Villages need to act now to avoid becoming like ghost towns

The Rural Shops Alliance, National Housing Federation and British Beer and Pub Association estimate 1,000 country pubs and village shops could close during the coming year due to the shortage of affordable homes in rural areas.

It’s clear many villages are becoming the equivalent of ghost towns and their communities need to act urgently to stem the tide.

Intervention by these three organisations, who warn that around 33 village shops and 54 country pubs could go out of business each month, is welcome.

They also highlight that around 1,200 shops have already closed in rural areas during the last two years while more than 600 country pubs have shut during the last 12 months alone, and this dramatic trend shows no sign of declining.

The impact gentrification and commuting are having is clear to anyone driving round many of the UK’s rural areas. For much of the time, you’ll see nobody in the streets and no children playing, and you rarely see a house which hasn’t been extended and thoroughly modernised.

Most of the properties are owned by holidaymakers and retired people, who don’t send their children to local schools or use village shops and pubs all-the-year-round. This trend seems to have gathered pace in the last decade and is probably related to the rise in property values and popularity of second home ownership.

This has placed house prices beyond the reach of many local people, who have had to move elsewhere as a result – a problem highlighted by Prince Charles last month when he called on businesses to create more affordable rural housing.

We shouldn’t try to preserve rural communities in aspic, but we must act before it’s too late. There are some excellent initiatives around, aimed at allowing local people to buy properties and stay in rural areas, such as Homes for Wells, in Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. This is a local project, involving the building of a small, but significant, portfolio of properties, which will be made available to local people at an affordable rate, through imaginative methods, such as donations and legacies from second homeowners.

This is an example of local people working out a solution to the problem that could be replicated elsewhere, not as competition to registered social landlords but to support their work.
The government recognises the extent of the problems and is investing more money into revitalising community life and promoting entrepreneurship in rural areas. A major strand of support is coming through the Rural Development Programme for England, which welcomed initiatives from community-led projects, through the Leader scheme, and businesses, through the Rural Enterprise Investment Programme. Business Link is crucial to delivering the latter, and people in rural communities should tell it about relevant ideas.

Village SOS, a new initiative from the Big Lottery Fund and the BBC, which challenges villages to come up with ideas for new businesses, should also raise the profile of the need for enterprises in rural areas.
There’s plenty of help available, and in many ways there has never been a better time to capitalise on the recognition and support for rural economies, but rural communities need to act now, to make the most of it.


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