A guest LGC briefing by Izzy Thomson, campaigner with the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), on the organisation’s local elections manifesto.
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Across the environmental movement, the power of individual voices is rallied by the phrase “think global, act local”. It emphasises the importance of local democracy and the impact of the here and now.
This week’s local elections are a prime opportunity to put this phrase into practice. We need to ask what can be done at the local level to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time. The polls also offer an opportunity to seek a vision of a thriving countryside.
Councils cannot solve the likes of climate change on their own, but if we elect councillors who share our values and priorities, and support ambitious manifesto ideas, they can certainly contribute to solutions, whilst making a real difference to the places in which we live.
Below are five areas that the Campaign to Protect Rural England urges councils to prioritise in order to help our countryside, environment and local communities thrive:
Waste and recycling
Plastics, cardboard, food and aluminium are all materials that can be recycled. Decisions over the items we recycle and the mechanisms to do this are made by individual local authorities. To see a circular economy thrive, we must urge councils to be ambitious in the breadth of waste they recycle while lobbying government to take greater action.
Our research shows that a UK wide deposit return system would save English councils collectively £35m per year. Without needing to collect drinks containers – which are high volume but contain relatively little material – we believe councils would be freed to collect a wider variety of plastics for recycling, improving recycling rates.
Local plans set out the sites allocated for housing, specifying the tenure, size and affordability. Local authorities have the power to set the balance right and provide towns and cities with the homes that people need. They should:
- Use all the tools at their disposal to build more homes for social rent, providing stability to the 173,584 families currently on social housing waiting lists in rural areas.
- Proactively pursue the use of the rural exception sites policy to enable the building of affordable homes where they could not otherwise be built.
- Follow a ‘brownfield first’ approach to choosing sites, making use of the brownfield land that registers show could provide over a million new homes across 18,000 sites.
What our towns, cities and villages will look like in five, 10 or 20 years’ time (or sooner) is determined by local authority strategic plans, shaping how and where industry and housing are built.
Green belts give our towns and cities room to breathe and are the most accessible countryside for 30 million people who live nearby. Twenty percent of England’s public rights of way, stretching over 30,000 kilometres, are found in green belt land, providing access to the fresh air and open green spaces that are so important to our physical and mental wellbeing.
Healthy soils, which store three times more carbon than the atmosphere, are fundamental to mitigating climate change, so protecting and enhancing green belt and greenfield land more broadly is essential if we are to avoid climate breakdown.
Brownfield sites are prime targets for genuine environmental net gain. It is usually much easier to improve the biodiversity and green spaces on and around these developments, which could regenerate nature and our vital carbon stores. These sites are, of course, also better placed to provide well-connected homes, with amenities, public transport and jobs already in place around them.
From a community ‘green week’ to investment in youth clubs, education and engagement, encourages communities to love and value the local environment. Through education and community budgets, local authorities have the power to provide communities with fun, yet thought provoking, activities to engage local people on the challenges our environment faces.
Climate change is the biggest threat to the countryside, but local authorities can act now to help us towards a brighter future. Implementing local authority strategies for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and embedding climate change considerations into all policy issues, are key.
Ipswich BC and Cambridge City Council have included requirements for all new homes to meet energy efficiency standards that represent a 19% improvement on current national standards. Meanwhile, Brighton & Hove City Council recently agreed a £0.5m commitment for climate change mitigation and biodiversity in its budget. Dozens of local councils have recognised the immediacy of the need to tackle climate change by declaring a climate emergency as a springboard for further action, spawning working groups to scrutinise their policies and embed climate change into strategic decision-making.
While acting as a voice for our countryside is no easy feat, these five areas for action highlight the tip of the iceberg in the impact local communities can make towards a countryside accessible to all, now and in the future. Empowered voices and a decision making process which meets the needs of a community sits at the core of CPRE’s work, laying the foundations for a healthier, happier community, allowing the countryside to thrive.
To see CPRE’s full local election manifesto and be part of the movement to see a countryside for all please click here.