Rural community councils made to wait on funding future

Warning: Leah Swain, chief officer for Rural Action Yorkshire
Warning: Leah Swain, chief officer for Rural Action Yorkshire
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Rural bodies playing a key role in the battle to keep countryside communities alive fear their government funding may be about to cease.

For more than 80 years, Rural Action Yorkshire (RAY) has, as one of 38 rural community councils in England, worked with isolated communities to find solutions to the challenges they face. It also gives rural communities a voice to influence investment decisions made by local government and other powerful groups.

Its ability in future, however, to stand up for the communities it represents with the same clout is in serious doubt.

An agreement with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to fund rural community councils expires in March.

Despite public pressure from Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), the parent organisation for all rural community councils, Defra told The Yorkshire Post that it had yet to decide whether it would be extending its funding arrangements.

ACRE maintains that the funding is public money well-spent, saying that the £2.25 million total from Defra in 2013/14 alone meant its network leveraged another £12.5m from other sources.

Of all rural community councils in England, RAY receives the highest allocation of government funds, around £95,000 per annum, because it supports a wider geographical area than the rest.

In a statement, Defra acknowledged the hard work of the ACRE network to ensure the rural voice is heard and to inspire community action, but it fell short of offering any assurance of future funds, stating: “We are carefully considering future funding and no final decision has been made.”

If government funding came to an end, Leah Swain, chief officer for Rural Action Yorkshire, warned the organisation would have to “think hard” about what services it would have to reduce.

Explaining the importance of Defra funding, Mrs Swain said: “We have used it to subsidise our support for village halls and parish councils so they get unlimited help over the phone and by email for just £35 a year. In addition it allows RAY to have a seat at tables and the time to spend working with local authorities, LEPs, funders and others to ensure rural communities have equal access to services.

“Without the funding we can only run project funded work which does not give us the scope to influence policies and funding for the benefit of rural areas, try out innovative solutions to rural problems, or provide our current level of support to members.”

She said government funding had been the key to a number of projects getting started, such as helping some of Yorkshire’s 685 village halls become community hubs, running ‘Community Agent’ support for older and vulnerable people in Doncaster, and equipping communities with the means to keep residents safe, well and warm in winter.

“Rural communities are facing disproportionate service cuts in the face of public spending cuts - our libraries are under threat, bus services are being cut, superfast broadband is not reaching all rural areas and we get limited mobile reception which impacts on business growth, while shops and pubs are also closing,” Mrs Swain said.

“More communities are being asked to take on services. This is where the work of RAY is critical.”

RAY is based at Askham Bryan, York and employs 16 part-time staff.