What rural Suffolk needs to survive the costs crisis and thrive in the future
- Credit: ANDREW PARTRIDGE/ARCHANT
Families across the country have been hit with the cost-of-living crisis, but there are reasons why people in rural Suffolk could be feeling the pinch more than most.
Rural areas of the county are shortchanged by government funding formulae which sees them get less 40% less cash than built-up areas, according to the Rural Services Network.
While a lack of public transport means families in Suffolk are forced to rely on cars – exposing them to rocketing petrol prices.
And many people in the county rely on heating oil – which has more than trebled in price over the past two years – to stay warm.
This newspaper has long argued that this state of affairs cannot continue.
Everybody in Suffolk must get the support they need to survive the cost-of-living crisis and thrive beyond it.
As part of its Your Money Matters campaign, this newspaper has drawn up a manifesto which addresses the issues facing the rural parts of the county.
It was developed with input from experts such as Janet Dwyer, professor of rural policy at the University of Gloucestershire, chiefs from the Rural Services Network and Rural England, and people working on the ground in Suffolk throughout the cost-of-living crisis.
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In the coming weeks we will take these demands to people in the county to change things – both locally, and in Westminster – and make sure the county's voice is heard.
Bosses and charity leaders from across the county are among those who have backed the list of proposals.
Paul Simon, head of public affairs and strategic communications at Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said: "Suffolk Chamber of Commerce welcomes and supports this manifesto.
“It’s obvious that a successful and productive local economy and a society that offers substantial and ongoing opportunities and job progression to all its citizens regardless of where they live or their backgrounds are different sides of the same coin.
“It is also true that Suffolk employers, whether based in our towns, but especially in the county’s rural areas, are acutely aware of the impacts of government funding formulae – whether those be for education, infrastructure upgrades or policing – that place them at a competitive disadvantage.
"So we certainly recognise the need for better transport and broadband and more affordable housing."
“That said, Suffolk Chamber remains broadly optimistic about the long-term future, thanks to a range of initiatives that bring together and deliver on the needs of Suffolk businesses and the wider community."
Rev Nic Stuchfield, chairman of Suffolk Coastal Debt Centre, added that "everything is stacked against people living in a rural area".
Read the manifesto below:
Target help to households, not regions
In villages, millionaires can live next door to people on the bread line.
This skews data to make areas appear wealthy when some people there are struggling.
Prof Dwyer said: "The total proportion of people who are poor in rural areas is really quite significant, but they never get picked up in the statistics because they're living cheek by jowl with people on very, very high incomes."
She added: "The rural poverty trap may not show up in statistics, but there are people who are in need of support.
"Targeting financial help for people on low incomes needs to be done at the level of the individual household – not just by looking at a map."
Strengthen digital infrastructure
"There's a need for strengthening infrastructure," Prof Dwyer said.
"You can do a lot more if you are connected online, than you can if you don't have decent broadband.
"A really universal investment that would be worthwhile would be making sure that everyone in rural areas has better online access."
Fix the rural funding gap
According to research by the Rural Services Network, this year predominantly rural areas will have around 40% less government cash to spend per head when compared to predominantly urban areas.
Prof Dwyer said: "Local authorities with large rural hinterlands actually lose out in respect of service provision from the central government taxation for running local services for people.
"The system is biased against rural and you need to accept that certain things cost more in rural areas to get the same level of provisions and that needs to be built into the calculations."
Improve transport – but not just buses
"Transport is a major issue for the quality of life for people living in rural areas," Prof Dwyer said.
"It's about thinking much more about basic provision for people in areas which don't have it now."
Prof Dwyer cited some simple improvements, such as the dualling of stretches of railway tracks as making "a huge difference to the usability of transport", but said imagination was necessary.
She said: "I think that there have to be more imaginative solutions than just the subsidised main bus services – they're useful, but they're not flexible enough, and they're not meeting people's needs enough for being able to get around."
Build more homes that are truly affordable to people on local salaries
House prices being out of kilter with the local people's wages is a concern frequently cited by people in Suffolk.
Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, said the government needs to subsidise either building costs or rents to help people find a home they can afford.
He said: "We're talking here of six to 10 houses in a village. We're not talking about the need for a huge housing estate of 100-200 houses.
"We are just talking about small scale development that would aid the population balance in rural areas."
He added: "There are no economies of scale in rural areas.
"If you are going to be only able to charge a rent which is affordable to people on local wages, then the government needs to subsidise that rent or subsidised the build cost."
Improve access to healthcare
Mr Biggs said: "Accessing healthcare at main hospitals, is a tremendous journey that sometimes simply cannot be made by public transport – or if it can it takes hours."