Study reveals bleak picture of rural life

Jan 2 2003

By Tony Henderson, The Journal


A bleak picture of life in the rural North-East emerges today from a study of the region's countryside.

The State of the Countryside report shows that, compared to the rural areas of other regions, the North-East has:

The highest level of joblessness and mortality rates.

An ageing population with more people over 45 than in urban areas.

One of the least qualified workforces.

The lowest proportion of rural businesses per 10,000 population and use of the Internet.

The lowest average weekly pay.

The lowest numbers of farmers, partners, directors and managers in agriculture and horticulture.

The least number of market towns - regarded as the economic and social engines of rural areas.

The study was carried out by the Countryside Agency, whose North-East regional director Keith Buchanan said: "There are huge decisions to be made if we are to bring about the changes that will ensure a lasting revival of our rural economy."

Prof Philip Lowe, director of the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University, is also a national board member of the Countryside Agency with responsibility for the North-East.

He said: "These regional statistics bring out the fact that we have a very weak rural economy in the North-East and significant investment is needed if it is to perform efficiently."

National figures included the well-heeled rural parts of places like the South-East. But Prof Lowe said: "If there is any room for complacency at a national level there is none at a North-East level."

But it is not all gloom. The region's rural landscape, much of its remote, and wider environment is relatively unspoilt and of high quality.

This attracts better-off commuters who settle in places like the Tyne Valley and accessible parts of Weardale and Teesdale because they perceive rural living as offering a better quality of life.

The average rural house price, at #92,312, is the second lowest of any English region. The North-East countryside is also a safe place to live. Compared with the rest of rural England, the region has the lowest rates of robbery, burglary, theft from vehicles and sexual offences. Thefts from and of vehicles and burglary rates are half those of North-East urban areas.

Prof Lowe said an upturn in countryside fortunes was in the interests not just of rural areas but of the whole region.

He said that other parts of the UK and Europe showed that the most dynamic regions were those which had a prosperous rural economy.

"The North-East should not rely on the model which says that if you pick cities up by the bootstraps the rest will follow and the assumption that it is a region mainly of big urban concentrations and industries and if we get that right the rest will prosper.

"As well as healing the cities we need market towns with buoyant economies and dynamic small businesses." Prof Lowe said that the North-East countryside was potentially a great asset for the region as a whole: "But that potential is far from being realised."

There was a need for initial Government-led investment and a break from a dependency on the public sector which saw a third of the region's rural jobs come from public administration, health and education sectors.

Countryside Agency senior regional countryside officer Martin Shaw, said: "In both North-East rural and urban areas we are starting from a really low base and that is a big challenge.

"We are not looking for miracle solutions. But we have to show what the picture is, and then we can begin to put it right. That is not going to happen overnight but there are some really exciting things happening in the North-East."

What is being done?

The report comes after the Government announced a #500m national Strategy for Sustainable Food and Farming and the publication of the North-East's own Rural Action Plan, which pledges to put rural affairs at the heart of policy-making.

The plan has the backing of the Countryside Agency, Government Office for the North East, One NorthEast, Association of North East Councils and the Regional Assembly.

The North-East Rural Affairs Forum, made up of representatives from many different rural sectors, has the task of monitoring the implementation of the action plan.

Countryside Agency North East regional director Keith Buchanan said: "Many of the initiatives being recommended in the wake of Sir Donald Curry's post foot-and-mouth inquiry are already central to our thinking in the North-East. Now we must ensure that change happens." Prof Lowe said: "The Government's new commitment to raise the productivity of the lowest performing rural districts is therefore welcome news which needs to be followed through with practical action and investment in the rural North-East."

Initiatives already under way include the Countryside Agency's Market Towns and Vital Villages projects. The Market Towns Initiative has seen "health checks" of 13 towns - Alnwick, Barnard Castle, Berwick, Crook, Guisborough, Haltwhistle, Hexham, Middleton-in-Teesdale, Morpeth, Rothbury, Seahouses, Stanhope and Wooler - and the development of three-year action plans.

Village friends set up drop-in centre to offer help

One of the strengths of rural life over the years has been that of tight-knit communities of familiar faces.

Whether this ideal has survived intact into the 21st Century is a matter for debate.

But two friends have put caring and sharing at the heart of their village community.

Marjorie Fenwick and Sheila Borthwick set up the Open Arms Group at Leadgate in County Durham as a drop-in facility offering help, comfort and friendship.

The venture began on a one-day-a-week basis at Leadgate Cricket Club, with a small start-up grant from Derwentside Council.

Then the Countryside Agency's Vital Villages Scheme, which supports projects that locals feel will make a difference to their communities, stepped in with a #22,000 boost. This has enabled the group to open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the cricket club from 9am to 2pm and to provide services such as meals for those who need such help. Sheila, 72, does the cooking, while the group is chaired by former nurse Margaret Jobling.

Group co-ordinator Marjorie, 58, and a lifelong Leadgate villager, said that support was offered to people with anxiety or depression problems, disabilities, those who have just left hospital, or who were feeling isolated or lonely.

"It is a group for people who need people. We are open to anybody who needs us, or a place where somebody is on hand to talk to or listen," said Marjorie. "This sort of facility is needed. Even young people get lonely. One of our rules is that of total confidentiality. We don't label anybody."

The North East study findings are:


There has been a small increase in the number of people living in rural districts, rising from 9.4pc of the population in 1981 to 9.92pc.

But much of the region's rural areas, especially in Northumberland, are among the most sparsely populated areas in the country, which has an effect on businesses and the provision of services.

The region's rural districts have an older population profile than urban areas with a lower proportion of people in the three younger age groups (0-14, 15-24 and 25-44) and a higher proportion in the two older age groups (45-64 and 65+).

The region's rural population under 15, at 16.85pc, is the lowest in England while a third of North-East rural folk are over 45.

Martin Shaw said: "There is a retirement factor with people seeing rural areas as a nicer place to be. But we need a better cross section of society and ways of attracting back or hanging on to younger people."

Employment and Education

There are 4,257 full time and 3,083 part time farmers, partners and directors and 218 salaried managers who are engaged in agricultural and horticultural employment in the North-East. These are the lowest figures in these categories in England.

Only 3.4pc work in agriculture and fisheries. But Martin Shaw said: "Agriculture does not employ many people but farming has a massive input into what makes the North-East special, which is its countryside. It is a managed landscape which attracts millions of tourist pounds."

The region has the highest rural unemployment rate and one of the least qualified workforces in England.

Average weekly pay is the lowest for the rural part of any region in the country. It is also lower in rural compared to urban districts in the North-East. The gross weekly rural pay in the North-East is #286.35, compared to #309.28 in urban areas. The national average is #322.47.

The average rural house price in the North-East of #92,312 - almost half that of the South-East- is the cheapest in England apart from the North-West figure of #88,842.

But this conceals a wide range of prices in different rural parts of the region. Averages vary from #50,427 in Wear Valley to #130,887 in Castle Morpeth. Trends indicate that homelessness is a growing issue in the rural parts of the region, having risen by 62pc from 1997-8.

Rural people in the North-East are healthier than their urban counterparts. But in comparison to the rural population in other regions, the rural North-East has the highest mortality ratio and the second highest incidence of low weight at birth.

Market towns

Of the 1,274 market towns in England, 82 (6.4pc) are located in the North-East. They are predominately smaller in size than in other regions with half having a population below 5,000 people.

Services and Rural Mobility

Overall the region's rural households have better geographical availability of supermarkets, secondary schools, libraries, job centres, as well as banks and building societies compared to the national average.

Access to petrol stations is below the English regional average, but 75pc of North-East parishes have a bus service six or seven days a week - the highest percentage for English regions. But there are still parishes which have poor or non existent services with no permanent shop, post office, public house or GPs surgery.

Business Health and ICT

There are 8,902 rural businesses, or 348 rural businesses per 10,000 population. This is the lowest figure for any English region.

Countryside character and environment

Almost a third of the region is classified as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or national park.

The North-East has the highest figure for unenclosed land and where the land is enclosed, stone walls and thorn or elm hedges predominate.

Access to the countryside

The North-East has 10,370km of footpaths, bridleways and byways open to all traffic.