Book takes long-term rural view

A twenty-five year perspective is a reminder of some frustratingly hard-to-crack rural concerns, writes Brian Wilson.



A twenty-five year perspective is a reminder of many initiatives and much policy change, but some frustratingly hard-to-crack rural concerns, writes Brian Wilson.


Professors Nigel Curry and Malcolm Moseley have edited a book released to mark the 25th anniversary of the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI), which now operates across four academic sites in Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bristol and Hartpury.


Titled A Quarter Century of Change in Rural Britain and Europe, the book reflects on rural trends, policy developments and research findings over the period since 1986. Each chapter is contributed by a past or present member of CCRI staff. These variously cover rural populations, governance, welfare, housing, settlement planning, economies, landscape protection, farming, forestry, land tenure, the greening of agriculture, sustainability and the European dimension.


The book acknowledges that, aside from an Agriculture Act, 1986 was not a defining year for rural policy. Many of the trends familiar today were already underway. Counter-urbanisation had been evident since the 1950s; key legislation underpinning land use planning and landscape protection was put in place in the post-war era; and declining service provision was already a documented cause for concern by the mid-1980s.


The main rural population trends of the last quarter century are neatly categorised by Malcolm Moseley as:


• Population growth, driven by in-migration;


• An ageing population and a loss of young adults;


• Social polarisation, with the affluent often living alongside the poor;


• Inflated house prices, stoked by well-off incomers and restrictive planning policies;


• Rising car ownership and declining local service delivery;


• Generally rising incomes and expectations; and


• Greater potential – sometimes realised – for involvement in local affairs.


The rural housing chapter, by Trevor Cherrett, describes the affordability problem as "obstinately intractable", despite being the subject of countless research reports, policy reviews and recommendations. It considers the post-war planning philosophy centred on urban containment to have been replaced by an equally urban-focused one based on "simplistic notions" of sustainability – treating smaller settlements as unsustainable locations for new housing. While exception sites may be small-scale, they are considered the only consistent attempt to use planning to deliver affordable housing in villages.


Stephen Owen argues that we have just experienced an attempt to turn the strategic planning orthodoxy of the last quarter century (and more) on its head, with the potential for a proliferation of community-led neighbourhood plans. This might seem, in principle, "an admirable move towards self-determination", but he worries the ground has not been prepared; that effective outcomes will require formal structures to be in place to integrate neighbourhood planning with strategic development planning.


The planning system appears again as a shaping force in the rural economies chapter from Nigel Curry. This reminds us that just before 1986 the neediest parts of rural England were designated as Rural Development Areas, where (for fifteen years) grants supported regeneration activity. This approach was replaced by Defra seeking to leverage the work of Regional Development Agencies, in order to benefit those rural areas with the lowest levels of economic productivity.


Counter-urbanisation may have led many urban dwellers to bring their businesses (or business ideas) to the countryside, but they may too have been "prepared to sacrifice some of their productivity for the pleasant communities and environments in which they have chosen to live". In short, not all of those businesses were growth oriented.


Some drivers of change have certainly gained prominence over the study period. While broadband connectivity remains problematic, large numbers of people can in principle now work from a rural base or home. CCRI characterise the concern for sustainability as having shifted from being "something of a fringe interest" to "a major plank of government policy". Citizen mobilisation – and latterly 'localism' – have come to the fore in policy approaches.


One final aspect which leaps out of the page is how far rural statistics have developed during the quarter century. A key reason is clearly annual State of the Countryside reports from 1999 onwards, produced by the Countryside Agency and Commission for Rural Communities – an inheritance which the book describes as "a treasure trove of facts and figures on rural England's changing population". The development of a Government-approved rural definition for statistical purposes has certainly helped to make that possible.


Many organisational structures, policy reviews and instruments have come and gone since 1986. Indeed, the period has generated two Rural White Papers, in 1995 and 2000. The trends reflected upon by CCRI, however, have frequently been long term, if perhaps only becoming clear in their implications over time. Will we be able to say differently in another twenty-five years?


The CCRI is offering copies of this book to members of the Rural Services Network at a 20% discount. To obtain a reduced price copy for £12 (plus £1.50 P&P) e-mail Jill Harper at jharper@glos.ac.uk and quote 'RSN Special Discount'.


This article was written by Brian Wilson whose consultancy, Brian Wilson Associates, can be contacted at brian@brianwilsonassociates.co.uk. Brian also acts as RSN Research Director.

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