In a bid to inject life back in to Britain’s rural communities, the Prince’s Countryside Fund have released the Village Survival Guide. Emily Ashworth looks at how the project and speaks to those trying to sustain their village.
In 2018, The Prince’s Countryside Fund launched their Recharging Rural survey and received over 3,000 responses, all of which revealed the challenges rural inhabitants felt they faced.
People’s concerns, ideas and outlooks on the future of rural life were taken on board and from that, The Village Survival Guide has been created – a project which aims to document rural resilience across the country and promote ways in which others can take the fate of their community into their own hands.
From charities to community run shops, schools and even community fridges, the specialised booklet presents you with success stories from across the country.
But the statistics say it all – Britain’s rural communities need access to everyday facilities and more support to combat isolation. For example, 31 per cent of rural residents use a post office at least once a week; rural bus mileage fell by 6 per cent between 2011 and 2017 and 30 per cent of rural residents live more than 30 minutes from a major hospital.
But it is not just about the lifestyle. Rural Britain contributes to the nation’s economy and with the right backing, this can be boosted.
According to Claire Saunders, Director of The Prince’s Countryside Fund, investment is needed in rural enterprises, especially considering one in five rural businesses use their own funding to become digitally present – and evidence shows businesses with an online presence are more successful.
She says: “The countryside is full of economic opportunities for those who live and work there, but it’s also a place of relaxation and pleasure for people living in the UK’s towns and cities. In order to do this, rural communities need investment – particularly in infrastructure, roads and broadband for example.
“80 per cent of people in the UK live in rural areas and farming alone contributes over £5 billion to the UK economy. The countryside isn’t just farming though – rural communities support half a million businesses, employing about 70 per cent of rural workers in England. Although these businesses may be smaller than those in towns and cities, their importance and contribution to the UK’s economy cannot be overlooked. With the right tools and training, distance to market can be overcome and opportunities for rural communities to fulfil their economic potential have never been greater.”
But more than anything, rural communities are pulling together to simply look out for one another through a wide range of various means, offering services to combat everything from mental health to saving the local primary school.
The idea is a simple but effective one, and what better way to get people talking than over a cuppa?
The Rural Coffee van was the brainchild of Reverend Canon Sally Fogden in 2001, through her work with the Farming Community Network. She felt rural people were becoming increasingly isolated and lonely, and that any kind of support for such issues was difficult to find.
Originally, one caravan travelled around communities in Mid Suffolk during the summer months.
The project evolved to become a charity and two extra camper vans have now joined, collectively making about 200 visits per year reaching over 5,800 people between them.
CEO Ann Osborn who oversees operations believes it to be about offering small opportunities.
She says: “Creating a free, mobile, pop up cafe wherever it goes, the Coffee Caravan sets up its awning, tables and chairs and provides free tea, coffee and cake.
"Its team of staff and volunteers offer a listening ear without agenda, pressure, labels or a threshold to cross, helping to foster friendships and stronger relationships within the community, and making rural people feel safer and more connected.
"The information on board the Coffee Caravan has helped many people gain access to the benefits, services and information they need, empowering them to live more active, independent and socially connected lives whilst also creating a channel for the agencies who provide the information to communicate with their hard to reach audiences.”
But as key issues such as mental health, isolation and the wellbeing of the farming community become more openly spoken about, many are taking it upon themselves to ensure the prosperity of their villages and the people who inhabit them.
“Without amenities it is very difficult for rural people to access help or socialise,” says Ann.
“As shops and pubs close and buses are cut, this gets harder. However, with greater awareness of the impact loneliness has on health and communities, there are now many villages trying to address the problem by setting up community owned shops and pubs.
“Rural Economies have a contribution to make but with unequal access to services and support this contribution cannot be made.
“Tea, coffee, cake, friendship and information are taken out to rural folk who might not otherwise have the opportunity to access it. It’s a straightforward idea, but is a significant catalyst for positive community change.”
Created from a series of tragedies, The Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (UTASS) was set up after eight people in the area took their own lives within six months.
Considering Teesdale is the second most sparsely populated area in England, it is easy to see how mounting agricultural pressure paired with isolation could become a huge burden for many.
But Diane Spark, Project Manager for the service has seen the positive impact UTASS has had over the years since its establishment in 1993.
Research was done and it found that farmers in the area were struggling to cope with the rapid changes happening in the industry, specifically the mounting paperwork.
People from the Durham community were contacted, including doctors, vets and locals to form a committee who were a source of support for anybody living in and around Teesdale.
But it wasn’t until foot-and-mouth hit that UTASS really became a focal point.
“Before foot-and-mouth, UTASS had only one telephone line,” says Diane.
“But during foot-and-mouth we had five telephone lines in operation which stayed open 24-hours a day, for 18 nights in a row.
“At that point, phone lines were the only source of communication considering farmers couldn’t come off their farm for fear of spreading the disease.
“That rapidly accelerated our acceptance and we gained that trust from farmers.”
UTASS now employs 16 part-time staff, runs a post office out of the premises, puts on community buses and runs music and memory classes for people living with dementia.
The support they provide is clearly integral to the people of Teesdale, but Diane feels rural communities are being failed somewhat.
“We get overlooked without a shadow of a doubt,” she says.
“To live rurally is more expensive, the cost of travel [is higher] and the broadband is desperately bad – yet we’re still paying the same as those with superfast broadband speeds?
“There are also a lot of farmers not turning a profit here, and people are saying they need to look at giving it up.
“But if that farm has been in your family for generations and you’re the first one to walk away, that is a huge pressure to have to deal with.”