Yesterday, about 13 of us gathered in Wooler, in Northumberland, to discuss Rural problems and the ecumenical Church's place in the countryside with Dr Stuart Burgess.
Stuart is the Government's Rural Advocate and Chair of the Commission for Rural Communities. He reports directly to the Prime Minister and works closely with Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He is also a practicing Methodist with a deep faith.
The group consisted of The Archdeacon of Lindesfarne, The Diocesan Rural Officer (who is also our Vicar), 3 or 4 other vicars, a man who is working in the field of farming problems and deprivation, 2 Methodists, also with interests/responsibilities in the field, and an ex head teacher who is also involved with the Church, the wife of one of the Vicars and two or three others. Stupidly I did not note down everyone.
We had a wide ranging discussion about the difficulties facing Rural Communities. Stuart is leading an Upland Farming Inquiry, which he says must be wider than just hill farms and look into social and community problems. He is looking for evidence and during the 12 week consultation period is going to a number of parts of the country that come under the heading, including Northumberland. The official launch will be on February 11th and the Report will be out in the summer.
As we are going from a 3 tier Local Authority to 2 tier in May, so losing the layer nearest to the people i.e. the District Councils, (I am not counting the Parish councils here), there are a number of worries for everyone, not least the rural communities. The CAB is having funding problems as the Districts used to support them extensively but the new County is going to have severe financial difficulties itself. (Does Iceland ring any bells?) This means that the rapidly increasing numbers of people with financial concerns and debts, may not have that source of help. This led to a long discussion on how you define poverty and the hidden poor.
We moved on to important requirements for the Rural Communities.
The Rural Economy is very important for the future sustainability of the countryside. And that is dependent on good, fast Broadband to a large extent.
Affordable Rural Housing is essential to help prevent the flow of the younger population of villages to the urban environment. With affordable housing, you keep the younger people and also the shop, Post Office and First Schools. (In Northumberland we currently have 3 tier education, so the First Schools are much smaller than in 2 tier and therefore more vulnerable.)
There is often resistance to affordable houses. Most people agree that they are needed but "that site in the next village would be so much better" It is usually the incomers from the urban areas who have this reaction. It is Stuart's view that every village should have a dozen affordable houses and some system should be in place to prevent them being sold on into the ordinary market. Something such as a Community Trust can acquire the land and build the houses. When a person moves on, only the equity share can be taken out. Not sure what that means exactly but the result is that the house is there for another needy person. A Community Trust could also build a Care Home, to serve a smallish area so that the elderly can stay in touch with the community from which they come.
We ended with a discussion about the part the Church - of whatever denomination - should play in rural life. Stuart believes that all branches of the ecumenical Church should be getting their act together, stop worrying about the things like Women Bishops and sexual orientation (C of E) and restructuring (Methodists) and concentrating on what they can do for village communities. He believes that Church land should be used wherever possible for building affordable homes. As all other public buildings will disappear, if they have not done so already, the Churches, usually Anglican, should be used properly instead of once a week (or even once a month). They should become the focal point of the Settlement. They can contain a Post Office, a Shop, an Internet Café, and even a Doctor's Surgery. None of this will interfere with its original purpose of worship, but will make proper use of a building that is frequently listed.
We should also as congregations by trying to decide what contribution we can make to slowing climate change.
I am sure we talked about plenty more, but that is the extent of my notes. Tourism was another subject that was touched on as an important contributor to the rural economy, but bringing some conflict with rural dwellers/farmers.
It was a very worth-while day, spent with a highly intelligent man who was prepared to listen to everything we had to say, as well as share his views with us. And added to that, the drive to and from Wooler was through gorgeous Northumbrian countryside made even more beautiful by the snow.