Exclusive: Rural exodus leaves remote communities on the brink

SENIOR politicians have warned decisive action needs to be taken to save rural communities from “complete collapse” as the number of young people in parts of the Yorkshire Dales has fallen by as much as a third in a generation.

Families are deserting the countryside

As one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country, the exodus of young families from Richmondshire is profound.

Where young people accounted for 31.5 per cent of the population in 1981, they made up just 16.2 per cent of the population in 2013. The community is growing older as a result; nearly a quarter of people is now aged 60 or over.

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Shrinking school rolls expose the true scale of the crisis as young families seek ways of making a living outside of the deepest rural communities that, for some, have been their family’s home for decades or even centuries.

In the Upper Dales, home of Richmondshire’s most remote communities, there are 26 per cent fewer primary school pupils than there were five years ago, and one school, Gunnerside Methodist Primary now has just seven pupils.

A scant supply of affordable housing and quality job opportunities, shrinking health and transport services and fewer village shops and pubs are blamed for undermining the future of these communities against a backdrop of government austerity cuts.

To find answers to the exodus, a summit held by Richmondshire District Council and The Yorkshire Post this week, will bring decision makers together to explore the pressing issues.

Richmondshire District Council’s independent leader, Councillor John Blackie, said it was vital to act now.

“Dramatically decreasing primary school rolls over the last 15 years in rural and deeply rural areas across Richmondshire, and well beyond, highlight a very serious crisis that is on hand for the future of their communities – simply that there is an exodus of young people and young families voting with their feet to leave their midst, sadly usually for good.

“If this continues we are but a generation or two away from witnessing a complete collapse in these communities. None can hope to look forward to a vibrant future without the presence within them of young people and young families.”

Coun Blackie said: “To do this will involve fresh thinking; new starting points, innovative approaches and the like, because patently what we are all doing now isn’t working. The new ‘Rural Offer’ must be sufficiently attractive to retaining young families; more of the same will not do.”

The deputy leader of North Yorkshire County Council, Councillor Carl Les, said it was incumbent upon local authorities to find solutions to these problems.

“We can’t deny the fact that young people are migrating to cities where they see things as being bigger, brighter and better. We can’t do social engineering to say you must stay in the Dales but is there something the County Council can do to help?”

Dorothy Fairburn, regional director of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “The effective rollout of rural broadband, coupled with good mobile phone coverage, should make it easier for young professionals to live and work in remote rural communities, but these communities must be served by planning policies that encourage the development of a flourishing rural economy.”

Exodus is on the agenda

In what will be a speed-dating style format, local people and professionals will be sharing how they think the rural exodus in Richmondshire can be tackled at a summit in Leyburn on Wednesday.

It will be held by the District Council and The Yorkshire Post at Tennants’ Auction Centre and the discussions will hone in on key issues such as the lack of affordable housing and quality job opportunities, and the threat posed by the continued reduction or withdrawal of essential services - healthcare, public transport, education and community services.

A second event is due to be held in the new year to build a momentum for change.