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Regenerate the countryside to regenerate the economy, says CPRE

Words: Laura Edgar
Access to nature for all / iStock-829630084

A countryside charity has called on the government to ensure that everyone has access to green space, after the early period of total lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 highlighted the inequalities surrounding who has access to it. 

The government should also support local councils and communities to deliver the right kind of development in the right place by insisting on up-to-date local plans.

Plans need to have “stronger and better implemented policies” on good design that contribute to tackling the climate and nature emergencies, according to the pressure group.

The calls were made as the CPRE launched its regeneration manifesto – Regenerate Our Countryside, Regenerate Ourselves: A Manifesto for a Resilient Countryside After Coronavirus.

It contends that the current situation offers the government a “once in a generation” opportunity to protect and invest in the countryside, and break down the barriers too many face in accessing the health and wellbeing benefits of time in green spaces.

The charity urges the government to “significantly increase” funding for green belt land and land surrounding large towns and cities to make sure these are enhanced. This includes greener farming techniques that could make the country’s food supply more resilient to future shocks. 

The manifesto was launched at a virtual discussion and debate yesterday (1 July), with Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Rhiane Fatinikun, founder of Black Girls Hike, shadow housing and planning minister Mike Amesbury, and Philip Dunne, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. 

Introducing the manifesto, Crispin Truman OBE, chief executive at CPRE, pointed out that now it's all about how we come out of the Covid-19 lockdown and the “vital importance of securing the green recovery, which steers away from the climate emergency, rather than building, building building right into it”.

“Who else can remember a time when we’ve been more aware of our need for time in green space? That quality time in quality green space can lift our mood, and boost our health and wellbeing.

“Our message is that as the countryside regenerates us, we need to regenerate the countryside. Now more than ever. We need more quality green space for everyone to regenerate themselves post-pandemic. Our vision is of a countryside for all – everyone should benefit from this because that way everyone will care for it.”

The recommendations set out in the report include:

  • Regenerate our green spaces: The government must support local councils and communities to deliver up-to-date local plans, adopt a truly ‘brownfield first’ policy and ensure that the green belt, our countryside next door, is enhanced through greater funding.
  • Regenerate ourselves: The government must guarantee every child a night in nature as recommended in the Glover landscape review, and increase funding for the many tried-and-tested community outreach projects that have already enabled greater engagement with the countryside for marginalised groups.
  • Regenerate our rural economies: The government must establish a rural economy task force working across government to develop a comprehensive strategy for supporting the rural economy and invest in rural social housing to provide genuinely affordable homes for our key workers.
  • The government should create a ring-fenced rural transport fund to support public transport services for rural communities that need to be better connected. Among other aims, it should ensure that public transport cutbacks during the pandemic don’t become permanent. The money can be found by reallocating the more than £27 billion due to be spent on building new roads, which will only lead to more carbon emissions.

Emma Bridgewater, president of CPRE, said: “Just as national parks were integral to post-war reconstruction in the late 1940s, so too should everyday landscapes including local green spaces, the green belt and the countryside next door become a central part of the government’s response to coronavirus recovery. Public support for protecting and enhancing these spaces is impossible for ministers to ignore – now more than ever we need more quality green spaces available to everyone and to make sure young people form lifelong connections with nature that can help us bounce back from the pandemic and build resilience in the longer term.”

What the panellists said

Mike Amesbury insisted that as the country recovers, “we do need to build back greener”.

“We all agree that it just cannot be business as usual – we certainly need to learn from what’s been a challenging time nationally and internationally, and still is. But the focus has got to be on a green recovery. It is vitally important to protect our green spaces, to have local plans that are properly resourced to protect those green spaces, but also to involve the local community in shaping those rural economies and affordable housing.

“On the direction of travel set out by Prime Minister Boris Johnson there seems to be more liberalisation in the plan, less regulation has been referred to, and we see what the consequences have been so far.

“What we do need is better planning, properly resourced planning directed by local communities.”

Caroline Lucas noted the inequality of access to the natural world and that is what Covid-19 has helped bring to light.

“I've been struck, as have many, by some of the statistics – for example, 2.6 million people in the UK don't have publicly accessible green space within walking distance, or that black minority ethnic communities in England are nearly four times as likely as white people to have no outdoor space at home.

“We now know so much about human dependence on nature, from mental health benefits of green space to the ecosystems that underpin our life support systems – that relationship could not be more important.”

Rhiane Fatinikun set up Black Girls Hike at the beginning of 2019 because she had “noticed that there is a chronic lack of representation in everything to do with the outdoors”. That includes outdoors advertising, outdoors management and outdoor leadership.

“One thing that we’re keen on at the moment is to get people trained in outdoor leadership. And because that’s another area where there isn’t much diversity, and I think people need to see role models that look like them doing the things they like to do. 

“It's really important that the change does come from the top down. At the moment, the stats for BAME people in governing bodies across the national parks is quite low. And I think that does need to increase, because it's OK to try and diversify and have more black and brown people participating in the outdoors, but I do think that we also need to be involved in the decision-making. And I also like the idea of the increased funding for the outreach projects because I have come across a few, but it’s never really been sustained. It needs to be sustained moving forward so that it can actually make an impact.”

On regenerating rural economies, Philip Dunne said what the CPRE talks about in the manifesto is “spot on”.

“We've got to get cross-government support for a rural economic revival. So your idea of a rural task force is an excellent one.

“A rural transport fund to improve both transport and better connectivity is absolutely essential. We cannot just focus on the major point-to-point connectivity between our major metropolitan areas. We have to improve connectivity in rural areas, and that means both through the ether, and on the ground. We need to have a good share of funding that’s going to go into greening our transport network in rural areas, and I completely endorse what you’ve said there.”

Regenerate Our Countryside, Regenerate Ourselves: A Manifesto for a Resilient Countryside After Coronavirus can be found on the CPRE website (pdf).

Image credit | iStock