I have just spent 2 weeks walking the border area between the North of England and Scotland, through the largely rural areas that the 84 miles of the Hadrian’s Wall Path traverses. So rural affairs have been on my mind. Not least travel and questions as to what it would be like to live in such an area, as us urbanites navigated our way from Bowness-in-Solway to Newcastle. We used the local Bus for part of our journeying, which brought to mind thoughts of reports I recently read on Community and Rural Transport issues. One reason for noting all this is that one of the issues IBEX has been researching for possibly addressing, are around rural areas.
Lo and behold today on my computer news feed I find the following flagged up: The Rural Housing Crisis Is Destroying Communities, But How Can We Stop It?, an article by Luke Murphy, of the IPPR think tank, writing in the Huffington Post. He opens his article by saying:
“Rolling hills, fresh pastures and winding lanes, for many, England’s rural towns and villages still evoke an idealised vision of the English countryside. Yet these stereotypes mask the reality that not only are rural areas much more vibrant and dynamic than many imagine, but they also suffer great deprivation and poverty too. The rural economy is not just made up of ‘tractors and tourism’ but also the digital, hi-tech and manufacturing sectors, which have an increasingly important presence. Yet fuel poverty is far more prevalent in rural areas compared to urban areas and, as our latest report finds, housing is less affordable for local people.”
Perhaps as the article suggests, alongside our IBEX focus on the challenges of our urban settings, there are equally important issues for us in the apparently idyllic rural parts of Hampshire and Dorset. Fortunately, as I have discovered in researching around, there are many Church led and other initiatives seeking to address these, from the local Diocesan rural officers and mission networks, to bodies associated with Germinate (once known to many as the Arthur Rank Centre, working on rural affairs, who are encouraging us to mark July 15th as Rural Sunday), ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) and the Rural Coalition, the Rural Theology Association, among many others.
One way the rural housing issue has been addressed, for instance, has been Anglican Dioceses enabling the sale of Glebe land for social housing in villages. Interestingly this can attract opposition from wealthy incomers – often moving from London – who can object to their new lovely rural ‘view’ being ‘spoiled’. There was a piece in my local newspaper about such a scheme on the edge of nearby Havant, which has generated much heat over the sale of Glebe land for housing. Is this an issue of justice though, when (as Luke Murphy points out) less well paid local people can’t afford housing in the places they grew up in, seek to work in, and hope to send their children to school?
Another rural issue Churches can, and do, help address is the shortage in good community hall provision, through resourcing Parish and Church Halls. Often they are the ‘only (community) room in the village’. Interestingly ACRE have a network of advisors for each county to help local groups resource village halls, even upgrading them for better use by the local community. This can only help improve social cohesion, and what can be known as Social or Community Capital.
Another issue arises around is the shortage of good affordable reliable Public transport. Where the market fails to provide an adequate service, community transport schemes of all sorts try to step in. There are many of these, especially I discover in Dorset, where there was a major consultation on improving the provision in February 2018. They are seeking volunteers for helping out, driving people to hospital for instance, as my own father-in-law in Dorchester does. Dorset County Council also has online advice, with templates, for setting up schemes.
However visiting the national Community Transport Association report a significant cloud on the horizon, due to a change in July last year, in the interpretation of a law from 1924 where monetary contributions are made to a voluntary service provider. It seems a number of commercial transport operators are using this change to undermine allegedly ‘competing’ Community Transport schemes. The ‘new’ interpretation being imposed is that any money taken, say a donation to a driver or a grant from a local authority, means the organisation providing the scheme is adjudged as being commercial in nature. Thus under a related recent European ruling this means they are liable for any drivers needing to get a full PSV licence and training, and registering as such. The CTA suggest that this could strike at the heart of the voluntary nature of such schemes, potentially bankrupting many of them. It may even set a dangerous precedent for the voluntary sector generally, where one works in a commercial manner to cover costs. If you feel this is an issue to watch out for then more can be found about it on the website of the national CTA, where they are lobbying the Department of Transport on this.
So considering rural matters can illuminate issues we all face, and that’s before we start thinking about the new concept in the Government’s new 25 year rural strategy of Natural Capital, which I read about staying in Twice Brewed in very rural Northumberland, on our Hadrian’s Wall Walk. Surprising what walking a wall reveals. Will this interest us IBEX urbanites?
Rev Tim Clarke