Swaffham Prior demonstrates how a whole community can shift from oil to a renewable energy source.
Thanks to a partnership between the community, my council and the government, a planned district heating solution incorporating both a ground and air source heating solution will save costs for householders and 47,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over 40 years.
Imagine the impact of replicating this in every village or the 1 million households that use oil fired central heating?
For the nation to tackle climate change and achieve Net Zero, the countryside must be at the heart of the conversation about a green recovery – before it’s too late.