Breaking point for rural communities

The country is faced by more torrid economic news. Unemployment has reached 1.92 million, the highest rise of any major country. Gordon Brown announced a second bank bailout last week, only three months after the Government ploughed £37 billion - more than the entire defence budget - into the nation's banks.
      
Ministers have revealed themselves to be completely out of touch, claiming to see "green shoots" of recovery or "light at the end of the tunnel". In the real world, everyone else is desperately worried about their job and their finances.
      
The downturn is hitting rural communities hard. As the Government admitted this week, "rural economies are heavily dependent on small and medium-sized businesses and this is one of the sectors thought to be most under threat".
      
In remote rural areas, the number of businesses per 10,000 people is almost three times the urban level. The Commission for Rural Communities has warned that lower consumer and business spending, together with difficult borrowing conditions, have led to job losses and business closures.
      
Key rural industries such as forestry and tourism have been affected. The marked downturn in the construction industry has led to a significant decline in the demand for wood, and although we all hear that the weakness of sterling should attract foreign visitors while we all holiday at home, the reality is that more than one-third of tourism businesses have reported a decline in profits.
      
Rural communities can appear to be affluent while masking real disadvantage. One in six people suffering deprivation are found in rural areas. House prices are significantly higher in the countryside than in urban areas, yet earnings are lower, so there are fewer first-time buyers. Although values have now fallen sharply, the unavailability of credit means there's no silver lining of increased affordability.
      
Last year's soaring fuel prices clobbered rural motorists who rely on their cars where the provision of public transport is poor. Rural homes have seen the cost of heating oil double over the last two years.
      
Anyone expecting that ministers will mind about what's happening to rural communities shouldn't hold their breath. The story of the last decade has been one of arrogant disdain by central Government for the views of local people.
      
I recently published new figures showing that rural England has lost more than a fifth of its entire post office network since the new millennium. Nearly 1,400 rural branches have closed.
      
Other services have suffered the same fate. Inevitably, acute health facilities in rural areas are further away from people - only a third of rural households are within 30 minutes, by foot or public transport, of the nearest hospital, compared to more than half in London.
      
Yet ministers have forced the downgrading of hospitals, increasing travel times for patients, with little regard for local concerns.
      
Village residents prize their local schools, and when Labour came to office, they pledged to save them. Yet well over 200 of the smallest schools have closed since 1997. In this Government's first two terms, 384 police stations closed in the shires - nearly five times the number in the metropolitan boroughs.
      
While the Chancellor increased duty on beer in the last Budget, rural pubs are closing at the alarming rate of two a day.
      
The Government not only dictates housebuilding targets from Whitehall - ministers are even trying to bypass the normal planning process by imposing so-called "eco-towns" on local communities.
      
As the BBC's Countryfile presenter Ben Fogle said, these developments are simply greenwash - there's nothing "eco" about building new towns on greenfield land in unsustainable locations.
      
We need more affordable housing - but it should be local people, not ministers, who decide where it should go.
      
Across rural Britain, quiet communities have become angered by a Government which won't even listen, much less give them a say. People have marched and protested. They have travelled up to Westminster to lobby Parliament.
      
But too often, ministers are deaf to the countryside.
      
We desperately need a new Government which understands rural Britain and cares about it. But we also need to reverse the trend of centralisation, to end the years of thoughtless dictat from Whitehall, so that rural communities are respected.
      
Three years ago, the Conservatives pioneered the Sustainable Communities Bill to require central Government to make it clear how much money it spends on local services in each area, and give councils and communities a far greater say in how this money is spent.
      
Eventually, this legislation reached the statute book, although it was watered down by the Government. But it's time to go further, returning real power and decision-making to individuals and communities wherever possible, so that people have a genuine say over the matters that affect them locally.
      
Turnout in rural Britain at the last General Election was significantly higher than in urban areas. Rural communities are crying out to be heard. They should no longer be ignored.

Michelle Taylor