Action urged to ease deprivation in rural areas

Poverty and deprivation are rife in Britain's rural communities, where life can be as hard as that in any depressed inner city. But the serious social difficulties of people living in the countryside are largely ignored, according to a report published today.

The report, the result of an inquiry led by the Duke of Westminster, says rural problems do not gain the attention given to the inner cities: 'People in the countryside may not be rioting, but they do more serious things like killing themselves. They are doing it quietly and it does not make the headlines.'

The Duke calls on the Government to recognise rural deprivation and set up an action programme for the countryside similar to that intended to rejuvenate the inner cities. 'Traditional patterns of rural life are changing fast, causing worry, shame and distress. Those most affected are often angry and bitter, but feel they have little chance of being heard,' the report says.

It begins with an open letter to John Major in which the Duke says the social fabric of Britain's country areas is being destroyed as the nation's rural economy comes under increasing pressure. The result is unemployment, deprivation and distress, he says.

A symptom of this is a suicide rate among farmers that is about twice the national average. Suicide is now the second most common form of death for male farmers aged 15 to 44 years, the report says.

It claims to be the first to canvass the views of business on how best to rectify the gloomy picture it paints of country life. It says businesses should work more closely with public sector organisations in the countryside. In cities this sort of partnership has proved the best way to improve local economies. Some companies consulted showed no interest in rural problems, but most agreed to look at the difficulties, the report says.

But it stresses that only government can provide the leadership and constructive framework needed to put things right. The letter to Mr Major says: 'The social and economic origins of the difficulties which rural areas now face are complex. While the same is true of the problems of the inner cities or of the environment, that has not deterred those who have been determined to find solutions. The same determination is needed here.'

The report warns that tourists and people who enjoy sports in the countryside must realise that their 'playground' is not a museum, but provides a living for others.

It calls for a wider debate on the interdependence between environmental conservation and a viable rural economy. Government policy is too often influenced by environmentalists and should take more heed of industrialists, the report says.

It calls on companies to consider relocating to the countryside, where businesses have found their employees 'reliable and versatile'. Rural businesses should try harder to contribute to local life and planners should adopt 'a more positive attitude' to housing and industrial development in the countryside.

Equally, migrants to rural areas and commuters should not rush to oppose developments that might bring jobs and houses for local people. Professional families should also send their children to village schools, to support their local community.

The report emphasises the key role of transport in the life of the countryside. It says the Government's policy since 1985 of encouraging private operators has left many local bus services in a confused state. It calls for a review of public transport, 'a lifeline for many', to improve services for people who cannot afford their own vehicles.

The Problems in Rural Areas; Duke of Westminster's inquiry report, Little Orchard, Bwlch, Brecon, Powys LD3 7JJ (0874 730728).

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