Rural communities ‘must seize initiative’

A STARK warning has been handed out to rural communities in Suffolk as the guillotine of public spending cuts falls.

A STARK warning has been handed out to rural communities in Suffolk as the guillotine of public spending cuts falls.

Villages face a bleak future as housing is set to price out all but the wealthiest and rural wages will continue to lag by as much as 20% behind urban averages, the new report by the Rural Coalition (RC) warns.

Entitled The Rural Challenge, the report calls on the Government to deliver on its Big Society vision by empowering local people to shape their own rural communities.

The RC has warned that unless radical action is taken to secure their future, rural villages, like those which dot the Suffolk countryside, are at risk of “dying”.

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Billed as “a blueprint for the big society in small places” the report sets out detailed propositions for taking on five key challenges facing the countryside – meeting rural housing needs, building thriving economies, delivering good rural services, creating flourishing market towns and empowering local communities.

The chairman of the coalition, Matthew Taylor, formerly Liberal Democrat MP for Truro and St Austell, said that without change and a commitment to take action the countryside “is becoming part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home”.

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He said: “We need a fundamental change of approach at both national and local levels to give rural communities a more sustainable future.

“The Rural Coalition believes the Government’s commitment to localism and the big society opens the door to those reforms – but as yet there is a very real risk that in practice cuts will fall heaviest in rural communities which may lose services altogether, and opportunities will be missed to make rural communities prosper.

“For 50 years or more, policy has undervalued the countryside and failed to meet the needs of rural communities. The result is starkly apparent – rural communities have become increasingly less sustainable and less self-sufficient.”

By letting communities seize the initiative the RC believes rural areas can survive and prosper.

The report criticises the Government’s proposals for referendums on their plans for ‘Right to Build’ which would require 90% community support before new, small-scale development can go ahead in villages.

The RC says the requirement could destroy the proposals and create long-lasting conflict within communities, bringing local planning to a halt.

Instead they propose elected parish councils, empowered by a community-led plan, should be able to initiate small community-led developments within a reinvigorated and localised planning system designed to meet local needs and in keeping with the village.

It also advocates the Government back the community ownership of shops, post offices, broadband hubs, sustainable energy and local community transport – as innovative local alternatives in the face of the public spending cuts, by sharing some of the savings with rural communities.

And in a bid to tackle the rural affordable housing crisis the report proposes that by allowing local councils to keep the money raised from selling council houses, authorities will be freed to help address the urgent need for new housing for young families and low-income households.

Country Land and Business Association vice-president Henry Robinson said new businesses must be encouraged to provide new sources of income and boost employment and called for a more positive approach to rural planning.

He said: “Some rural communities have become unsustainable because of a negative approach to development. The planning system has been used as a brake on appropriate and much-needed development in the misplaced belief that this supports communities and the environment.”

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