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Small places of large consequence

Small places of large consequence

Standing in Kent’s High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty the other day, amidst glorious countryside bathed in sunshine, I thought about how crucial it is to make sure we can continue to enjoy such fantastic views. Yet I’d been hearing about the multitude of problems the area faces - pressures of development, degradation of nature, the changing economy of farming and the long, slow decline in traditional forms of community participation.

It became clear to me that we need to take a holistic view, which connects our landscape with housing, society with economy, nature with tourism, and farming and transport with community – all the elements of countryside life.

Our market towns and villages are the beating heart of that countryside. They are essential to the well-being of their surrounding countryside, entwined in an understanding that one could not thrive without the other. They are small places of large consequence.

17% of England’s population live in rural areas. That’s more than 9 million of us who call these towns and villages home. Just as the countryside is dependent on its towns and villages, the towns and villages are dependent on its people and so the complex, delicate web of rural life holds together. Yet by 2039 nearly half of all rural households will comprise people aged over 65 - so if those communities are to thrive we must ensure that our market towns and villages are attractive places to live and prosper for people of all ages.

CPRE has a vision of creating a positive model for sustainable rural life, a blueprint to which all rural communities would aspire. It includes the provision of new affordable housing for local people that is environmentally sustainable and community-led in design, location and scale. CPRE are also working to close a loophole that enables developers to backtrack on their obligations to provide the affordable homes local families and first-time buyers need if they are to be able to continue living in the areas in which they grew up.

In order to enhance, promote and protect rural life, we need to think across boundaries to make that vision a reality. A prime example of that thinking that I came across recently is a new community-led affordable housing development in Dorset that incorporates a new village post office. We need more of these two birds, one stone ideas.

Dwindling bus services and closed railway lines has made rural life increasingly dependent on cars. The fact that many local amenities – post offices, pubs, village stores - are closing down in place of large retailers and supermarkets on the outskirts of towns means that rural life is becoming impossible without one. With 40% of low income households without access to a car, that makes living in the countryside difficult for many people.

Bedford Borough Council have taken a novel approach to tackling this issue, the Bedford Green Wheel. The Wheel is a circular walking and cycle route around the town linked to surrounding villages to encourage sustainable commuting, reduce traffic and provide access to green spaces and recreational areas. It is these kind of innovative approaches, along with substantial investment in rural public transport that will help reconnect rural communities with nature and make our towns and villages safer and cleaner – and yet vibrant - places to live. Safe cycling and walking routes on quiet lanes and pathways, ensuring that local facilities and nearby countryside are easily accessible, is also part of this picture.

The growth of a sustainable rural economy is a complex issue, but one aspect is to encourage local shops and pubs to sell local produce by putting in place the supply chains and marketing support so often missing. This in turn helps sustain smaller farms which contribute to the overall health of the countryside, not least in helping to create jobs. Easing the connections between producers, retailers and consumers is crucial to develop thriving local economies, landscapes and communities.

Completing the jigsaw is a need to regenerate the historic heart of market towns, too often neglected in favour of new building, and creating a walkable, well-used high street with plenty of shops, facilities and community spaces. This would help support a sustainable local economy, providing local jobs in food, farming, tourism and local services.

Providing solutions to the many challenges faced by rural communities is much like building a house of cards. You may be able to remove one or two, but as soon as too many disappear from the tower, the whole thing comes toppling down. In order to create a thriving sustainable rural community, it takes collective effort and a holistic approach.

This piece was first published in Country Life magazine

Providing solutions to the many challenges faced by rural communities is much like building a house of cards. You may be able to remove one or two, but as soon as too many disappear from the tower, the whole thing comes toppling down.




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