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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 01:42 GMT 02:42 UK
Badly served: the isolation of country life

Sarah Mukherjee
By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC environment correspondent

It's chocolate-box pretty on the outside: whitewashed walls, and hanging baskets of vivid blue, pink and red in the warmer summer months.

Go inside, and you can post a card to Australia, hire a video for the night, get a sausage roll for lunch or buy some attractive prints of village scenes from a local artist.

Mother and baby in a country village
Life in the country: not always idyllic

I am describing a village shop in Cambridgeshire, and the reason I know it so well is that it's my local.

But I am able-bodied, (relatively) young, and have a car and therefore a choice.

Increasingly, those who speak up for the elderly, the disabled, and those with other social problems are saying it's too difficult for many in society to carry on living outside towns and cities.

Hidden problems

The one word that emerges from almost everybody's lips - from kindergarten teachers to people working in care homes for the elderly - when you mention rural services, is isolation.

Because it all looks lovely...nobody bothers to look at the deprivation beneath the surface

Isolation from others in a similar situation, of course, but also isolation from the people making the decisions.

Like many other people who live in rural areas, I am acutely aware of how much I rely on local services - and how much less easy my life would be if they weren't there.

As one person who works with young people in rural areas who have mental health problems put it: "If you took all the problems in the countryside, and put them in a city, you'd have ministers queuing up to say how awful it was and how extra funding was needed.

"But because it all looks lovely in these pretty market towns, nobody bothers to look at the deprivation beneath the surface."

For better or worse?

A family walking in the country
Healthier, wealthier, happier?

Of course, it can't be all that bad, because otherwise people wouldn't want to move to the countryside so badly - and millions do.

People are, on average, healthier, wealthier and happier in rural areas.

But while country life is good if you're affluent, for those living on the margins it can be far worse than living in a town.

Take domestic violence - not only an urban problem , but one that becomes hugely more difficult to deal with in the countryside.

As one case worker told me, women are far less likely to have a car available to go into town, so they have to be picked up.

But in some parts of the country, you "can't blow your nose without someone knowing about it", so there has to be a neutral pick up point - like a bus stop - and a feasible alibi to tell the partner when he comes home.

Intermittent bus services mean it can be impossible for women to come to seek advice and get back in time to pick up the kids.

A long wait

Services for the elderly face the same problem.

QUALITY-OF-LIFE PRIORITIES
Rural:
Low crime level
Affordable housing
Health services
Education
Access to countryside
Urban:
Low crime level
Health services
Affordable housing
Education
Public transport
Source: Mori 2004

It can take one home carer a whole day to see one or two rural residents.

They, in turn, if they don't have a car, can find something as simple as doing a daily shop taking most of the day to do.

Which brings us on to transport.

The one thing that most people working in rural services say would make a difference to the way people in rural areas use services is better transport.

Regular bus services would mean people could get into town for work.

They would then save money on cars: people in rural areas can spend about 13 a week more on transport than their urban counterparts, according to government figures. It would also cut rural traffic.

They could also access more services and support groups.

Perhaps that would help to counter the depression and loneliness many rural residents say they feel - suicide rates among young men aged between 16 and 24 are higher in rural than urban areas.

But for a vibrant rural bus network, you need people to use them - which leads to a chicken and egg conundrum.

A village shop
This whole issue of services...goes to the very heart of the question: "What do we really want from our countryside?"
It would allow students easier access to libraries and the internet - less than 10 per cent of people in remote rural areas have access to broadband.

Conflicting demands

People will not leave their cars at home until they have confidence that the bus will get them in on time for their appointment, or to catch the train or to meet the kids from school.

And until lots of people start using buses, there will not be enough money to run a reliable bus service.

This whole issue of services - and how to improve them - goes to the very heart of the question: "What do we really want from our countryside?"

A massive out-of-town supermarket may strike fear into the "incomer", alert to the slightest whisper of change in property prices.

But this sort of development is manna form heaven for a low-skilled worker who was born in the area.

At last, there will be lots of steady jobs which might give local people a fighting chance of buying a house in the same county where they were born.

Survival of the fittest

Let's finish where we started - the village store.

A post office in Crick, Northamptonshire
Local businesses are vital, but they have to fight their corner

The one in the village I live in survives because it constantly innovates and provides a greater level of service than the supermarkets can.

It takes in villagers' parcels on a Sunday, to pop into the post on a Monday.

It makes sure that it will stock customers' specific requests. It has started baking fresh bread.

It might be a shame that those pillars of the local community - the shop, the pub, the post office - are disappearing, but people won't go to them out of charity.

They need to find ways of keeping business in a way that the giants can't - and the best ones, who do that, will survive.



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