Lack of rural choice highlighted

RURAL dwellers in East Anglia have dramatically less choice of key services such as healthcare and education than their urban neighbours, a new report has found.

By Danielle Nuttall

RURAL dwellers in East Anglia have dramatically less choice of key services such as healthcare and education than their urban neighbours, a new report has found.

Many people living in isolated communities only have one GP surgery or secondary school within 5km of their homes, according to the Commission for Rural Communities - and some have none.

Figures published by the commission show just 31% of villages in Suffolk have the choice of more than one GP surgery within a 5km distance compared to 97% in urban areas. The county is highlighted as one of the biggest examples of rural isolation in the country.

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Sparse rural areas of the county also suffer from a lack of choice for secondary schools, with just 29% of villages having a choice of more than one within 5km compared to 97% in larger towns.

The figures were revealed as the commission prepares to carry out a major study to examine the Government's plans to create more choice in services.

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Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural campaigners Suffolk Acre, said the picture was even gloomier than the statistics suggested.

“The problem is that even if you have a GP surgery within 5km, if you live in a small isolated community without street lighting and narrow roads it makes it doubly difficult to access them,” he said.

“The elderly are high users of those services, especially GP surgeries. Telling them to walk 5km down the road to get to a doctors surgery in many cases is not realistic.”

The commission will be examining whether the Government's choice policies will improve the quality of services and reach rural communities.

The study, set to be completed in the summer, will look at the implications for rural transport and who will meet the additional costs of service provision in isolated rural areas.

But Mr Gibson said he did not think the Government was taking the issue of rural isolation seriously enough.

“We run a moped loan scheme to get people into employment and training. That scheme was funded by the Government for a period of time. We demonstrated it works and it's made a difference to people's lives but there is no on-going investment to take that forward,” he said.

“So at the moment we have a number of mopeds sitting there idle. If the Government is going to talk about choice it has to invest in the long term.

“We need to look at how we can provide support in a more innovative way, about how we can provide health care in a different way.”

But a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Defra is fully committed to the sustainability of rural communities and is acutely aware of the isolation and social exclusion faced by some people living in such communities.

“In seeking to address these challenges, we are working closely with other government departments to develop policies which reduce inequalities and to improve access to public services, including health, education and employment, in rural communities.

“We welcome the announcement of the CRC's study, which will make a major contribution to the rural evidence base which informs the development of government policy and we will play our full part in it.”

Professor Sheena Asthana, commission board member, said: “Policies must be tailored to meet rural, as well as urban, circumstances, if rural communities are to benefit.

“There is a wealth of research, reports and commentaries on the choice agenda. However, even where rural delivery has been highlighted as a difficult area, there has been no progress on this matter. This Commission study will endeavour to break important new ground and we hope that other organisations will want to contribute their knowledge, experience and ideas.”

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