Securing a brighter future for Yorkshire Dales communities

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Initiatives for self-reliance can form a beacon of hope for the preservation of Yorkshire’s under-threat rural communities and secure their survival for a brighter future, campaigners say.

In March, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority warned it faced the biggest crisis in its 64-year history, faced as it was with a “perfect storm” of pressures amid a shortage of affordable homes, an ageing population and a decline in local services.

Now, as community initiatives in the Dales gather pace, with the potential in coming days to create social housing to be held in perpetuity for those in need, those driving the initiative say this could set the agenda nationwide.

“If people aren’t going to do it for us, then we will do it ourselves,” said Coun John Blackie, chairman of the Upper Dales Community Land Trust.

“I do believe there could be many other communities following this example across England. This may well be the way to secure a future for these deeply rural communities.”

The Upper Dales Community Partnership, associated with the land trust, has grown its portfolio over time, running its own Post Office, community office, library, bank and bus services. Last year it took on a filling station and on the eve of its anniversary reveals the turnover to have been £1.5m, with the busy centre at times taking more than £1,000 a night.

Now, as plans for the very first social housing for the area are to be decided in coming days, with emphatic backing by the park authority, project leaders say such an initiative could change the futures for rural areas.

In Arkengarthdale, where the four houses for rent would be built, there is a grave shortage of affordable homes. The result, says Coun Blackie, is a shortage of young families, with the village school founded in 1690 now down to nine pupils. With four new homes could come four families, he adds, a number which could tip that critical balance.

“I’m hopeful we are in the nick of time. If we can get these homes up and running within a year, that could potentially provide some more children to fill the classrooms and corridors for Arkengarthdale.

“We are at a watershed moment – if we can get the housing, and keep the schools, we can continue the regeneration we are seeing of our community. Dales like Arkengarthdale can only regenerate if there’s the community infrastructure that we need.”

The community partnership’s success has been growing. Each year, the Post Office sees 70,000 visitors. The Little White Bus, told to expect 1,000 passengers a year in 2011, now transports 60,000.

The entire operation, with a turnover of £2m, supports 25 jobs, ploughing £250,000 into the area’s economy in pay roll, as well as being backed by 70 volunteers.

“We, the community, have taken on these services,” said Coun Blackie. “Then we find there is increasing take up of these services. Because the community is doing it for themselves.

“What we hope is that the social housing project in Arkengarthdale can become a beacon model for wider communities. This is the first step.

“This can be the beginning of a new era. We can take charge and ensure we are fit for a brighter future.”

The trust’s application for four affordable houses to rent in perpetuity in Arkengarthdale is set to go before planners on Tuesday, with a recommendation of approval from officers and backed by parish and district councils.

“Arkengarthdale, like the rest of the Upper Dales, exhibits an ageing population and suffers from the pressure of second home ownership,” the report for planners says, adding that the authority recognises the need to deliver affordable housing to support the long-term sustainability of the area and attract families.

The trust hopes that, were the plans agreed, it could secure funding through grants and loans to build the homes in spring next year.

Stephen Stubbs, chairman of Arkengarthdale Parish Council, said: “The scheme is being aimed particularly at young people living in Arkengarthdale to encourage them to bring up their families here, and so keep the future bright for our deeply rural communities because a Dale without the presence of young families does not have a viable future at all.”