Rural communities need help, says report

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Action needs to be taken to improve life for people in rural communities, according to a report published today.

More affordable housing, training opportunities for young people and financial support to provide services and help care for an ageing population is vital, the report by the Rural Services Network said.

The organisation, which consists of more than 80 of England's most rural local authorities and 150 other groups, has launched a call for action to support rural England.

Its report, Sustaining Rural Communities, followed a major consultation exercise in May 2007 asking about the challenges facing people in the countryside.

The report concludes that despite the fact that many choose to live in the country, quality of life often fails to live up to expectations due to a range of pressures and challenges.

But rural residents are not prepared to be treated as second class citizens, the network says.

It is calling for a commitment from Prime Minister Gordon Brown on affordable rural housing, a review of the planning system to increase the availability of land for homes, an assessment of the extra costs of providing services in rural areas and a Government commitment to sustaining balanced and vibrant rural communities in the long-term.

The Rural Services Network's chief officer Graham Biggs said: "We are delighted to launch this call to action, which is the fruition of many months of work consulting our very broad range of members and stakeholders.

"As we have demonstrated time and again, it is unsustainable and iniquitous for people living in rural areas to pay more in council tax whilst receiving less by way of services.

"More than that, as many people look to move from urban areas to rural ones, it is fundamental that the infrastructure is put in place to allow new and existing rural communities to thrive.

"The Government has consistently not done enough to protect the needs of those living in rural areas and has broken its pledge that nobody should be disadvantaged because of where they live.

"We hope that our report will serve as a wake-up call that rural citizens are not prepared to be treated as second class."

The report says that some of the poorest wards in the country are in rural areas, where earnings are much lower than the national average.

In Cornwall, for example, the GDP per capita is 62 per cent of the national average.

Remote, sparsely populated areas tend to have a fragile economy which is more vulnerable to shocks - such as flooding and animal disease - than in towns and cities. But the Government should also recognise the economic contributions of rural areas, the report says.

The network is appealing for skills training to be made accessible to young people and for rural broadband lines to be speeded up.

Public transport is a problem in the countryside, the report says, with many households being forced to use cars. It calls for sustainable and innovative solutions to be developed.

Rural areas have a dramatically ageing population and a large number of migrant workers, according to the report, which brings with it increased demands for health and social care that are often more expensive to provide outside towns and cities.

Communities can be undermined by the loss of schools, shops, pubs, post offices and small hospitals, according to the report.

It urges actions including halting and reversing the rural post office closure programme and the retention of small village schools.

The report was handed in to the Department of Communities and Local Government following its publication today.

Jim Paice, shadow minister for agriculture and rural affairs, said: "Today's report by the Rural Services Network highlights the Government's incompetence when it comes to service delivery in rural areas and its failure to rural proof public policy.

"Despite one fifth of the UK population living in rural areas and a further 10,000 people migrating in each year, the Government is failing to provide an acceptable standard of service provision.

"While Labour continues to dither over the lack of affordable rural housing, the countryside is losing its young people, its post offices, schools, job centres and healthcare facilities.

"Centrally prescribed targets for Rural Development Agencies are urban-focused so for them rural affairs is a low priority. This approach is turning our rural wards into some of poorest in the country..375

"This report only strengthens what we have said about the Government's lack of commitment to rural proofing and the rural economy."