Report reveals pressures on rural living

RURAL communities across East Anglia are suffering from a shocking lack of access to essential services like banks, schools and health facilities, a new report has revealed.

By Danielle Nuttall

RURAL communities across East Anglia are suffering from a shocking lack of access to essential services like banks, schools and health facilities, a new report has revealed.

The State of the Countryside in the East of England report said households in rural parts of the region had poorer access to cash points, supermarkets, GP surgeries and libraries than in any other part of the country.

It also concluded there was “limited employment opportunities”, low wages and skills levels, and claimed rural areas had the lowest levels of childcare provision of any region.

The annual report, published today by The Countryside Agency, measures the social, economic and environmental conditions of the countryside according to 20 performance indicators.

Its findings suggest the region is lagging behind urban areas in access to the new digital technologies and compares unfavourably with many other parts of the country in terms of educational performance at school, and skills levels among the workforce.

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Achievement levels in English and maths at Key Stage three are the lowest and second lowest respectively of any region, it reported.

And the skills shortage looks set to worsen with the report's warning that the rural population is likely to age further due to a combination of falling birth rates, rising life expectancy, rising numbers of older age groups moving into the region and younger adults leaving.

The main issue affecting rural communities in the region, according to the report, is access to good quality affordable housing.

“Between 2002 and 2003, rural house prices in the region maintained their upward trend, with the average price up by over 12% and the gap between income and housing costs continues to widen in rural areas,” the report said.

“Local people, particularly young adults, are likely to find it increasingly difficult to afford to stay in their own communities with the knock-on effect on local employment.”

It added: “Second and holiday home ownership, concentrated in some coastal areas of the region, is placing additional pressure on the housing market and people's ability to meet their housing requirements.”

Last night, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Council said the county was performing much better than the regional position outlined in the report.

Council figures released show in 2003, 70% of pupils in Suffolk taking key stage three tests in English reached Level 5 or above, 74% in maths and 75% in science.

She said: “We know that we have disproportionally lower levels of achievement post-GCSE, which is why the University Campus Suffolk project is so important to raise aspirations across the county.”

The spokeswoman added that between April and September 2004, it had created and opened 1,446 new childcare places across the county with a further 658 places presently under development.

Bob Feltwell, chief executive of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said he was not surprised by some of the negative aspects contained in the report.

“The findings reflect what we already knew about Suffolk's economy. There is a desperate need to increase the skill level of people who work in Suffolk.

“It's holding the economy back, this is why the Chamber is working with many other people to try and get a university campus in Suffolk so it will give people the opportunity of studying locally and not have the expense of going away.”

Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural campaign group Suffolk ACRE, said Suffolk was performing positively overall.

He added: “We might need to do a bit more on skills to capitalise on the growing market.

“A lot of banks have closed and we have seen the pressure on some rural services like shops and post offices, that's nothing new. We are trying to promote community ownership as an alternative.

“Suffolk is trying to maintain rural schools and is working hard to do so. Compared to other counties, we have not lost as many.”

But Dr Gibson said the lack of affordable housing was the most serious problem faced by the county.

“We are not investing enough time to find development opportunities for some smaller, local affordable housing. It's still an ongoing issue.”

The region performed well environmentally, although the report said bird populations in the region continues to decline and claimed air quality and tranquility was threatened by the growing number of cars and freight on the region's roads.

“This trend is likely to continue particularly with the expansion of Haven Ports at Harwich and Felixstowe and the proposed expansion of Stansted Airport,” the report says.

The study found agriculture is no longer the primary driver of the rural economy nor main source of employment in rural areas. Just over 3% of the region's workforce is currently employed in the agriculture sector.

There was good news, however, with the report highlighting a generally strong economic performance in rural parts, with low levels of unemployment and signs that it is more prosperous than ever before.

Rural dwellers in the east also enjoy better levels of health than those in any other parts of the country and can also appreciate fewer incidences of a range of criminal offences, making it one of the safest places in the country to live.

Peter Martin, Essex County Council cabinet member for planning enterprise and economic regeneration, said he recognised many of the issues raised in the report.

He said Essex shared many of the problems faced by other counties in the east of England, but added its proximity to London meant some issues, particularly “outsiders” coming in to new communities, were exacerbated.

The Conservative councillor is also chairman of the Essex Rural Partnership, a group formed in the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001, and that meets on Wednesday.

He said: “We'll be agreeing a new strategy for rural Essex. It will focus very much on action on the points raised in the Countryside Agency report.

“We need to encourage farmers to diversify, improve employment prospects and services for young people and also strive for better community transport.”

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