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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 10:17 GMT 11:17 UK
Bleak picture of rural life

Behind the idyllic image rural Britain faces real problems
By BBC environment and transport correspondent Tim Hirsch

The state of rural Britain is shaping up into a hot political issue, and a new report from the Countryside Agency is designed to inject a few facts into the debate.

Many people living in the countryside, it says, enjoy a prosperous and pleasant lifestyle.

But behind the rosy image of the rural idyll lie some very real and worrying problems, which often remain hidden and unrecognised.

Problems like poverty and homelessness - some of the lowest weekly wages are in rural counties - and the demand for homes in the countryside have pushed up prices to a level which makes accommodation prohibitively expensive for many local people.

Tony Blair on a recent visit to Post Office in Cornwall
The closure of local facilities like post offices, shops and doctors' surgeries makes life especially difficult for poorer and older people, who find themselves increasing isolated.

It also threatens the community spirit which is such an important part of country life.

The chairman of the Countryside Agency, Ewen Cameron, says some of the things people most value about life in the countryside are being eroded - and that is worrying them.

"There is an unsettling fear that villages and market towns are losing their sense of community, as well as the relative security and freedom from crime which many have enjoyed for many years," says Mr Cameron.

The report was prepared before the current debate over rural policing following the Martin case, but it says some types of crime, including vehicle-related thefts, are increasing more quickly in rural areas than in cities, although the overall risk of crime is still lower in the countryside.

Criminals are increasingly turning to rural areas

Other trends which have affected cities for years are now hitting the countryside hard - rural church attendance, for instance, has reduced by around 40% in the past decade, and this has an extra impact on local communities since the village church often acts as a focal point for a range of social activities.

The picture is not all bleak - the report points out that rural communities have despite all the pressures managed to keep a greater sense of identity than many urban areas, and people in the countryside are generally healthier than city-dwellers, even if health services are often more difficult to access.

And some of the newer parts of the economy like financial services and information technology do provide opportunities for rural areas to offset some of the problems faced by traditional industries such as farming.

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See also:

25 Apr 00 | Wales
Rural Wales's 4m police boost
19 Apr 00 | UK
Crime in the countryside
28 Jan 99 | UK Politics
MPs urge agency to save countryside
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