Rural areas present a mixed picture, some places are thriving, some fairing better in the current economic climate than in the aftermath of the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic and some are struggling. There are the seemingly perennial challenges of affordable rural housing, public transport and accessible local services, amongst others. These were not ‘solved’ in the good times, so how can these are addressed in a time of dwindling public finances?
Neighbourhood Planning could present a real opportunity for rural communities to help shape the future of their places. The government is currently running a Neighbourhood Planning Frontrunners programme of 126 areas, the majority of which are rural. Lessons learned from these ‘pioneer’ programmes will help inform the roll out of this across the country. In addition, the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework is due for publication by the end of March. This aims to simplify planning policy and guidance and to promote a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Exactly what this means for rural areas will be eagerly awaited; for example, will Town and Parish Councils be able to benefit from the New Homes Bonus and invest this in provision of local services and improvements?
The recent Portas Report – ‘An independent review into the future of our high streets’ makes a number of recommendations – with a number of similarities to the Renaissance programmes across Yorkshire & the Humber, including a Town Team led approach. Many rural areas in the region have Town Teams or equivalents already in place; perhaps they can use this report as a springboard for a focus on their ‘high streets’, whether there are fundamental changes needed, or just a few minor tweaks to improve the quality of their town centres.
What is clear is the on-going importance of properly resourced support to assist communities to develop the skills, capacity and confidence to improve their places, together with charismatic, dynamic leaders who are willing to roll their sleeves up and Local Authorities who put the time in to guide, support and listen to their communities
Is any of this new? No. There is a long history of communities in rural areas who volunteer their time to make their places better, from local councillors to festival organisers. There are very few completely new or unique situations, so the chances are that someone has already had to deal with the particular challenges rural communities are currently facing. A quick search on the internet will show what steps have been taken and the lessons learned along the way. However, in a time of limited finances, be it public, private or household, there will need to be a focus on other resources to deliver the high quality rural places we all want to live and work in and to visit.