'Rural life is under threat' says report

RURAL communities in Suffolk are facing new threats to their future and desperately need more investment to help them survive.

Richard Cornwell

RURAL communities in Suffolk are facing new threats to their future and desperately need more investment to help them survive.

A new report out today warns the countryside is becoming “part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home”.

It says a proper vision needs to be drawn up to ensure villages have the schools, shops, halls, pubs and other facilities they need to thrive.

Campaigners in Suffolk are hoping the project, led by a coalition of respected bodies, will put forward a real strategy to deal with the countryside's problems.

Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of Suffolk ACRE, welcomed the move and hoped it would persuade government to draw up a strategy and provide real investment for rural communities.

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“At the moment there is no national defined rural strategy and neither is there any sense of targeted investment for rural areas,” he said.

“People talk about European funding, but that is mainly for the farming community which is only one aspect of rural areas but not the only one.

“Rural communities have been told to do more to help themselves and while they will continue to do that they do need some support for things to work.

“We have seen post offices, shops, pubs, village halls disappear - people struggling to keep things going - and a cohesive vision involving organisations, the public and voluntary sector would be a great move forward.”

Chairman of the new Rural Coalition MP Matthew Taylor said: “The coalition has come together in the belief that a more sustainable future for all rural communities is both essential and achievable.

“It demands a fundamental change of approach at both national and local level.

“The Rural Coalition is seeking a debate setting a new agenda for the countryside to meet the challenges of the 21st century, in order to present a clear, workable policy framework to whoever is in government after the election.”

PEOPLE living in the countryside face different problems which need different solutions to those in urban areas.

That's the view of rural life campaigner Lady Cranbrook, vice president of the Suffolk Country Land and Business Association and national vice-president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, who has been at the forefront of issues affecting the countryside in the county for many years.

“Although the countryside, market towns and villages share some of the problems facing cities, many are unique to the countryside,” she said.

“The countryside presents different problems and needs different solutions. One size does not fit all.

“The situation is urgent and the formation of the Rural Coalition will provide a timely counter-balance to Whitehall's urban outlook.”

Against a backdrop of village shops closing, pubs being lost, post offices being replaced with visiting van services, and many village hall committees struggling to raise funds to repair and modernise their facilities, it is essential people can live, work, and shop in same area.

Lady Cranbrook said there were needs for more affordable housing, jobs in the countryside, broadband, schools, pubs, shops, leisure facilities, and integrated efficient public transport to enable people to stay living in rural communities.

“It is absolutely vital that there are places where people can meet each other and get to know each other,” she said.

“Suffolk ACRE's backing for community shops, such as Metfield, are brilliant examples of how the local shop revitalises a community. The same is true of our numerous post office stores and independent shops.”

Another issue was the power of the supermarket chains which in some towns were building unnecessarily large stores which then impact on surrounding rural areas.

SIX organisations are involved in the new Rural Coalition looking at the social, economic and environmental needs of rural areas.

They represent councils, rural businesses, landowners, environmental campaigners, planners and rural communities and want to create “a strong, confident and sustainable countryside”.

The coalition's report says the countryside has been undervalued for 50 years and national policy has failed to meet the needs of rural communities, which have become increasingly less sustainable and less self-sufficient.

“On its current course, with no change of policy and no commitment to action, much of the countryside is becoming part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home,” it says.

“Only if people in rural communities have ready access to local schools, local jobs, local shops and pubs and homes will they and their children thrive, and will the nation meet its environmental and economic needs.”

The coalition includes Action with Communities in Rural England, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Country Land and Business Association, the Local Government Association, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Town and Country Planning Association.