Hope for villages stripped of services

A PIONEERING scheme aimed at protecting traditional village life and replacing lost services has been launched in Suffolk.

Craig Robinson

A PIONEERING scheme aimed at protecting traditional village life and replacing lost services has been launched in Suffolk.

It is hoped the project will breathe new life into communities that have been stripped of post offices and local facilities and services.

Suffolk County Council is employing a “community champion” to travel around the countryside and make recommendations on the best way forward following the closure of a number of post offices.

It is hoped the branches will be replaced by locally run initiatives - such as village stores - to breathe new life into communities. The council said the move was about “tapping into the community and responding to grassroots needs”.

The council has agreed to provide £75,000 in Local Authority Business Growth Incentives (LABGI) funding to support the post office diversification.

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The money will pay for the retail “advisor” to visit and provide recommendations to local proprietors - so long as their business is viable, an asset to the community and the only one of its type in the village.

Social enterprises, charities, voluntary groups which run, or are creating, economically-feasible projects for the benefit of their rural community will also benefit.

Earlier this year Post Office Ltd announced it will shut 49 of its branches across the county - although some have been replaced by outreach services.

The move sparked fury among rural communities and there was strong opposition against the plans in many villages.

But post office bosses said the cuts had to be made to save money and that they were implementing Government policy as sensitively as possible.

With many rural pubs also facing closure and village shops coming under increasing pressure the move was thought to signal yet another blow to traditional village life.

But Suffolk County Council hopes its latest initiative will reinvigorate communities and help re-introduce vital services.

Lisa Chambers, portfolio holder for economic and cultural development, said: “It might not necessarily mean another post office - it could be a meeting point where elderly people can go so they can have interaction with other people. We've also got some very good examples in Suffolk of how local people have come forward to run their own village shop and we're hoping to build on that.

“It's about tapping into the community, being flexible and responding to grass roots needs. It's very difficult to give an example of what some of the services will be because it depends on each individual community - what suits one village will not necessarily suit its neighbour.

“The closure of post offices was deeply upsetting for a lot of people. Fortunately my own village managed to retain our branch but just down the road one was closed, so I know how communities feel.

“However this diversification is hopefully one way in which we can protect rural services for the future. I see it as a very positive step in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, Suffolk County Council's Rural Economy Scheme has gained an extra £90,000 from the Investing in Communities Programme - aimed at supporting areas that have lost a shop or post office but want to create their own services.

The two-year initiative - which will see small one off revenue and capital grants awarded to the community shops in rural areas which can demonstrate long term economic sustainability - will launch in the autumn and is delivered in partnership with rural charity Suffolk Acre.

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