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Last Updated: Monday, 3 March 2008, 05:44 GMT
The problem with rural Britain
By Jeremy Cooke
Rural affairs correspondent, BBC News

Problems among rural communities in England - such as a lack of affordable housing and public transport - have been ignored for many years, according to a report by the Rural Services Network. What has happened?

Rural shop front
Many rural shops have closed and been replaced by houses

For most of the millions of us who live in rural Britain, it is a great place to live.

People are healthier. Kids do better at school. The scenery is magnificent.

But there are also huge challenges which threaten to change the face of rural living.

Arguably, the root of many of the problems is housing.

The average house price in rural areas is more than eight times the average income. In urban areas it's estimated to be 6.8.

With house prices so high, there are villages where the pub and shop have been sold, and converted into houses.

'Dormitories'

The real estate is worth much more as a home than as a business.

Indeed some villages have now lost their pub, shop/post office, school and even church - all snapped up to provide housing.

In parts of Britain today, villages have become little more than dormitories - a collection of houses with little to offer the residents any sense of community.

Wellington boots
In contrast to some perceptions, the British countryside is not all about Range Rovers and green wellies

Tackling rural housing is a tricky business, and successive governments have struggled to find a solution.

It is generally agreed that it would be a good thing to have affordable housing for key workers such as teachers, nurses and police officers. How to achieve that is still work in progress.

It all means that many young people who have grown up in rural areas are having to move out, unable to afford to live in their own communities.

What is left is therefore an ageing population. And often a poor one. In contrast to some perceptions, the British countryside is not all about Range Rovers and green wellies.

It's estimated that 980,000 households in rural Britain are below the official poverty line, which is set at 16,492 a year.

That's as many people as the population of Birmingham who may live in beautiful areas, but are struggling to feed their families and pay the gas bill.

Can things change?

Well, there are signs that some of the basic economic forces which impact on life in the countryside may be shifting.

Can IT change things?

The increasing availability of broadband may be crucial.

It's now perfectly possible for office employees to work from home, and increasing numbers of people seem to be doing just that.

Broadband also offers the chance for new businesses to start up in isolated areas.

The social implications of telecommuting could also be dramatic. If more people stay in rural areas during the day, rather than travelling into town for work, it could be good news for the local shop, garage or other local service.

Who knows, the historic model of a village being a place to both live and work may be about to make a return.

Of course it will take more than IT to dramatically change rural Britain, but there are great hopes that the information age can eventually bring new opportunities to our most isolated communities.



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