Simon Hamlyn: Our leaders must support vital countryside communities

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THE first thing I see when looking out of my home office window is our local post office. During opening hours, it is a thriving hub of activity which makes a significant contribution to village life and the local community and provides a service on which so many local – and not so local – residents rely.

The nearest alternative post office is some distance away and, with the cost of fuel rising at such an alarming rate, and with a lack of regular and effective public transport which is becoming increasingly expensive for many, it is essential that it remains open.

Those living and working in rural Yorkshire have already been disadvantaged by spending cuts across public services, yet on average those in rural areas pay more council tax.

The closure of local services and facilities such as post offices, and the rising cost of fuel in particular, are a major concern for all communities, but they hit hardest in rural areas where private travel is an essential part of the daily routine. Increasing the number of services offered by post offices will protect them from closure and why not look at sharing services with other local authorities in the county?

Although there were some measures in the Budget to try and offset rising costs, they will probably do little to reassure rural communities that their concerns are being seriously addressed. In fact, according to Experian Catalist, the leading independent researcher which monitors prices across Britain’s 8,000 forecourts, the price the day after the Budget fell by 0.6p for unleaded petrol and by 0.57p for diesel – a saving on average of around 15p a week.

It is vital that the Government recognises rural communities have specific needs. It must act in a positive way to prevent any further decline in the quality of rural life. Support from Government to attract new businesses to rural areas and to help boost the existing ones would make a serious difference to sustaining rural communities.

Disbanding the nine English regional development agencies by 2012 may provide the Government with a short term saving but some of the crucial support they provided to assist rural communities will certainly be lost without a viable alternative.

I’m not yet convinced that the Local Enterprise Partnerships being created can be an effective replacement for RDAs or if the Regional Growth Fund will be sufficiently “tuned in” to rural issues and concerns to be effective – time will tell. Axing the Commission for Rural Communities is a further worrying sign; we need a rural hotline to Government and seek reassurance in this direction.

Public sector cuts could also affect the county with the removal of local authority officer support to a number of projects, including tourist information centres and there might well be a knock on effect in North Yorkshire where there are two national parks.

Local debate between Government and rural communities in Yorkshire is a good starting point. All aspects of rural life and business should be consulted on so that there can be full understanding. Key figures should also be involved.

A good example is North Yorkshire County Council chief executive Richard Flinton who has impressed recently by telling a recent broadband conference: “Our vision is to bring the advantage of high-quality broadband to 100 per cent of businesses and citizens in North Yorkshire by 2015”.

He also said “unequivocally that superfast broadband was the single most important current economic development opportunity in the county” and enterprising Yorkshire businesses will agree that delivery on this issue will put rural businesses on a more level playing field with their urban competitors.

Tourism in Yorkshire is big business and long may it continue. Seven per cent of the county’s regional economy is generated from tourism and 200 million people visit every year. For every £1 spent at a visitor attraction, up to £24 is gained in additional secondary spend away from the facility.

Bear in mind that most tourism businesses operate with no grant funding. A safe bet for structured growth and support that will reward with long term economic benefit would be to support those businesses that financially stand alone.

A greater focus on rural pastimes would be welcome – shooting and conservation in the region is worth £110m annually to the local economy and supports the equivalent of 4,400 full time jobs, the value of fishing (coarse and game) is £75m and supports the equivalent of more than 3,000 full time jobs and there are 18 hunts with thousands of members and supporters across the county which will also make a significant economic and environmental contribution.

A Government that actively recognises and promotes the important contribution that all rural activities, especially shooting, fishing and hunting, play in the county would be a welcome breath of fresh air.

Not only do these activities make a significant regional economic contribution, they are also a vital part of the fabric of day to day life in many rural communities across Yorkshire.

Everyone who lives or works in rural Yorkshire, and everyone who visits it, knows it is a place of great beauty to be protected for future generations.

There are so many challenges to living and working in rural areas but they are offset by the camaraderie that only life in a rural community can bring. The Countryside Alliance is working hard to meet the challenges of rural life so that future generations can enjoy it too.

Simon Hamlyn is the new regional director of the Countryside Alliance