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Five ways the next government can deliver for our countryside

28th May 2024

The general election has been called for 4 July, and will take place amidst the biggest climate and nature crises of our time. This will be an era-defining moment for our countryside.

The next government will be faced with many complex issues, and we call on all political parties to recognise the value of the countryside and its essential role in responding to these urgent challenges. We seek positive progress for our countryside in our vision for the future, and want to empower a movement that manages multiple, competing demands, and creates a thriving and beautiful countryside for all.

Here are five ways the next government can deliver for our countryside.

1. A rooftop revolution

Despite the urgent need to exploit the best opportunities to generate the renewable energy our country needs, we have a vast and largely untapped resource: roofs. Our recent report found that installing solar panels on new buildings, existing large warehouse rooftops and other land such as car parks, could contribute to more than half of the total national target for solar energy by 2035.

In a recent CPRE survey 97% of respondents were supportive of installing rooftop solar as standard for all new buildings and car parks. The consultation on mandatory rooftop solar for new homes is a positive step, but we need clearer, focused support from the next government.

Installing rooftop solar will help us progress towards national net zero targets, but ethical concerns are also crucial to acknowledge. A successful approach has been modelled by the Big Solar Co-op; a volunteer-led company that ensures both the solar panels and the raw materials they are made of come from suppliers who don’t use forced labour and are produced using clean energy. Without the demand for responsibly sourced panels, however, these choices often remain unaffordable for people and communities. Noël Lambert, the Big Solar Co-op’s Community and Content Lead, argues that ‘there must be a larger national effort to improve the roll out of rooftop solar’.

We are calling on the next government to set a target for 60% of solar to be on rooftops, alongside employing a ‘rooftop first’ policy that ensures productive farmland is avoided.

2. Genuinely affordable housing

A healthy home is the foundation for a decent life, but our broken housing system is failing to deliver the affordable homes that people need. 300,000 people in rural England are on waiting lists for a home, and at current rates of construction, it will take 93 years to clear that list. In addition, rural homelessness has increased by 40% since 2018/19. How have we ended up here?

Lack of social housing is part of the problem, but does not tell the whole story, and slow building rates on new build schemes, as well as the impact of second homes and short term lets, play an equally important role. Additionally, there is a growing disparity between average house prices and income, and increasingly, local people cannot afford to live in rural areas.

View of new build houses on an affordable housing site
Affordable housing is key to thriving rural communities | CPRE and English Rural by Kerry Harrison

We are calling on the next government to build a new generation of genuinely affordable homes. We seek a redefinition of ‘affordable housing’ that directly links to average local incomes, as well as greater support for local communities to deliver small-scale developments of affordable housing. When rural communities thrive, so does the countryside.

3. A planning system for people, nature and climate

Currently the planning system can be confusing and conflicting, with the needs of housing, nature and climate crises jostling against each other with no clarity for how to make decisions and move forward.  We need a long-term, cross-departmental vision for how we manage and use land across England. This means a planning system that works alongside, not against, local communities to deliver a vision that supports people and nature, and seeks to prevent climate and ecological collapse.

Roger Mortlock, CEO of CPRE, remarks: ‘While valiant and skilled town planners often encourage thinking more broadly, the focus of most of our Local Planning Authorities is primarily on where to put new homes’ and suggests that ‘without careful planning we will simply run out of land.’ In response, an joined-up approach is needed; one that considers environmental sustainability and nature restoration targets, as well as local community needs, alongside wider strategies such as using brownfield (recycling previously developed sites) over greenfield land.

We are calling on the next government to stop seeing all these needs as separate and instead weave them together with an integrated strategy for planning that honours the multiple and urgent needs of people, nature and climate.

4. An enhanced countryside next door

The countryside surrounding our towns and cities provides millions with health and happiness and has the potential to deliver much more. However, recent political rhetoric paints a worrying picture – that what are deemed as ‘grey and ugly areas’ of the Green Belt could be reclassified as ‘grey belt’ land in order to facilitate development in these places.

We will always support a brownfield-first approach to development, but the ‘grey belt’ concept doesn’t take into account that most of the Green Belt is indeed green, while the scrubland found in the Green Belt has the potential to create new wetlands and woodlands, helping with carbon storage, flood mitigation and creating habitats for wildlife. We should be championing and enhancing the Green Belt, increasing access to the countryside next door, rather than giving up and allowing it to fall prey to damaging developments.

Walkers pass field of cows
The Green Belt is the countryside next door for millions of people | CPRE

We are calling on the next government to protect and invest in our countryside next door as a key solution to the climate and nature crises. It is time to see these landscapes as irreplaceable places where people across the nation can connect with nature, green spaces and cultural heritage.

5. A countryside for all

Our vision for the future is to create a climate-friendly, nature-rich and beautiful countryside for us all. To achieve this, it is essential to bring together different perspectives, experiences, evidence and insights to inform how we can collectively seek positive change for issues such as energy to access, transport to housing. However, research shows huge differences in engagement with nature and the countryside depending on people’s backgrounds and identities. We want to help remove the hurdles that prevent people from engaging with the countryside.

As part of this, CPRE has joined together with 42 leading national governing bodies and environmental organisations to support the Outdoors For All manifesto, which seeks to extend responsible access to more green and blue landscapes. Additionally, we are continually striving to tackle inequality in the environment sector and outdoors.

We are calling on the next government to make a similar commitment, by prioritising Local Green Space designation in deprived areas; encouraging planning authorities to promote and maximise the use of the Local Green Space designation; and introducing compulsory standards for access to nature.

A vote for the countryside

We are asking more of our countryside than ever before. With the right, joined-up approach, our countryside can in fact be part of the solution to the many crises we face. It’s vital we protect and champion all it has to offer: a powerful nature-based solution to climate change, a home for wildlife and place for growing, and vital access to nature for our health and wellbeing. Alongside this, by delivering genuinely affordable homes, rooftop solar and putting communities at the heart of planning, we can ensure that the countryside thrives.

This is an era-defining election. We need your support to ensure our countryside and green space are protected, and that rural communities are heard. Together, we can protect and enhance the countryside, now and for generations to come.

This July as you prepare to cast your vote, we’re asking you to consider the needs of the countryside as you mark your ballot – let’s all strive to be a part of positive change.

Two women and child walking along a path with wide panorama
Bill Waters / CPRE