Report reveals extent of rural poverty

NOT enough affordable homes are being built in rural areas and many people living in the countryside are “struggling to get by”, a Government-appointed inspector has warned.

Laurence Cawley

NOT enough affordable homes are being built in rural areas and many people living in the countryside are “struggling to get by”, a Government-appointed inspector has warned.

The full extent of rural poverty was just one of the findings made by the Rural Advocate Dr Stuart Burgess, who visited Suffolk and Essex as part of a report being drawn up for Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Dr Burgess has called for a rethink of rural policy and will ask the Government to set up a special recovery fund for communities to cope with the devastating impact of environmental “shocks” such as the bluetongue, foot-and-mouth and bird flu outbreaks.

His report was last night backed by farmers and rural campaign groups while the Government vowed to look closely at Dr Burgess's suggestions.

A lack of affordable homes, a migration of young people away from villages and the need to protect rural services were all highlighted in Dr Burgess's report.

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“Rural life can offer great advantages,” he said. “But I have also witnessed people in real hardship and struggling to get by.

“But because rural disadvantage is scattered it is hidden through the averaging of official statistics and a perception of the countryside as affluent and idyllic.

“The lack of affordable homes to rent and to buy continues to be the single biggest issue highlighted to me on my visits. Affordable homes underpin the future sustainability of rural communities.”

Rev Sally Fogden, the agricultural chaplain for the diocese of St Edmundsbury, said: “We've got to accept that poverty is there.

“It is not like a run down area but it is there. There is a lot of rural poverty and there are people of all ages making the choice of whether they eat or whether they heat.”

Many of those living in poverty, Mrs Fogden said, were often too proud to admit it and seek out help.

The Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) backed Dr Burgess's call for greater provision of affordable homes in rural areas.

CPRE policy director Neil Sinden said: “There is a desperate need for subsidised housing in rural towns and villages for local people who are unable to meet their needs through the market.”

Commenting on the report, Lisa Chambers, Suffolk County Council's economic and cultural portfolio holder, said: “It is something we all recognise. These points have been raised several times in my time with the county council. It is something we do need the Government to recognise.”

Dr Burgess also drew attention to the “severe difficulties” faced by the farming community in the wake of “unprecedented” levels of flooding and incidents of animal disease last year.

Farmer John Hogsbjerg, of Sudbury, was visited by Dr Burgess as part of his research.

Mr Hogsbjerg said pig farmers were already experiencing a “terrible time” with rising wheat prices and warned the farming predicament would trigger a wider “wake-up” call because, unlike luxuries such as video games and fashion, food was an essential.

“In real terms, the farming business doesn't stand on its feet,” he said. “With farming, there are a lot of people involved in it but there's an awful lot more people who depend on it.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “We welcome the Rural Advocate's report, and we will be looking very closely at its recommendations.

“The Government takes the problems faced by disadvantaged people in rural areas very seriously, and we are currently addressing the recommendations of the Commission for Rural Communities' report on rural disadvantage.

“We agree that traditional rural-proofing doesn't always fit well with targeting people in need, rather than places.

“We're hopeful that further work being done by the CRC will help all levels of government and the public sector better focus on helping all those in need, wherever they are.”

During his tour of Suffolk, Dr Burgess visited:

Livestock farmers to investigate the impact of foot and mouth disease, blue tongue and avian influenza

West Suffolk Age Concern to find out more about “Welcome Home”, a scheme helping elderly people retain their independence after discharge from hospital

Health centres in Bildeston and Woolpit to find out more about providing services in rural communities

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