Rural coalition steps up

Groups involved with countryside planning have joined forces to press for a concerted policy response to rural issues from the party forming the next government, Matt Scotland reports.

Thanks largely to Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor's 2008 report on the rural economy and affordable housing, events have gathered pace in ensuring that rural communities across the UK secure development that will guarantee their future health and prosperity.

Now Taylor's review has led to the formation of the Rural Coalition. With a helping hand from CABE and the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), it brings on board six national organisations closely involved in countryside affairs. These are Action with Communities in Rural England, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Country Land and Business Association, the Local Government Association (LGA), the RTPI and the Town and Country Planning Association.

Taylor's Living Working Countryside report, which was delivered to the government in July last year, outlined proposals to improve conditions for the 6.4 million people who live in the countryside. His recommendations included widening planning policy on eco-towns to include new neighbourhoods and community extensions. He discussed "masterplanning from the ground up", with community participation to deliver desirable development (Planning, 25 July 2008, p2).

Taylor went on to warn that rural areas are reaching breaking point: "We are at a crossroads for the countryside. If we fail to build the affordable homes that enable people who work in the countryside to live there, we risk turning our villages into gated communities of wealthy commuters and the retired." The report concluded that a fundamental shift in the system's approach is needed to help the rural population, which has grown by 800,000 over the past decade, to cope with low incomes and high house prices.

Bringing about this ideological shift is one of the primary purposes of the coalition, which published its prospectus last week. Its supporters would like the new organisation to act as a cornerstone for devising viable solutions to the problems outlined in the Taylor review. This may be made easier by the fact that the chairman of the coalition will be Taylor himself.

The prospectus outlines the need to build vibrant and thriving rural villages, towns and economies, as well as providing "great" local services and empowering communities. "For more than 50 years, national policy has undervalued the countryside and failed to meet the needs of rural communities, resulting in them becoming less and less sustainable and less and less self-sufficient," says the document.

Without changes in policy and a commitment to action, the prospectus adds, much of the countryside will be turned into "part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home". Unless rural communities secure access to local schools, retail outlets, employment and housing, the coalition fears that the nation will be unable to meet its environmental and economic goals. An official document outlining policy proposals in more detail will be released following next year's general election.

"The 2008 report brought together a unique agreement and support for the way forward for rural communities," declares Taylor. "Our aim for the coalition is to take forward the momentum of support behind the report's broader vision and use it to influence the policy of whichever political party is in charge after the general election."

Taylor stresses the important role that the countryside will play in the nation's future, whether in economic terms or in meeting the challenge of climate change. "At the moment villages are dying and market towns are becoming less sustainable. We need to take a more positive approach to development in the countryside. The government and the coalition organisations recognise this, so now we need to offer a clear set of proposals to deliver it," he says.

Pointing to the enthusiasm that greeted the Taylor report, LGA spokesman Clive Harris is confident that the coalition can work effectively despite being made up of a disparate group of organisations with different motives. "We are clearly not going to agree on everything all the time," he acknowledges.

"However, the Taylor report was well received by all members of the coalition. We believe that the grouping offers a great opportunity to influence all three parties ahead of the general election and before they publish their manifestoes. Rather than inviting six or seven groups to put their message across, why not deliver a more powerful message on a united front?"

This vision is supported by John Coleman, manager of the CRC's Rural Places programme. "The coalition is about building more sustainable rural communities and accepting that no development in rural areas is just as damaging as development is feared to be," he says.

It is essential for the coalition to engage local communities and allow them to voice their opinion, Coleman argues. "It is not just about policies and streamlining the planning process. We must ensure that communities engage with this agenda and put their own vision forward."

Now is the time to join together to influence parties before and after the general election, Taylor comments. "Whoever is at the helm of government will have to deal with increased localism and fundamental changes to the planning system. None of the political parties have finalised their approach to delivering sustainable communities and affordable housing, so there is huge potential for change. We want to seize that opportunity," he concludes.

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