Young being forced to quit rural areas

The future of our rural communities could be in jeopardy as young people leave to find jobs and affordable homes, according to the Government's rural advocate, Dr Stuart Burgess.

The future of our rural communities could be in jeopardy as young people leave to find jobs and affordable homes, according to the Government's rural advocate, Dr Stuart Burgess. So what does that mean for the long term future of the countryside - and what can be done to halt rural decline? AMY GRAY reports.

YOUNG people are being forced to quit the countryside because of house prices, a lack of jobs, poor transport links and social isolation - that is the warning to the Government today.

Many villages and small towns are at risk of plunging into decline as young people are forced to move away in search of better prospects, according to a report by the Commission for Rural Communities, which acts on behalf of people living in rural communities.

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The findings will be delivered to Gordon Brown by Dr Stuart Burgess, Government-appointed rural advocate and chair of the commission.

Local groups, including those campaigning for high-speed broadband in Norfolk and Suffolk, say the issues outlined in his report are the key challenges facing rural life.

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'Wherever I go, I hear deep concerns ? that challenges with housing, work, transport, training and social exclusion are preventing young people from living in the countryside,' said Dr Burgess, who acts as the voice for people, businesses and communities and gathered evidence from across the country.

'Without young people to provide a work force, rural economies are unable to fulfil their full potential and rural communities can go into a decline.

'On top of this, lack of broadband and mobile phone coverage in many rural areas is hitting young people and businesses alike - be it through recruitment and employment, better access to learning and support services or enjoying the connectivity that has become an everyday feature of urban youth culture, such as joining a social network or getting internet help with homework.'

Dr Burgess' recommendations include creating more affordable housing, working out new ways to meet employment and training needs in isolated areas, more of an effort by schools and universities to raise young people's aspirations; providing better public transport and a push to improve mobile phone coverage and broadband services.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of economic development partnership Shaping Norfolk's Future, said rural areas had 'distinct and pressing needs' and new businesses should be encouraged to set up in small towns and villages to create employment opportunities.

'There's no reason why a business can't be a success in a village. When people look to grow or develop a business, urban areas seem an obvious place to be based. If you want to hire 20 people, an urban area has a greater pool to choose from.

'But on the other hand, you're competing against every other business. A business in a rural area can thrive because it's the main employer in that town.'

Mr Starkie said it was important to provide business premises as well as affordable homes, something that Shaping Norfolk's Future was pushing for.

'In terms of government priority, their priority since 1997 has been the growth of urban areas. It's only latterly that they've recognised that rural areas have great potential for growing the UK economy, and also that rural areas do suffer from deprivation and do have issues of deprivation, although not in the same way,' he added.

In November last year, the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) launched a campaign to introduce high-speed broadband in the region as a priority when it is rolled out in 2012.

Cindy Winn, rural manager at EEDA, said: 'Although we cannot comment on the detail in Dr Burgess' report, as we have yet to see it, we welcome the importance he places on the role young people serve in sustaining rural communities.

'EEDA is committed to working with partners to support businesses and communities in Norfolk and we have invested over �109m in the last 10 years.

'For example, we are supporting young people to secure employment in future growth sectors in Norfolk, such as our �850,000 investment in the new Vocational Skills Centre in Watton, which opened last October.

'Broadband is a key issue for EEDA and we are helping to aggregate the demand for broadband in rural areas through the EREBUS [Eastern Region Broadband Uplift Scheme] campaign.'

Jon Clemo, chief executive of the Norfolk Rural Community Council, said he agreed that affordable homes, job opportunities and basic infrastructure issues such as broadband were the main challenges.

'I think jobs need to be tackled, I think the issue is about investing in the rural economy as a whole and supporting existing businesses and new start up enterprises, then you will develop those jobs.

'The Commission for Rural Communities themselves did about 12 months ago a report that looked at the opportunity for growth in rural economy being very, very large.'

He added: 'The only caveat I would put in before we have a panic that all young people are leaving, is that there is a certain natural cycle where young people leave rural areas because there is nothing to do and no jobs, and then return in order to start a family.'

Tom Toolan, assistant principal of Lowestoft College, said they worked with schools and businesses to smooth the progression from school, to college, to work and provide opportunities for young people.

'We are aware of the challenges facing both the community and the college in raising aspirations and retaining young talent in the area,' said Mr Toolan.

'In 2007 Lowestoft College became a part of University Campus Suffolk, which offers people throughout Suffolk opportunities to access Higher Education in their own county without the need to relocate.

'Unlike a lot of rural areas around the country there are real opportunities on the horizon for young people in and around the Lowestoft area - for example the development of offshore facilities.'

Celia Hodson, chief executive of tourism board Choose Suffolk, said the problems should be tackled 'head-on' and they were already working with partners to make improvements for all age groups.

Choose Suffolk is also a partner in Speed up Suffolk, part of EEDA's broadband campaign.

'We believe that encouraging young people to remain in the county, building careers and businesses, is essential to its future development,' said Mrs Hodson.

'The skills agenda, for example, is fundamental to providing the training and expertise that the county's employers demand and young people require in order to secure rewarding and sustainable employment across a variety of sectors.

'With the likes of University College Suffolk, Lowestoft College and the new sixth-form Swiss Centre soon to be opened, Suffolk is well-placed to retain and attract talented young people.'

At the same time as presenting the report, the Commission for Rural Communities will today publish a State of the Countryside update, setting out the statistics of rural life for children and young people, including the current rate of outward migration.

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