Villagers' isolation increases as well-off families move in: Oliver Gillie looks at a call for planning systems to allow Britain's smaller communities to grow

AS SHOPS and buses disappear from villages, many more people find themselves stranded and able to get essential services only with great difficulty. This trend is bringing about a change in the population of country areas, the Rural Development Commission says in a report published yesterday.

The number of well-off families living in the country and running two or more cars is increasing. But many young people and old people have no means of transport, and parents with small children are without transport during the day while their partner is at work.

Only one-quarter of parishes still has a daily bus service, and at the same time the decline in local shops and other services makes it extremely difficult for people in small villages to live on low incomes. There is no shop or post office in 40 per cent of parishes and 50 per cent of parishes now have no school, according to the report, Rural Services: challenges and opportunities.

Margaret Clark, director of rural services at the RDC, said: 'Although car ownership per household is higher in the countryside, the breadwinner often takes the car to work leaving the rest of the family without transport. Public policies need to recognise the problem so that ways can be found of increasing services in the country. The planning system, for example, needs to allow for villages to grow.'

Frequently there is a tension between incomers who are in search of a rural idyll and people who have always lived in the country, who see it as the place which provides their living. The incomers often want to stop the building of more houses and block business developments that change the countryside.

'Incomers can breathe new life into an area. They are often the entrepreneurs,' said Ms Clark. 'But in other areas the incomers are retired people or commuters who want the countryside to remain unchanged. However it is essential for the countryside to develop and change with the times.'

The RDC is a government agency charged with providing advice to central government on rural problems and in finding solutions. It advises on setting up community transport schemes, assists shopkeepers and provides finance for rebuilding or repair of village halls.

The commission is now calling for action to maintain the independence of village life. Special incentives are needed to encourage providers to deliver their services in the country, it says. GPs, for example, are given special rural practice payments, and small pharmacies, often run as part of GP surgeries, are subsidised. More subsidies of this type are needed.

Village post offices should be given more flexible contracts so they can diversify and sell theatre or lottery tickets, or act as centres for ordering library books.

'When a post office or shop provides more services, people who come in for one thing will buy something else. Communities prosper when there are more services available,' Ms Clark said.