Call for Rural to be at the heart of the journey to Net Zero

The impacts of dangerous climate change will affect all communities. This much is already clear from the rural impacts of increasingly frequent storm damage, flood events and periods of drought. Minimising man-made climate change matters as much to rural communities and businesses as it does to any others.

Rural areas, which host more than a sixth of England’s population and which cover most of its land area, must play their full part if the UK is to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint and achieve its net zero target. An approach focussed on urban areas alone would fail.

There are a number of areas where rural has not been at the forefront of policy decision and they will continue to suffer and be left behind other areas unless there are key policy changes made.

Firstly in relation to transport rural residents often rely on private cars due to poor public transport links which raises a number of challenges:

  • The need to increase the scale and reach of the network of electric vehicle charging points (across relatively low demand locations)
  • The need to extend the range (or distance) electric vehicles can travel between recharges, so they are better suited to rural geographies
  • The potential demand on the electricity grid in rural areas, as a widespread switchover to electric vehicles impacts demand
  • The need for faster progress developing hydrogen or alternative technologies, to aid decarbonisation of bus and HGV fleets in rural areas.
  • Rural areas which have lower allocations of funding from Government, and therefore less discretionary spend to focus on public transport were not prioritised in the Bus Improvement Grant allocations, leaving some rural areas at risk of significantly reduced services.

Secondly in relation to energy efficiency and heating of homes, the Government has set out it’s plans in the Heat and Building Strategy.

This has proposed a replacement boiler ban from 2026 in off grid homes and small non domestic buildings.  Rural properties are more likely to be off gas grid.  The hard to decarbonise, older housing stock with limited opportunity for further insulation will therefore be at a disadvantage, leaving rural residents severely financially disadvantaged. 

The proposed rural first approach, with a replacement boiler ban proposed from 2026 in off grid homes and 2024 for some off grid businesses, will mean higher replacement heating costs for rural homes and businesses compared to urban, where a boiler ban won’t occur until 2035

Heat Pump Ready First approach is reliant on government’s very optimistic aspiration for heat pump costs falling dramatically, from an average of £12k per rural home, to parity with gas boilers by the end of this decade. By going first, rural homes won’t enjoy full benefit from any cost reduction in heat pumps.

The different impact of the proposals in terms of the different timescales involved for on gas grid and off gas homes and buildings seem grossly unfair to rural communities. All logic says that in terms of timescales a Strategy of “HEAT PUMP READY FIRST” rather than ‘rural first’ is the most appropriate and will achieve a bigger reduction in carbon emissions from buildings much earlier, and make achieving the government’s ambition to install 600k heat pumps per year from 2028 more achievable.

The Rural Services Network has set out a number of asks of Government to ensure that rural areas are not disadvantaged and can play their full part in the move to net zero. 

These are detailed below:

  • Economic growth programmes: all such programmes should include explicit objectives to support low carbon and net zero growth. Specialist advice and related grant funding should be made available for existing rural businesses to help them reduce their carbon footprint. Government should develop specific proposals to improve energy efficiency in rural homes, especially off the mains gas grid. This would make them greener, easier and cheaper to heat, whilst supporting green jobs for tradespeople in rural areas.
  • Housing and renewables: housebuilders, homeowners and landlords should be incentivised to install or adopt renewable or low carbon energy technologies, which would also help address rural fuel poverty. The target recently set for installing heat pumps is useful, but that technology will not suit some properties, not least many older and hard-to-decarbonise homes in off-grid rural areas which the Government indicates are a priority. The approach for retrofitting existing homes, including eligibility to access the Homes Upgrade Grant, therefore needs to cover other options such as biofuels and heat networks.
  • Housing energy efficiency: for maximum effect, the switch to renewables should happen in conjunction with making homes more energy efficient. The technology for housing development to Passivhaus standards exists, but the financial model needs development, not least in rural areas where development sites tend to be small and have fewer economies of scale. Some pilot exemplar rural schemes should be supported to test feasibility and improve viability of the approach, paving the way for commercial provision to such standards in future.
  • Electric vehicle charging: the funding recently announced by Government to make quicker progress with rolling out rapid charging infrastructure is welcome. It must, however, be used to improve the network of public charging points across rural areas (including those areas distant from motorways or trunk roads). Drivers in rural areas are more likely to travel further and gaps in the network are a practical constraint given typical ranges of e-vehicles.
  • Rural buses: introducing buses using electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell technologies involves significant investment, both in new vehicles and depot fuelling facilities. This may be hard to justify commercially in rural areas unless bus service patronage grows. The Government’s ZEBRA funding scheme should specifically target some uncommercial rural areas. Current electric buses also have a limited range that will be inadequate for some rural routes. A comprehensive review is needed of the electric grid and, where appropriate, hydrogen supply to avoid punitive upgrade costs arising in rural areas.
  • Electricity network capacity: the path towards net zero will significantly boost demand for electricity, not least to heat homes and charge cars. Government and energy industry must ensure that electricity distribution networks, sub-stations and connections are made fit-for-purpose. This will be particularly relevant in rural areas, where infrastructure is often less robust.
  • Local energy networks: Government should provide gap funding to kick start the development of decentralised energy networks in rural areas, where they typically face higher costs due to serving low population and housing densities. This would support the growth of networks that are based on local renewable production or combined heat and power technologies. These could also help retain money within local rural economies and support local jobs.

  • Local services: it should not be overlooked that one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions in rural areas is to retain and, where possible, grow locally based services, such as food shops, post offices, schools, GP surgeries and transport networks. Equally, that providing good digital connectivity will reduce the need for rural residents to travel and enable home working. Policies for public transport, digital, land use planning, community action, education and health all have a part to play.


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