Village England haunted by fear of crime, says WI

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The Independent Online
RURAL CRIME and vandalism threaten to destroy village life in England and Wales, according to members of the Women's Institute.

The "state of the countryside" survey - the first to be done by the National Federation of Women's Institutes since 1956 - says that the need for more police is one of the most pressing issues, with 71 per cent of villages reporting a lack of any sort of "beat bobby".

But despite the federation's concerns, national surveys show that the risks associated with living in rural areas are far lower than in cities and towns, and most people living in the country feel far safer.

Leaders of the federation say they will be urging the Government to recruit more "men and women of the right calibre" into the police force.

The study, The Changing Village, which is published today at the Royal Show in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, reports that regular police presence was missing from 70 per cent of villages, with a further 88 per cent reporting that the nearest police station was at least two miles away.

The federation said it would be calling for improved pay and conditions in the police force and stricter deterrents to "counteract the upsurge in violent crime and vandalism" in the countryside.

A rapid increase in vandalism was seen as the most significant change in village life in the past 10 years. An increase in policing and stronger punishments were suggested as the main deterrents.

The survey, which provides a snapshot of concerns felt by older people in rural areas, is based on responses from 4,831 of the 8,000 WI branches.

The Home Office argues that policing levels are the responsibility of chief constables. Latest figures show that the number of officers has fallen in England and Wales in the past year by 793, less than 1 per cent of the total. Rather than employing beat bobbies, police chiefs have been concentrating on spending more money on technology, such as closed- circuit television and intelligence-led policing, putting the focus on suspected criminals and problem areas.

The British Crime Survey in 1996 showed that the risk of being burgled was almost a third less if you lived in a rural, rather than an urban, area. Public confidence in the police is also higher among people living in the countryside.

The study also points to a rise in population in villages over the past 10 years as city dwellers move in search of a rural idyll - only to find a lack of public services and the threat of crime.

Thirty per cent of villages surveyed did not have a shop and 60 per cent were without a doctor's surgery. The federation's study reported the closure in the past 10 years of 474 rural post offices, 196 butchers, 70 bakers, 58 grocers, 40 hairdressers, 29 mobile shops and 24 newsagents.

Improved public transport was the single most pressing demand from WI members.

But the study did find many "thriving and vibrant" rural communities.

More than 90 per cent have a village hall, and almost all still have doorstep milk deliveries and library services.

Housing also bucked the trend of decline, with a widespread increase in provision in the countryside of executive housing, barn conversions and second homes. But with many villages becoming "dormitories" for city workers, the federation said that more low-cost housing was needed for the young and the elderly to halt the departure of those "born and bred" in the countryside.