Country life not for the fainthearted

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The Independent Online
You may need to shop, visit a doctor or post a letter. Unless you have a car in the countryside, you may not be able to. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, on why the poor get a raw deal from country life.

The rural idyll of England was shown to be something of a myth yesterday when a report showed that 40 per cent of the nation's small villages and hamlets have no shop or post office, half have no school and more than 80 per cent have no GP. The national study by the Rural Development Commissionshowed "little evidence of improvement in essential facilities".

Despite the lack of services in most villages, public transport has been cut as local authorities' budgets have been squeezed by successive governments. The RDC report found that 75 per cent of parishes surveyed had no daily bus service.

This would be fine if the 11m people who lived in the country all had cars. But recent studies have shown that 20 per cent of rural households are living "beneath the poverty line". Yet 99 per cent of villages in the countryside have no Job Centre.

Strangely, the lack of services has done little to stem the flight from urban areas. Between 1971 and 1991, the rural population has grown by 17 per cent, compared with a growth in England of just 4 per cent.

Lord Shuttleworth, chairman of the RDC, asked: "What happens to people who can't easily get to their GP, a food shop or indeed a Job Centre?" The answer to that question is likely to be: nothing. With the Government committed to tight financial targets, there is little room for ministers to resurrect public services.

Without extra financial inducements, rural areas are unlikely to appeal to many GPs. "In order for GPs to make a living they need at least 1,200 patients," said Dr Hamish Meldrum, a national negotiator for the British Medical Association with responsibility for rural areas. "Most small villages won't have that number."

Bus services are also likely to get worse before they get better. Weekend and evening operations have been cut in Kent, Shropshire and South Wales.

"You might think that by getting people out of cars and into buses where congestion is building up in urban areas is a good thing. But if you then force people to drive in the countryside they will just drive into towns as well," said Caroline Cahm, chairwoman of the National Federation of Bus Users.

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