Pressure for new rural powers to reverse 'dormitory village' decline

RURAL villages and communities across Britain could die out out unless radical action is taken to secure their future, a hard-hitting report from local government and countryside campaigners warns today.

Matthew Taylor, chairman of the Rural Coalition and a Liberal Democrat MP, fears swathes of the British countryside are becoming "part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home", and the Government must offer new powers to rural communities to reverse that.

The coalition's report, The Rural Challenge, warns services are facing meltdown as public spending is cut, while housing will price out all but the wealthiest as rural wages continue to lag as much as 20 per cent behind the urban average.

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The authors – who include the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Local Government Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute – say if David Cameron is serious about his "Big Society" vision, through which more power could be devolved locally, then the Government should enable people living in rural areas to shape their own futures.

Mr Taylor said: "On its current course, with no change in policy and no commitment to action, much of the countryside is becoming part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home. We need a fundamental change of approach at both national and local levels to give rural communities a more sustainable future.

"The rural coalition believes the Government's commitment to localism and the Big Society opens the door to those reforms but as yet there is a very real risk that in practice cuts will fall heaviest in rural communities which may lose services altogether.

"For 50 years or more, policy has undervalued the countryside and failed to meet the needs of rural communities. The result is starkly apparent – rural communities have become increasingly less sustainable and less self-sufficient."

The report sets out detailed propositions for tackling what is says are the five key challenges facing the countryside – meeting rural housing needs, building thriving economies, delivering good rural services, creating flourishing market towns and empowering local communities.

Key recommendations include empowering parish councils to initiate small community-led housing developments, giving planners more freedom over local development, and giving communities a share of the savings from spending cuts to enable community ownership of shops and services.

Andrew Bowles of the Local Government Association, said: "The proportion of affordable homes in rural areas is little more than half that in urban communities. If young families and low-income households are not able to access housing in villages, services like schools, buses and Post Offices become even less viable."

The report calls for a "radical transformation" of planning practice to give communities the lead in planning new neighbourhoods in market towns.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England's chief executive, Shaun Spiers, said: "The Rural Challenge calls for action now to ensure that our countryside continues to thrive into the future."

A Communities and Local Government department spokesman said the Government was committed to giving communities the power to protect villages, ensuring the countryside did not become a museum.