Rural communities need hands-on help from expert organisations to tackle mounting problems – from cuts in healthcare and transport to the lack of broadband and affordable housing, ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) has warned.
ACRE’s view is echoed by a new Commons Committee report out today which says people living in the countryside must be given the support they need to help themselves.
The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee said more needed to be done if Defra was to achieve its target of ‘fair, practical and affordable outcomes for rural residents, businesses and communities’.
The report highlighted the challenges faced by rural dwellers – from unequal funding in healthcare and lack of broadband and mobile coverage, to cuts in public transport and a dearth of affordable housing.
ACRE, which helps Defra to shape rural policy by reporting on rural issues raised by the 40,000 grassroots contacts across its Network, has welcomed the MPs’ findings. The organisation, which is the umbrella body for England’s network of 38 rural community councils, gave written evidence to the Committee.
ACRE Chief Executive Janice Banks said: “The Government wants to devolve powers to communities so that they can have a greater say in their futures – but not every community is equipped to do this.
“That’s where professional support organisations such as ACRE, the Plunkett Foundation and the Rural Services Network, among others, are invaluable.
“The role of the ACRE Network is twofold.Firstly, we make sure the voices of rural communities are heard at the highest level in Government.
“Secondly, we help communities to help themselves by finding innovative solutions to the challenges they face – whether that’s saving the village shop or setting up a bulk oil-buying scheme.
“While the Commons report recognises that rural communities should not be seen as helpless victims whose woes can only be solved by others, it clearly states that the Government must ensure those communities who may lack the confidence and capacity to help themselves are given the support to do so.
“The 38 rural community councils across England who make up the ACRE network are ideally placed to do this. Our staff offer expert advice and support on issues such as affordable housing, village halls, fuel poverty, planning, transport and broadband.
“It is a tough funding climate for the third sector, but this Commons report reveals the need for sustained investment in networks like ours so that our vital work with rural communities can continue.
“Rural communities are not getting a fair deal. They have to contend with higher prices than their urban counterparts – on top of the difficulties of accessing services such as buses, banks, post offices and hospitals.
“Without the help of professional support organisations, the challenges faced by rural communities will only get tougher.”
The Committee’s report urged the government to direct funding at professional community support organisations to help with the take-up of Neighbourhood Planning.
Around 200 communities are already up and running as Neighbourhood Planning ‘frontrunners’, with more than 50% supported in getting their plan under way by their local rural community councils.
Ms Banks added: “Funding for rural community councils is a must if the Government wants to see Neighbourhood Plans take off.RCCs are independent charitable bodies with a very long history of ‘being there’ for rural communities. They know the people and the area they both live and work in and can really make a difference.”