Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Big rural doubts about the Big Society

Rural people have major concerns about the benefits promised by the government’s Big Society, reveals a landmark survey.

Government plans for local people to deliver local services must be better thought through if they are to benefit rural communities, says the study.

The Rural Insight 2011 survey canvassed the views of more than 1300 rural residents and stakeholders across England.

Although rural communities value volunteering, the survey found that many communities lack the enthusiasm needed to deliver more services successfully.

The survey is a joint initiative by economic development experts Rose Regeneration and Ruralcity Media, with support from the Rural Services Network.

A report based on the survey findings was launched at the RICS National Rural Conference at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, on Tuesday, 14 June.

While the survey highlights many attractive attributes about life in the countryside, it also explodes the myth of a rural idyll.

Benefits of rural living include attractive surroundings, a strong sense of community, good life choices, lack of crime and a lack of pollution.

But challenges include high fuel costs, a lack of affordable rural housing, poor access to meaningful local employment and slow broadband speeds.

Taken together, these factors make it difficult for many rural residents to access services that are often a long way away.

Report author and Rose Regeneration managing director Ivan Annibal said: “Many rural residents still expect the state to provide key local services.

“They prefer the idea of better transport to get people to services, rather than services provided electronically via the internet or by local community groups.

“This represents another wake up call for those who assume the Big Society will somehow spontaneously spring to life and come to their rescue.”

But the fact that some communities valued the informal provision of rural services by volunteers suggested all was not lost, said Mr Annibal.

It was still not too late for the Big Society to make rural communities more sustainable by encouraging people to do more for themselves, he added.

Mr Annibal said: “The government must think harder about what makes rural places tick. It must also develop local know-how to make the Big Society happen.”

The report includes a foreword by John Shepherd, director of the Rural Evidence Research Centre, University of London.

Professor Shepherd said: “People in rural areas are up for volunteering to support the social life of their communities but less so to replace services that are cut.”

Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, said the report's findings chimed strongly with sentiments expressed in the network's manifesto.

“The scale of the public expenditure reductions in rural areas is clearly a major issue," said Mr Biggs.

Cuts in public spending had knock-on effects on rural services, rural employment, and therefore the entire rural economy, he added.

“The Rural Insight survey is a useful reminder of the issues, concerns, opportunities and threats facing rural areas – as well as some of the benefits of rural living.”

For full details about the Rural Insight 2011 survey, visit http://www.ruralinsight.org.uk. To download a full copy of the survey, click here (721Kb pdf).

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