Cllr Steve Count, chair of the newly launched Countryside Climate Network, argues that supporting rural ingenuity from the Silicon Fen to the Scottish Highlands will yield climate and economic dividends in the run-up to Cop26
I was intrigued to discover that the first low-emissions tractor was built over 60 years ago. Today, many farmers are looking to switch from red diesel to hydrogen power to save money and our planet. Reducing the impact of agriculture on pollution and global warming is just one example of how rural people play our part in tackling climate change.
It’s no surprise after the devastating floods of last winter. Extreme weather events have doubled in the last three decades. We cannot wait another six decades.
This is a historic moment – to rebuild our economy in a way that works for the two-thirds that live outside the most urban cities and towns.
We are rightly being held accountable by our local residents, 90% of whom live in an area where the council has declared a climate emergency
As the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, I am keenly aware of the need to balance economic recovery against environmental catastrophe. We are low-lying and vulnerable to sea-level rise, yet far from a rural backwater. Cambridgeshire has the highest number of entrepreneurs per capita nationally, many focused on advanced cleantech. Rural ingenuity stretches from the Silicon Fen to the Scottish Highlands.
In order to learn from and work with others, 21 rural councils have joined forces with UK100 to create and launch the Countryside Climate Network for ambitious local leaders who want to do more, find solutions and achieve net-zero goals. The Chancellor’s planned £100bn infrastructure fund needs to support the ambitions of rural areas and the opportunities our countryside and green infrastructure can provide to build back better.
We know we need to do more to attract both private and public sector funding for projects at scale, which sometimes don’t fit traditional cost-benefit analysis. However, many rural projects have greater overall carbon reduction impact. By working together across local authority boundaries we can share best practice, simplify procurement processes, reduce bureaucracy and attract investment at the kind of scale we know we need to meet the net-zero challenge.
Many local authorities sit on large asset portfolios of public buildings and land, which could be invested in projects from renewable energy to sustainable transport. At the same time, with our increasing reliance on business rates for funding, we are keen to foster local economic growth while recognising we may need additional advice from the private sector. We have a democratic legitimacy too, and are rightly being held accountable by our local residents – 90% of whom live in an area where the council has declared a climate emergency.
There are great examples of work being done around the UK by rural councils. District heating solutions for example. Around 1 million households in Great Britain use oil-fired central heating, many in rural areas. Around a quarter of households that use oil for heating suffer from fuel poverty, the costs of heating a house with oil are around 50% higher than for grid gas.
For the nation to tackle climate change and achieve net-zero, the countryside must be at the heart of this conversation
The Cambridgeshire village of Swaffham Prior demonstrates how a whole community can shift from oil to a renewable energy source. The project will deliver a renewable heating network to the village by summer next year. An energy centre will use boreholes, air source heat pumps, and solar power to supply thermal energy to an underground heat network, connecting to individual households. The project has now entered final design stages following an extensive two-year public consultation. If planning is approved, it will reduce energy bills for householders and 47,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over 40 years. Imagine the impact if this were replicated across a million households?
The challenges of developing rural bus services in remote areas are well known – and we hope the welcome £5bn investment from central government in buses and active transport, will be targeted at isolated areas.
Earlier this month, planning permission was given by Canterbury City Council for the construction of the UK's first green hydrogen plant in order to power zero-emissions buses in both London and Kent.
Operated by Ryse Hydrogen, on the edge of Herne Bay, the hydrogen will be 100% "green", having been created using renewable energy from the Kentish Flats offshore wind farm. The first customer for the fuel will be a new fleet of hydrogen-powered London buses, which will be emission-free.
Going forward, the hydrogen could be used to replace diesel in other heavy vehicles, such as trucks and refuse collection vehicles and even replace the burning of natural gas in homes and offices, with trials now underway.
Cornwall Council is developing a comprehensive Climate Change Development Plan. With support from Highways England, it is creating the Saints Trails, 30km of cycle and walking tracks, to dispel the myth that cars are the only option for travel in rural areas.
Business can play their part, too. County Durham’s Business Energy Efficiency Project provides free energy audits and grants to rural businesses, to reduce bills and carbon emissions. In Leicestershire, the council has built Airfield Business Park in Market Harborough, which will cut carbon emissions by 79.4 tonnes per year, and North Yorkshire has invested in LED street lights, reducing 4,000 tonnes of carbon emissions and saving the taxpayer £1.4m a year.
For the nation to tackle climate change and achieve net-zero, the countryside must be at the heart of this conversation. As we build toward the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow next year, it is too good an opportunity to miss.
Cllr Steve Count is the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and Chair of the Countryside Climate Network
UK100 Swaffham Prior Rural UK Ryse Hydrogen sustainable agriculture Airfield Business Park