Rural businesses had “higher survival rate” in recession - report

RURAL businesses in Suffolk and Essex have been praised for their resilience after a new survey found they had coped better than their urban counterparts during the recession.

In a report out today, the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) said countryside companies had enjoyed higher survival rates thanks to an “enduring sense of community” which has seen residents pull together during difficult times.

It also emphasised how rural economies were well placed to make a “substantial contribution” to a return to national growth, particularly in their ability to provide new “green” jobs.

However, campaigners last night warned that the positive nature of the report should be “no excuse for government indifference” over the future of the rural economy.

Nicola Currie, regional director of the Country, Land and Business Association, said: “We need policies that will provide enough food and provide farmers with a secure and stable income.

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“This will require greater investment in new technologies and development and in training. We therefore need a government which recognises that one of the biggest challenges it faces is to make the case in Europe for sufficient funding.”

The report, called State of the Countryside, found that rural people were more likely to volunteer and participate in local decision-making to meet the needs of the community.

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This has proved to be particularly successful for one venture in Sproughton, Suffolk, which saw volunteers set up a community shop despite being just a few miles from three supermarket giants.

Selling local produce, the service has experienced higher-than-anticipated business in the three months since it opened.

The report also learned that there was desire to diversify businesses, particularly in farming, and mitigate climate change through developing renewable energy.

But Mrs Currie said this could only be done if “cumbersome” planning laws are reformed and technology made more accessible.

“Many, if not most, farmers now do more than just farm,” she said. “We therefore need a planning system that will facilitate a certain amount of small-scale development. Unfortunately, we are presently a long way from this.

“Finally, as many, if not all, rural businesses compete with urban businesses, it is vital that rural businesses have access to effective and affordable broadband if the digital divide is not to grow even wider.”

Tom Holme, chairman of Campaign for the Protection of Rural Essex, added: “On the positive side, a strong sense of belonging means country residents are more likely to become involved in activities which benefit their communities.

“It is also encouraging that many farmers have become more optimistic about the future of their businesses in recent years, since agriculture still provides many rural jobs.

“On the negative side, those who live in the countryside who are poorest have to spend a disproportionately large amount of their incomes on travel, and many rural Post Offices have closed in recent years.

“CPREssex campaigns to protect the diversity of our Essex countryside by encouraging the sustainable use of land and other natural resorces for everyone’s benefit.”

Dr Stuart Burgess, chairman of the CRC, said: “While the recession has hit rural areas hard, with some experiencing greater increases in unemployment than urban ones, rural businesses have higher rates of survival.

“Indeed, rural communities could provide models of how others can be empowered to do the same at a time of public sector retrenchment and austerity.”

<Case study - Sproughton Community Shop>

VILLAGERS behind a recently opened community shop in Suffolk said turnover was 25% higher than anticipated – despite being close to three major supermarkets.

Volunteers in Sproughton decided to take on Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s in response to strong demand for local produce.

But Rosalind Lavington, one of four residents who formed a Community Interest Company (CIC) to run the shop, said business had exceeded expectations.

“It has been going really well,” she said. “The shop contributes to the resilience of the community. If we had a crisis, the village could probably manage without long-distance suppliers.

“People still do their major shop at supermarkets, but very often they will come to us for their smaller items instead of jumping in their car.

“It has also become a very important place for the dissemination of information and improving people’s ability to engage with others. Some people come here just to get out and about.”

The shop, located next to the village’s historic Tithe Barn, opened on April 1 at a cost of �18,000 funded through grants from Suffolk County Council.

It sells a wide range of local products including fresh bread and milk, sweet cured bacon, salami, eggs, fruit and vegetables as a not-for-profit venture.

Ms Lavington, who is also vice chairman of Sproughton Parish Council, said: “We often hear the exclamation “amazing” when people come into the shop. A lot of people are astonished by the stock we have able to source.

“People are not really interested in brands. They would much prefer a Brundish sausage to a Walls one. They feel more confident if they are shopping locally.

“It was a business that is needed and has been supported as a consequence.”

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