Talking Point: Plan now before it's too late for the countryside
Do small, struggling communities have a future? Martin Hesp reflects on a rural crisis
For centuries, communities evolved one way or another, failing or surviving without a master plan to guarantee their futures. Villages and towns merely existed – there were no sustainability experts to ponder why or how.
Smaller, more remote rural communities – like the ones across the West Country – were on the thin end of the wedge, in many ways more susceptible to the tides of fate.
Rural Britain has seen many ebbs and flows, from plague to industrial revolution. If you had been in the ports of north Devon and Cornwall 200 years ago to witness how even the smallest, like Boscastle, were acting as busy jumping-off points in a movement of mass rural emigration, you would not have heard complaints about a municipal lack of forward planning. Stuff just happened.
Hopes at home sometimes failed. Opportunities elsewhere occasionally arose. People came and went. And, in the rural West Country, it was mainly a case of went. Recently, Exmoor National Park archaeologist Rob Wilson-North showed me an empty hillside that once played host to not one, but four fully-fledged farms. All were abandoned long ago – the whole community is now just shadows in a landscape.
So what of us? Will we present-day rural-dwellers one day be represented by nothing but shadows in a vacant field? Or will our communities continue to survive or even thrive?
It's a question worth asking because the latest ebb tide – the one that sees the word 'centralisation' looming large on the economic map – is beginning to sweep our rural acres, alongside depopulating threats like second-home ownership and locally unaffordable property prices.
People are striving to find answers. An article on a website produced by the Rural Services Network is an overview of a decade's worth of policymaking and agonising surrounding the subject of sustainable communities. It was written to draw attention to a seminar being staged by the West Country-based RSN in Chester today.
"What makes a community sustainable?" asks author Jessica Sellick. "It is a question that sits at the heart of Government policy and practitioner debates – the responses of which have very real consequences for rural residents and places.
"The notion of sustainable communities leaves much for decision-makers and communities to think about," she adds.
I can imagine parish councillors – upon whose shoulders much responsibility for the sustainability of rural villages now rests – might exhale a weary sigh. Because a plethora of Government departments and think-tanks have flowed in and out of the village sustainability duck pond in ten short years.
It was John Prescott (then Deputy Prime Minister) who kicked off the idea of sustainable communities in 2003. After a year the conversation gave rise to something called the Egan Wheel, named after Sir John Egan, who suggested that to be sustainable, communities had to (a) make effective use of natural resources, (b) enhance the environment, (c) promote social cohesion and inclusion, and (d) strengthen economic prosperity. The dictates seem sensible enough – until you learn that numerous august bodies have been turning the wheel ever since. Between 2007 and 2009 the Sustainable Development Commission worked on the problem. It is now defunct.
Then a gang called the Academy for Sustainable Communities identified "a shortage of qualified professionals with the necessary skills to actually deliver the previous Government's agenda for sustainable communities".
Next an outfit called the Rural Coalition presented a document on a "shared policy agenda for achieving sustainable rural communities". Its concept was framed around "meeting the challenges of the environment, climate change and community cohesion".
Two years after that, the coalition Government's 'Rural Statement 2012' called for businesses to make a "sustainable contribution to national growth" and for "communities to access public services" and to "be actively engaged in shaping the places where they live".
Sounds fair enough, especially when you learn the Department for Communities and Local Government is now tasked with "leading the drive to transfer power so people can make more decisions locally, solve problems and create thriving neighbourhoods – from exercising rights to 'bid, challenge and build' to preparing neighbourhood plans".
In her article, Ms Sellick says her timeline raises three points – the lack of a common understanding of sustainable communities, a lack of technical skills and whether the clock now ticking in terms of delivery. One day, if we don't plan for the future viability of the countryside, it really could be a case of: "Last one out (besides rich people and holidaymakers) turn off the lights."