Self-help plans for rural revival

'We need small-scale solutions which help a community keep its money in the community'
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COMMUNITY self-help may be necessary if the rural economy is to be protected, a conference will be told this week. As incoming commuters take over villages, doing their shopping in superstores, many small local firms face collapse.

Credit unions, community enterprises, and local exchange trading schemes (Lets), barter systems for trading goods and services, have until now been seen mainly as a way of reviving inner cities. A conference on the rural economy, in Grantham on Thursday and Friday, will hear proposals for using such schemes to rescue villages, where shops are closing and jobs being lost as mines and military bases close.

One of the conference organisers, Jonathan Brown of the National Council for Voluntary Organis- sations, says: "We are looking for ways to broaden and diversify the rural economy. People like the Rural Development Commission spend money on building work units which are unlet, and Tecs train people for jobs that don't exist. We are getting people together to stimulate economic activity."

Mr Brown says that rural England may need to look elsewhere to see that community self-help can be a way to regenerate economies. In the Highlands and islands of Scotland, community enterprises - owned and managed by locals - have been vital to keep outlying communities supplied with provisions. In Ireland, credit unions - low-cost savings and loans groups - are a big success, with one in five people belonging.

"We need small-scale solutions which in aggregate can help a community to retain its money within the community," Mr Brown says. "Many people in rural areas shop by mail-order, which is expensive and loses jobs locally."

The conference aims to promote various forms of social enterprise, with support from the Triodos Bank, which specialises in ethical borrowing and lending. "In one Sussex village, where the centre is dying, we are looking at getting people to invest through the bank," says Glyn Saunders, UK managing director of Triodos. "We would agree to make a loan [to local firms] on competitive commercial terms. Any deposits for use on that project would be on a low-interest rate according to what interest the depositors wanted, possibly 3 per cent. They get the advantages of putting the money into the bank, and access to it if they need it."

Triodos already offers partnership accounts, which enable depositors to specify the type of project their money should be used for. New partnership accounts could be established to promote community enterprise in rural areas. Lets schemes will be heavily promoted at the conference, as a means not only to assist rural economic development, but also to provide additional social care provision.

Mr Brown says that to increase participation it will be necessary to persuade small traders and local authorities to accept Lets currencies for goods and services.

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