YORKSHIRE’S treasured rural communities are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis as vital services, transport links and facilities disappear while villages face a mass exodus of young people in search of cheaper housing and better-paid jobs.
Charity bosses, council leaders and MPs fear that the combination of swingeing cuts to local authority budgets, soaring house and petrol prices that far outstrip wage growth and the disappearance of cherished pubs, post offices and village shops have left many rural communities on the brink.
The Yorkshire Post today launches its latest Big Debate, looking at the future of our rural communities in the current age of austerity.
We do so against a stark backdrop of figures showing the extent to which vital services have been lost over recent years, with rural councils receiving 50 per cent less funding than their urban counterparts.
New figures show town halls across the region have now cut subsidies which prop up vital rural bus routes by nearly 20 per cent since 2011. Dozens of bus services have disappeared, with many more operating on a massively reduced service. Both North Yorkshire and East Riding Councils have both recently agreed further swingeing cuts that will see more services disappear.
Meanwhile around half of the region’s local authorities have either ended or dramatically reduced their mobile library services since the last election – vital lifelines for elderly people in rural areas.
Community facilities have been disappearing since well before the Government’s austerity measures kicked in. The number of post offices across Yorkshire has fallen by almost a third since 2001, with around half of the 536 which have closed based in rural areas. Real ale campaign group Camra is warning that pubs are now closing at a rate of 26 per week across the UK.
Charity bosses today issue a call to arms for communities to come together and fight for a better future.
“As more village shops, pubs and post offices close we must make every effort to hold on to our remaining community assets, said Leah Swain, chief officer for Rural Action Yorkshire.
“With limited funding around and services being withdrawn due to public spending cuts it is critical each of us thinks hard about how we can keep our own community alive and resilient.
“Public spending cuts will only get worse over the next three years. We need to make sure those cuts do not impact harder on rural communities simply because it is more expensive to deliver transport and services in rural locations.
“Those of us who live in rural areas need to speak up to ensure we get a fair share of funding and, where funding is limited, extra support is put in place to find our own community solutions.
As facilities and services disappear, so too do the next generation of rural dwellers, who are being forced out by the shortage of well-paid jobs and the relatively high house prices in beauty spots such as the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.
The Yorkshire Post revealed last month how in some rural areas more than a third of employees are paid less than the so-called ‘living wage’ – an hourly figure which charities estimate is the bare minimum to cover a person’s basic needs.
“You have this phenomenon of under-employment,” said Coun John Blackie, leader of Richmondshire District Council. “You have people here with a high level of skills, and all they can do is end up working in low-paid jobs.”
The latest threat to rural communities comes from the Government’s decision to phase out a compensation package designed to help rural GP surgeries survive.
Ministers plan to withdraw the Minimum Practice Income Grant (MPGI) – which is paid to scores of rural practices to help keep them afloat - over the next seven years.
“Surgeries are at risk due to unsustainable funding,” said Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, who has been campaigning for extra support for GP surgeries in his rural constituency in the North West.
“A small strategic surgeries fund will cost a little, but it will save a lot. My constituents deserve access to good local GP services as much as anyone in London or Manchester. Unless we tackle this problem, my constituents will be put at unacceptable risk.”
The problems faced by rural communities across England are laid bare in a report by the Commons, environment, food and rural affairs committee, which is chaired by Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh.
The committee’s study on rural communities warns rural communities “pay higher council tax bills per dwelling, receive less Government grant, and have access to fewer public services than their urban counterparts.”
It calls for increased funding for councils in rural areas, the faster roll-out of high-speed broadband, and more house-building to help people stay in their village as house prices continue to rise.
“The Government needs to recognise that the current system of calculating the local government finance settlement is unfair to rural areas in comparison with their urban counterparts and take action to reduce the disparity,” the cross-party committee warned.
“This ‘rural penalty’ is not limited to public services - it is also acute in many areas of infrastructure, not least the provision of high-quality broadband.”