ANYONE wishing to keep their local library or primary school open, or a local bus route to keep running, could soon find the task falls down to them.
This is the recommendation of a new report, which says rural services – which provide a lifeline for millions, but have been pared back for years – have now reached the “tipping point” and it is up to the “Big Society” to step in and rescue them.
The study by Rural Innovation warns that savage spending cuts have widened the funding gap between urban and rural areas and now the libraries, health centres, primary schools and bus routes which serve villages and small towns are on the brink.
It insists the inherent strength of rural communities means people will come forward and volunteer their time and energy to run services that have hitherto been taken for granted.
But there are questions which remain unanswered by the report and its recommendations, with some campaigners warning the point had been missed entirely.
The Rural Challenge report, published last year, warned that villages were becoming “part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home” as local facilities were closed and they became less self-sufficient and less sustainable. It blamed funding formulae that use urban areas as the benchmark, failing to properly take into account the additional costs of providing the same services to rural areas and dispersed populations.
The result is that services in rural areas, where residents are more isolated and therefore more reliant on being able to access these locally, receive up to 50 per cent less funding and are the first to fold. This is before the cuts meted out by the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review are factored in.
There are already many examples of rural communities who run vital local services but the report wants this to become standard practice across the country. It concedes the financial and logistical support of service providers and local government will still be needed, but insists the baton can gradually be passed over.
Action for Market Towns chief executive Chris Wade said: “The big question is: Do communities want to use their energies fighting council cuts or working to find solutions? Our experience shows that rural towns can be very innovative in looking after their own car parks, open spaces and public buildings and running services like shops or pubs. To work well though the changes cannot be imposed or rushed.
“Oddly, the money exists to invest in new ways of doing things. What is needed is a way to involve the innovative and committed people that care about these places and can find new ways to make things work.”
There are also practical issues to address – mainly concerning inconsistencies in the number of people willing to step forward and the long-term legacy of Big Society action.
Lord Taylor, chair of the Rural Coalition, said: “The Big Society is fine provided the right people come forward but you can’t presume the people will always be there. There is a pattern of rural action, but you can’t get a bus or a library van to every village. The pattern varies and depends on whether people have spare time.
“We do need people to support and train for the long-run, so there must be gentle support from the local and central government. This is not going to happen by itself.”
Comment: Page 14.