Charities: Trying to cope with rural poverty: Joanna Gibbon reports on the economic problems in the countryside and measures being taken to ease hardship

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ANYONE enjoying the British countryside this summer would be forgiven for thinking that all is well in rural Britain. However inhabitants of the countryside face regularly extreme difficulties.

Jeremy Fennell is the assistant director of ACRE, the rural communities charity representing 38 rural community councils in shire counties throughout England.

He said: 'The idyllic rural image is far from truthful. Poverty, lack of housing, unemployment, poor or non-existent services are easily buried. You can't eat the scenery.'

Twenty per cent of the population lives in rural areas, ACRE tackles similar problems as those in urban areas as well as others particular to rural life.

'Homelessness is not a problem that has been recognised until recently - because rural areas have always exported their homeless to urban areas,' said Mr Fennell. Poverty, too, is less visible; no one sleeps on the streets in villages but about a quarter of all rural households live below the poverty line.

Farming is no longer the main employer in rural areas. 'The assumption has always been that the rural economy was agricultural so that with fiscal support via MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Food) grants, there would always be opportunities on the land. This is out of kilter with reality,' he said.

Farm workers rely more on social security benefit now than any other occupational group. Despite hardship, many rural dwellers are too proud to ask for help, frightened that their neighbours will discover their circumstances. 'Rural communities are sometimes portrayed as being all-caring but very often they aren't. Some exclude newcomers and difficult people, such as the elderly or those who are going slightly mad or a bit smelly, and those who don't fit in, like single parents, gay and black people,' he added.

Through the rural community councils, ACRE is encouraging villagers to get involved in their village. One way is to join the local parish council - the lowest level of local democracy - and others are by using the local shop or even the playgroup.

'People can make a difference about their circumstances and they can influence the provision of more facilities and services so that theirs is a more inclusive community,' he said.

At Sussex Rural Community Council, Graham Duncan, Research and Development Officer, is encouraging new approaches to help the survival of village shops. His present research project shows that 40 per cent of all village shops in Sussex are for sale, that the average length of ownership is only four years and that about 42 per cent of shop owners have never had any previous retailing experience.

'We try to give advice before people buy a shop and then offer training while they are in,' says Mr Duncan who has found that most people make their financial mistakes in the first six months of trading. Some would-be shop keepers are deluded about what lies ahead: often they are former bankers, civil servants or teachers who have retired to the countryside. 'Suddenly they find the shop demands 80 hours a week and earns them 50p an hour,' he said.

In spite of shop owners' complaints, his research demonstrates that villagers do use the local shop often but buy only a pint of milk, a newspaper or some bread. 'Shop owners must encourage people to choose other items, such as locally baked cakes or vegetables which can be much nicer and cheaper than those at the supermarket,' he said.

One village shop, threatened with closure because of a bank overdraft, has a plan - in draft stage - to issue five- year bonds to villagers wanting to help. About pounds 45,000 has been pledged even though less is needed.

The shop - which cannot be named - was doing badly because initially the mark-up on goods was too low, said Mr Duncan.

Ironically, the business is now in profit but the debt - borrowed money needed to start the shop 5-6 years ago - had become burdensome and the bank was not sympathetic.

'There are many shops in this position - they are not badly run but are carrying a debt,' said Mr Duncan, who feels that the bonds, or perhaps company shares, may work for others.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations' Rural Team encourages national voluntary organisations to investigate rural areas. Sarah Buchanan, head of the Team, said that while rural voluntary organisations provide services usually undertaken by statutory bodies in urban areas - such as transport and day care - their social service grants are smaller than those of voluntary organisations in urban areas.

'The rural budgets are so reduced there is nothing left to cut. They should ask for more,' said Ms Buchanan. As a result most of the 140 English districts without a volunteer bureau are rural.

'The rural tradition is to manage without help. Urban areas are more assertive about asking for more,' said Ms Buchanan.

Some bureaux in rural areas are struggling. 'It is amazing what people can do in terms of voluntary action but they need support. It is overloading a fairly fragile system.'

(Photograph omitted)