‘Rural communities are the best example of the Big Society in action’

4:06pm Friday 30th September 2011

By Mike Bridgen

THE Government only needs to look at rural communities for a good example of the ‘Big Society’.

Dr Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), said it had existed in rural areas for centuries through voluntary and community work and churches.

“It has been the glue that has kept communities strong, alive and vibrant,”

he told the Yorkshire Rural Support Networks annual presentation at the Pavilions in Harrogate on Tuesday.

He gave his views on how the Government’s Big Society and Localism may impact on rural communities.

Rural communities in England have many more voluntary organisations than urban areas – 54 per cent of rural residents attend local events compared to 45 per cent in urban areas. They have £3 billion worth of community buildings including more than 10,000 village and community halls, mostly run by local trustees.

Rural people get involved in village and parish plans and communities pull together – never more so than when times are harsh, such as during the foot-and-mouth crisis or severe winters.

Mr Burgess said the Government had introduced a raft of Bills and Localism was the driving force at the heart of them all.

It was clear local authorities would become key players in matters being delegated away from central government. “It behoves us all to become involved and engage with them,” he said.

On the current debate about relaxing the planning laws, Dr Burgess said the Government, National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) need to take more balanced views.

The Government should define exactly what sustainable development and the default position meaning yes mean.

The National Trust and CPRE stance for developments to be limited to larger market towns should be strongly challenged.

Dr Burgess said: “Whether you like it or not housing is affecting many people. Affordable housing is the catalyst for rural regeneration and economic growth in rural areas.”

He was against large development which would destroy the character of rural areas but said: “I have always maintained that every rural community could easily take ten or 12 homes without damaging the ethos of the village.”

Dr Burgess also said every rural community should have a focal point, whether a village hall, shop or church.

He was particularly concerned about isolation in remote areas and about young people in rural areas where a quarter are unemployed.

The CRC was one of the first quangos the coalition Government planned to axe. However the House of Lords sent the Bill back for reconsideration and Dr Burgess believes it could continue until June or even October next year.

Its budget has been cut from £6 million to £450,000 and 50 staff made redundant but Ministers have asked it to investigate isolation and young people in rural areas, Big Society and Localism.

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