Losing the plot, by Alex Klaushofer

8 Feb 07
Rural regeneration was once top of the in-tray at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But other political priorities are preoccupying ministers, and public services in the countryside are in long-term decline. Alex Klaushofer reports

09 February 2007

Rural regeneration was once top of the in-tray at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But other political priorities are preoccupying ministers, and public services in the countryside are in long-term decline. Alex Klaushofer reports

In one respect at least, 2007 has kicked off with a bang. During the grey days of January, rural communities up and down the land have been launching campaigns and schemes in a last-ditch attempt to save their post offices. Councillors, MPs and newspaper editors from Berwickshire to Berkshire have been recruited to the cause, and there is even a pilot 'flatpack' post office touring villages in southwest Scotland.

All this activity is rural Britain's response to the government announcement in December that a further 2,500 post offices will close from next summer, with those in rural areas likely to be the worst hit. The cuts will reduce the total to around 11,700, fewer than half the number of their heyday in the 1960s.

This is generating such concern that an all-party parliamentary group on rural services was formed this month, which will take the future of post offices as its first inquiry.

The issue is emblematic of the wider decline in rural services, which is leaving more and more country dwellers without access to nearby schools, village halls or health care. Last year's annual State of the countryside report from rural watchdog the Commission for Rural Communities concluded bleakly: 'The long-term trend of reduction in the numbers and geographical availability of many core services continues.'

Malcolm Moseley, professor of rural community development at the University of Gloucestershire, also believes that things will probably get worse. He headed a 2005 research project on the future of services in rural England by 2015, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. 'The trends are reasonably adverse in terms of small communities – that's why we're seeing post offices and village shops closing,' he says. 'I'm not overly optimistic. I favour a scenario by 2015 in which many of these services will have gone.'

It's all a far cry from the promise of rural regeneration held out by the newly created Defra back in 2001. Only last month Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary David Miliband admitted that: 'Socially, there are major challenges in rural communities.' He stressed the government's commitment to addressing the lack of affordable housing, and access to services in rural areas. But there are suspicions that he and his department have much more urgent political priorities, not least in relation to climate change and exigencies such as tackling avian flu.

It's a scenario that is developing against a backdrop of changing rural demographics. The affluent are moving into the countryside like never before, fuelled by city salaries and comfortable pensions, to live alongside the poorer, indigenous inhabitants. According to the CRC, one in five rural families is 'disadvantaged', part of a hidden swathe of poverty made up of low earners, elderly people, women and young people.

Ironically, the growing number of better-off country dwellers is making life more difficult for them. Their greater funds are pushing up house prices and their almost total reliance on cars is undermining the public transport systems that are so crucial to accessing rural services. Elderly people in both groups make for an ageing rural population that is highly dependent on services but ill-equipped to travel to them.

Yet alongside this rather depressing tale of declining provision runs a second, more upbeat, story of innovation and rural people power, to which the latest bout of save-the-post-office campaigns testifies. Councils and other public bodies are experimenting with internet technology and mobile delivery to make services available to scattered rural communities, while the communities themselves are finding new ways of preserving the services they hold dear, with novel financial arrangements and multi-purpose units.

The Pub in the Hub scheme is a successful case in point. Over the past five years, the project has enabled 300 country pubs to double up as service providers. Almost 200 host part-time post offices, while others act as shops and community centres. One Lancashire congregation holds church services in the pub, while some Oxfordshire residents collect their prescriptions from their local.

But dig beneath the positive news stories, and it becomes clear that securing even the modest amount of funding needed for the start-up costs of such projects – £5,000–£10,000 each – is a challenge. While grant support from the East Midlands Development Agency and Cumbria County Council have enabled the scheme to take off in those areas, elsewhere a cap-in-hand approach is called for.

'When you come to the rest of the country, it's very much a question of us going round regional development agencies and community councils to see if anyone's got the funding available to make it happen,' says Pub in the Hub campaign director John Longden.

Lobbying the government for a national funding programme has, so far, yielded nothing except 'lots of warm supportive words and congratulations on what we are doing', he adds. 'It's very fragmented.'

Professor Neil Ward, director of the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University, agrees. 'There are some good stories to be told, but it's painfully slow and complicated for some of them,' he says.

Parents in the Highlands village of Roybridge, who have just come to the end of a two-year campaign to save their village school from closure, know this only too well. Dismayed that the children of this close-knit community would have to travel to the neighbouring village of Spean Bridge under council plans for a larger, merged school, residents came up with an unusual solution: a public community partnership. The community would lease the site, build a new school to replace the crumbling Victorian facilities and lease it back to Highlands Council, which would then run it in the normal way. A mortgage was secured from the Bank of Scotland, and it was estimated that the £1.2m scheme would cost significantly less than a public-private partnership. 'It would be a lot cheaper, because there's no profit element,' says Catherine Mackinnon, a key member of the campaign.

But in the end the parents withdrew the proposal because of a lack of support from the council. 'Strategically, the council wanted Roybridge children to go to Spean Bridge,' says Mackinnon. 'We fell at the last hurdle.' And while she's optimistic that the public community partnership model will work elsewhere, she is concerned about how the loss of the school will affect the village. 'If the school goes, both the shop and the post office are further jeopardised,' she says.

The government must take some responsibility for the problems with rural services, according to some experts. The countryside is missing out because ministers are failing to take the needs of rural communities into account in policymaking – a lack of 'rural proofing', in the jargon. ' “Rural” isn't always thought about at all stages of the policy process,' says Lynn Watkins, head of thematic studies at the Commission for Rural Communities. She cites the New Deal employment programmes, whose concentration on finding people long-term jobs is at odds with the inherently seasonal nature of the countryside's two main industries, agriculture and tourism.

For Ward, the flagship public service reform principle of 'choice' is illustrative of Whitehall's blind spot about the realities of life in the countryside. 'That's quite absurd in a rural context,' he says. 'In lots of areas, there's only one school you can access, and that's 20 miles away. The notion of choice in schools is predicated on an urban model.'

The same is true for health services, where hospitals offering competing treatment times might be spread over big geographical distances. 'Older people who may not be able to travel longer distances have fewer choices,' says a spokesman for the King's Fund health think-tank. 'Distance to travel is a major motivation in patients taking up the offer of choice.'

The politics of institutional reform are partly to blame for the development of a reform model that ignores the needs of sparsely populated areas, Ward thinks. In 2001, the government seemed geared up to make the countryside a priority, with a new white paper and the establishment of Defra with rural affairs at its heart. 'When Defra was set up, it was an attempt to signal a break with the past,' he says. 'The rural white paper set out a positive and quite exciting agenda for rural services.'

But as time went on, the large and unwieldy department got caught up with the challenges of agriculture and climate change, while the abolition of the Countryside Agency and its replacement by the smaller Commission for Rural Communities sapped the energies that would otherwise have gone into change. 'Everybody has been involved in re-organisation,' says Ward. 'It's distracting. It is quite difficult to be critical when you are in a vulnerable position.'

In a similar, low-key vein, the government's Modernising Rural Delivery Programme came to an end in December with a whimper rather than a bang, and the unconvincing claim that 'although the programme is officially over, central government's commitment to it is not'. The two-year programme – the outcome of Lord Haskin's review of rural delivery in 2003 – focused largely on institutional reform at national level, while councils – the key agents of 'rural delivery' – didn't get a look-in.

But David Miliband maintains that rural services are still important to government. 'Rural communities need access to good services,' he wrote in Country Life in January. 'They want good schools, health care and public transport. That means supporting local government to address market town regeneration, improving bus services and keeping village schools open.'

Yet rural councils feel they are struggling to get their case heard about the difficulties of service provision. 'It costs more to provide services in sparsely populated areas. People are paying more in council tax and receiving less service,' says Graham Biggs, chief officer of Sparse – the Sparsity Partnership for Authorities Delivering Rural Services – which represents 60 of England's most rural authorities. 'If it costs £10 to provide the refuse collection in Ludlow, it would cost £18 in a sparsely populated area.'

Ongoing arguments about the validity of the evidence for 'wastage mileage' leading to higher costs for rural authorities, along with Defra's lack of influence over how the Department for Communities and Local Government sets the council funding formula, mean that Sparse members are not optimistic about change.

'I think we're in for a long haul persuading government on this one,' says Biggs. Nonetheless, the group extended its campaign last year to include other rural service providers by forming a sister body, the Rural Services Partnership. 'If it's true for the councils, it's true for other services,' he says. 'The issues that apply to councils will apply equally to other public services that depend on government formulas.'

In the meantime, rural authorities are getting on with the challenges as best they can. In Devon, the council has invested in a benefits take-up campaign to help tackle the rural disadvantage created by the high housing costs and low wages of the local economy.

'Not only does it improve the individual's situation, it puts more money back into the Devon economy,' explains head of communications Peter Doyle. Since the campaign was launched three years ago, locals have claimed an extra £6m in benefits.

The council has embraced other new approaches, making meetings available through webcasting and taking mobile outreach teams to service users. 'It's not rocket science, but it helps to reduce isolation,' says Doyle. 'Collectively, they make an enormous difference, and we want to do more of it.'

Nor is it all gloomy news. Defra stresses that it has upped its regional development support for innovative projects in rural communities, and continues to do so. Shropshire County Council is one of eight 'rural delivery pathfinders' set up to experiment with new ways of making services more accessible to remote communities under the government's rural strategy. Eighteen months and £150,000 in, the authority has been trialling schemes such as video conferencing and a dial-a-ride bus service.

'We're quite prepared that some of them won't work, but you've got to have a go,' says rural policy adviser Clare Greener. For example, she says: 'The last thing I would want to do is go within my local community and say “I've got a debt problem”. We're being very sensitive as to how that might work.'

But however successful these new forms of service provision prove to be, there are some who remain convinced that villages without teachers, doctors and local bobbies at their heart have lost something essential.

'If you were planning a new community, the first thing you would have is a shop and a school,' says Mackinnon from Roybridge. 'If you don't have these services, you don't have a community.'

'The danger is that those villages become slabs of suburbia,' agrees Moseley. 'You lose place-community.' And given the flagship role of community in public policy, the neglect of rural areas might amount to the missing of a rather big trick.


Did you enjoy this article?