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RURAL COMMUNITIES CHARITY SPELLS OUT ELECTION DEMANDS

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The charity ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England), has issued a plea to all political parties: don't igno...
The charity ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England), has issued a plea to all political parties: don't ignore the needs of those who live and work in rural areas.

Eleven million people, over a fifth of the total population of England, live and work in rural areas. Despite the perceived rural idyll, 25 per cent live in or on the margins of poverty. Low wages, under-employment and inadequate housing are everyday realities for large numbers of people. Homelessness is increasing in the countryside and rural services are in decline.

We call upon all the political parties to urgently address these areas for action:

1. There is an urgent need in rural areas for a choice of affordable housing

The need for homes for local rural people who would not be able to afford the premium prices paid for housing in the countryside was recognised in the 1995 Rural White Paper and by the House of Commons Environment Committee last year. But since then, the prospects for affordable housing have received two severe setbacks:

-- planning advice (Circular 13/96) which discourages the setting of targets for affordable housing and prevents its inclusion within private developments below 40 homes (25 in smaller villages with populations of less than 3000.)

-- cuts in funding to the Housing Corporation, including the rural

housing programme. (There was an overall cut of 37% in the 1996 Autumn Budget Statement and the rural housing programme is due to be cut from 1500 homes this year to 1034 next year.)

2. Poverty and deprivation in rural areas must be recognised, discussed and addressed.

Two national studies found about a quarter of rural households living in or on the margins of poverty (Rural Research Report 29, 1996 - Rural Development Commission). While similar arguments hold true for urban areas, rural problems are made worse by lack of transport, by isolation, by the extra costs of service delivery and by ignorance and neglect of the special problems faced by many increasingly marginalised rural groups. Their problems are as real as any faced in urban communities but their marginalisation means we now see poverty and disadvantage growing to unacceptable levels in the countryside.

3. Government must recognise the additional costs in the planning and delivery of rural health and Community Care.

Local authorities in rural areas are expected to spend significantly less per head on social services for elderly people than other types of authority but no account is taken of the expected effects of rural isolation (sparsity) in increasing the need for and cost of providing services such as domiciliary help. In 1996-97 shire areas were expected to spend a total of (pounds)417 per person, compared to (pounds)485 per person in England as a whole, and (pounds)878 per person in inner London.

Urban District Health Authorities (DHAs) received significantly higher target allocations than those for more rural DHAs. No account of rural isolation is taken when calculating thecosts of health service provision despite rural residents receiving poorer access to health care than their urban counterparts.

4. We must strengthen the professional support for disempowered young people in rural areas in order to include them in local decision making.

Young people are frequently forced to move away from rural areas because of local housing and underemployment problems, while more vulnerable groups, such as older people, remain. This trend, together with inward migration of new groups of people, is putting the social fabric of rural communities under threat. We believe that young people should be empowered and involved in rural communities, so that communities of the future are thriving, diverse and sustainable.

5. We call for a nationally integrated transport policy with a strong rural element.

The 1994 survey of rural services (Rural Development Commission, 1995) revealed that only 29% of rural parishes had a daily bus service. Reports from Rural Community Councils (Rural Development Commission, 1996) reveal that real hardship caused by insufficiency of rural transport is a continuing problem. Many Rural Community Councils are concerned that rail privatisation will lead to an erosion of rural services, most probably through the cutting of early and/or late services or lines with relatively few passengers (Rural Development Commission, 1996).

6. Government must recognise the need for support and advice for businesses with less than ten employees

A 1993 survey by the Rural Development Commission found 40% of rural businesses employed less than ten people. But the DTI definition of small and medium size enterprises to which Business Links target their help starts with firms of over ten staff. Business Links are also not required to collect information on the number of small businesses in rural development areas which receive assistance, so there is no way of monitoring the help available for those very small businesses vital to their economies.

-- A copy of ACRE's policy statement 'Equal Treatment for Rural Areas' with supporting evidence, is available from ACRE (Action

with Communities in Rural England), Somerford Court, Somerford Road, Cirencester, Glos GL7 1TW. Tel: Mark Richardson on 01285 653477. Fax:

01285 654537. Email: acre@acre.org.uk.

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