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The secret to achieving sustainability in rural areas…. …is on our doorstep

Those of you who read the Stern Report earlier this year may have found yourselves wondering where on earth to start in tackling the monumental climate change issues it raises. But I believe that those of us working in, or advising, local authorities in rural areas have a particular responsibility to set the direction for a more sustainable future because these communities have so much to lose if we don’t.

But where does responsibility lie for driving through sustainable policies and how can we reconcile the sometimes conflicting interests of local communities, business, landowners and other stakeholders?

Rural areas account for nearly 80% of the land area but hold only one fifth of England’s population. However, they have attracted half the country’s total population growth over last two decades. So with this growth, public transport, jobs and local services should be thriving. But the opposite is the case. We have declining services and exponential growth in the use of private cars.

For a start, while there are undoubtedly difficulties in the farming sector, I believe the planning system in England has also created unique challenges, particularly for small rural settlements, which require action now to be successfully overcome.

For decades we have been working towards the policy of “Concentrating development in larger villages and market towns”. There have been good reasons for this approach. It maximises the coincidence of residents and jobs, concentrates on the most accessible locations so that car travel can be reduced and public transport used instead. But, the fact is, it’s not working. All it does is starve smaller settlements of much needed amenities and jobs. Without these, residents eventually leave and the community and its spirit die.

As councils prepare their Local Development Frameworks under the new planning system, many will, as usual, be concentrating development into larger rural communities where facilities and amenities are already in place. Smaller settlements will continue to be viewed, effectively, as open countryside and no further development will be allowed.

This approach has already failed many small rural communities. It’s time to break free from the strait-jacket approach to development that it causes. Large or small, we must help all our rural communities to thrive and there are far more effective tools we can apply to deliver a sustainable countryside for the next generation. But we must first understand the dynamics of rural communities.

In the countryside, we have a sparce population with a great deal of space, together with control of resources, trees, food production and water catchment. The downside of this is that we also have much higher transport requirements and costs.

The solution lies in what I call a return to locality. It’s not a new idea but one, I believe, if fully developed, offers the best prospect of success. For instance, let’s take transport and energy usage – particularly critical for life in a rural environment. We’re at what’s called ‘Peak Oil’ – which means we’re at the peak of the Earth’s oil production capacity and it’s all downhill from here.

As the real cost of transport increases in line with rising oil costs, it makes more sense for food, jobs and services to be sourced from shorter distances. For local government decision makers this means that now is the time to stop looking too narrowly at the potential sustainability of individual villages.

Increasingly we must recognise that, if we don’t do something to enhance the sustainability of villages, we will lose the very villages that we are trying to maintain. The Government has produced endless sustainability appraisals where boxes are ticked if a settlement meets certain criteria. However with the numerous closures of pubs and post offices, it is becoming harder for local authorities to find the range of services that they require for a single village to be ‘sustainable’.

In a recent discussion with my local authority, we considered an approach where we would consider the sustainability of parish ‘clusters’ where a group of smaller villages that are within reasonable access of one another with a range of services between them could be considered together as sustainable. This conceptual approach met with favour.

For example, three Sussex parishes have been granted an exception for their new community hall using this approach. The existing village hall is in one of the smaller villages and no longer meets the community’s requirements in terms of size, disability access and location. The new hall will be built in a tree-sheltered rural location between the three parishes, but closest to the largest area of population. This solution will help sustain the vitality and activities in all three parishes.

I know that other rural authorities are also concerned about what will happen to smaller villages in the future. There is a fear that the only options are for these villages to either die out, or worse, to become gated wealthy enclaves. But you have to try to imagine a different future: villages with self-sufficiency and sustainability built into them.

But in addition to a change of mindset about what constitutes a sustainable village, how else can local authorities actually encourage people in rural communities to live a more sustainable lifestyle? The most important thing to do is to provide more sustainable homes and this is an area in which I feel we could do far more. While I’m already advising clients on, for instance, the construction of an eco school, a zero-carbon office building and autonomous houses, again we’re hardly scratching the surface.

So, what should local authorities be doing to tackle this problem?

More than 150 world leaders met at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 in an attempt to begin to devise solutions to the then recognised problems of climate change, ozone depletion, pollution, deforestation, and loss of natural resources. When I’m faced with a sustainability problem, I go back to the original motto that they agreed to work together in order to resolve problems and find solutions: ‘Think Global – Act Local’.

The background to this is the realisation that the answer to many of our problems lies within our own communities. What’s needed is a dialogue between local authorities and residents. Only through communication and the forming of partnerships with local organisations will we find solutions to our environmental, social and economic problems.

Imagine an alternative future with rural villages that only use local, ‘clean’ energy sources? There’s a real opportunity here for local authorities to support and develop new, green energy, which can be delivered on local basis. For example a coalition of landowners could be brought together to supply wood chips to village combined heat and power systems.

The popularity of local food production is a principle of sustainability and has increased massively in recent years thanks to the efforts of a myriad of organisations and pressure groups. Yet there is more to be done with a return to the grow-your-own lifestyle becoming a key part of living in a rural settlement.

A thriving business community is at the heart of any community – yet they are major users of both transport and energy. Some pioneering local authorities are already running innovative schemes to help business reduce their dependence on transport through using communications technology and encouraging broadband take-up. The Carbon Trust is also working to encourage businesses to adopt green energy with tax breaks and interest free loans. Again, there is more work to be done here to support rural businesses and ensure they can continue to thrive and bring prosperity to rural areas.

Finally, the emergence of road pricing is yet another driver for us to source our needs more locally. Village clusters, with improved facilities could achieve this.

I have highlighted the weaknesses of the planning process in its approach to rural areas but I hope I have also outlined some strategies for local authorities to consider in helping sustain their local communities. What’s critical is that they constantly review all of their plans to ensure they are ‘rural-proofed’ and will not have a disproportionately negative effect in these areas. This has become even more important since Lord Haskins’ rearrangement of the Government’s delivery agencies.

Above all, we must be careful that we don’t classify rural settlements as simply either sustainable rural service centres or open countryside. We need tailored policies to fit local circumstances. For rural planners to meet this challenge, they require sufficient support and resources to plan more laterally and so help all of us to “Act Local”.

Nick Woolley runs his own rural business managing property assets for financial and charitable institutions www.woolley.co.uk

Rural Focus | March/April 2007

March 5th, 2007
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