The future of some of North Yorkshire’s most vulnerable rural communities will be turned over to a panel of outside experts, in a move by the county’s biggest local authority likened to a royal commission.
North Yorkshire County Council will announce next week that it has appointed an independent body, headed by the Dean of Ripon, to take on the fight to save from further decline villages blighted by economic cuts and falling populations.
Its “rural commission” is believed to be the first of its kind in England, and could see the job of formulating policies taken out of the hands of the council’s paid officers.
Carl Les, leader of the Conservative-controlled authority, said it would place “a great deal of weight” on the commission’s recommendations.
Its members will spend eight months taking evidence on farming, transport, education, housing, accessibility and the regional economy, before making recommendations to the council.
It will be convened on similar lines to royal commissions – advisory bodies established by governments to investigate matters of public concern, and run independently of party politics.
The leaders of district councils across the county, as well as representatives from the business community and North Yorkshire’s two National Parks, have been invited to the inaugural meeting, at a community-run pub at Hudswell, near Richmond, next Tuesday.
Coun Les said the move was born of a realisation that solutions to decline may lie outside the traditional local government model.
The county’s pattern of isolated communities – with some 85 per cent of its area now classified as “super sparse” – had brought “very significant challenges” which were “getting harder”, he said.
“We are not unique in recognising this, but I believe we are unique in taking this dynamic action to halt rural decline here,” Coun Les said.
“Our population density is five times below the national average. We have more rural schools than anywhere else in England.
“Despite our efforts, eight schools have closed in the last three years and many more have significant budget pressures. Affordable rural housing is very limited and farmers in particular face tough times ahead.
“Our challenge is to examine these issues in a new and innovative way and seek workable solutions to halt and reverse rural decline.”
He said the commission, whose eight members are drawn from business, agriculture, academia and the media, would be tasked with “challenging the council” to take whatever action it recommended.
“It’s a genuine attempt to come up with some of the cures to the problems that we’re facing,” he said. “If we get it right, it will make a huge difference to the rural communities in North Yorkshire. If we don’t get it right, we’re going to continue to fall behind other parts of the country and other parts of Europe.”
The Dean of Ripon, Canon John Dobson, said the commission would work independently of the council.
“This is important because often a fresh perspective can shed light on problems which may not necessarily be new themselves,” he said.
“By exploring these together in a structured way we hope to get a greater understanding of the issues .”