The picture perfect village a generation from destruction

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Sitting in a narrow valley, surrounded by beautiful scenery, Gunnerside should be one of the most sought-after villages in Swaledale.

But after losing its pub, post office, bus and village shop, it’s in danger of having a part-time community, only open to holidaymakers at the weekends.

Gunnerside - a rural community in crisis

Gunnerside - a rural community in crisis

Just nine pupils now remain at the village school. Its GP provision is also under threat.

And Gunnerside is not alone, across the Dales, villages are in danger of becoming extinct within the next few decades, according to Coun John Blackie, the independent leader of Richmondshire District Council.

He says the housing market, influenced by affluent second and holiday home buyers, is pricing young people out of the area. That, combined with proximity to medical services, is pushing the young out of the Dales.

“If you’re going to have a baby, and would have to travel to James Cook hospital, 50 miles away, you’re seriously going to think ‘is this the type of place I want to bring up a child?’ The things you might expect in society to be close at hand are further and further away,” said Coun Blackie.

“Young people are the life-blood of our communities, if they leave, there will be no children to grace our school corridors. We can see the whole community collapsing in front of our very eyes. I can’t imagine what it will be like in 30 years time.”

Gunnerside sits in Swaledale, close to Reeth and 25 miles from its nearest town, Northallerton.

More than 50 per cent of the village’s houses are in second home ownership, said Coun Blackie. “Come Monday, the curtains are closed, the lights are out, and there’s no activity in the streets. The village closes down for the week.”

Consideration must be made of “deeply rural” communities when cuts are being considered, said Coun Blackie.

“Otherwise the mix of generations you need to have a community will simply disappear one by one. It will collapse on itself and it simply becomes a retirement community.”

Coalition plans to ease restrictions on barn conversions - branded “disastrous” by the Yorkshire Dales authority - could be one way of keeping communities alive.

Coun Blackie said: “We’re very self reliant and independent but once in a while we need help. Greater relaxation in planning in the Dales is key.”

The village is on the Tour De France route and Coun Blackie hopes it will inspire greater interest in the area. But he warns: “We want visitors because of the money they bring, but what we really need is local people living here.”

However, investment is needed. “Just beyond Gunnerside, you get to an area of land where there’s no terrestrial radio, no satellite or terrestrial TV, no mobile phone reception, no broadband. The telephone lines are so decrepit they wouldn’t take broadband anyway. It’s these deeply rural areas that need help the most,” said Coun Blackie.

“We are not asking here in the Upper Dales for an all-singing, all-dancing act, but a modicum of basic locally accessible services are essential if we are to look forward to the future with any degree of optimism.”

Dr Mike Brookes, is the GP at Reeth Medical Centre, which provides care to Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, which includes Gunnerside. Small practices like his were previously subsidised by the Government, but over the next seven years, this Minimum Practice Income Guarantee will be phased out. The Government says an increase in other contract payments will compensate, but for Dr Brookes, there is a lot of uncertainty.

It could mean practices are forced to merge, and relocating services to Richmond or Leyburn meaning a journey of up to 20 miles for some.

He said: “As a community, the constant threat to services, whether real or perceived, erodes confidence to invest in the future. Would you want to start a family in an area where the future of healthcare services and the discussion about closure of facilities was very real?

“What the area needs is a commitment from government to the existing services of education and health and social care.”

Government cuts have also badly affected subsidised bus services elsewhere in the Dales.

Recently casualties include the Pennine Motor Services, which runs a fleet of 14 buses throughout Craven – and will cease operating from May 16. It’s owners placed the blame at North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC), which took £2m out of its budget for subsidised bus services.

Coun Robert Heseltine, who has been leading a review of rural bus services for NYCC, blamed the Government for the “national scandal” funding deficit between urban and rural areas.

He said: “The consequences are that some rural services have been lost and some have been greatly reduced - and some of these will disappear. There was uproar across North Yorkshire when these latest reductions were announced.

“Rural people are very stoical, but it was rural Britain that put the coalition Government into power, and it is rural Britain that will fight back.”

Broadband was touted as a possible saviour for rural communities by Mark Hancock, chairman of Rural Solutions, a regeneration consultancy.

He said the decline in rural shops had been tied with a huge growth in technology on farms, so fewer people are need to work on the land.

“But the ray of hope lies in technology - in broadband. Rural areas absolutely need this connectivity,” he said. “If we can create jobs, we will have more people of the age of young families and demand for schools and services.”

And while increasing broadband access in rural areas is vital to ensure communities are not cut off, the rise of internet shopping is also adding to the destruction of services, according to Jules Marley, chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England in Craven.

She said areas more traditionally thought of as affluent are increasingly deprived as services decline.

She said: “When you look at Wensleydale, Aysgarth post office has gone, Thoresby’s shop and post office are struggling, and the bus service is stopping north of the river, which will cut off five villages.

“But the one thing everybody you speak to will say is this: ‘we still see the Tesco van’. As we’re losing our rural businesses, Tesco is moving in.

“When we’re measured against geographical access to services like shops and banks, all but three wards in the National Park are classed among the 25 per cent most deprived areas in England. If the village shops are closing and the delivery vans coming in, what happens to those elderly folk who are not computer literate or those without access to broadband. Are they further disadvantaged?”