Government has done little to address the problems that blight rural England despite numerous reports that have highlighted them for years, says a new report by the Rural Services Network.

The RSN, a group made up of service providers such as local councils, says problems include a general decline in basic rural services, such as public transport, and a lack of affordable homes.

As a consequence many rural communities are struggling to deliver a safe, prosperous and healthy quality of life, says the RCN.

Rural proof services

It says that despite a commitment to “rural proof” services – a pledge to ensure policies take account of rural needs – all too often rural policies are tacked on as an afterthought.

The RSN report highlighted the difficulties created by the planning system, which it said often discriminated against rural communities trying to build low-cost housing.

It said local planners were restricted by centrally-imposed principles, such the amount of development that must be built on brownfield land or the need for access to public transport.

The official poverty line

Another report says almost one million rural households in England have an income below the official poverty line.

The government’s rural advocate and chair of the commission for rural communities, Stuart Burgess, presented a report to government on Monday (3 March) outlining aspirations, experiences and concerns of people living and working in rural England.

“There are over 928,000 rural households living below the official government poverty threshold of £16,492 household income per annum. But because rural disadvantage is scattered it is hidden through the averaging of official statistics and a perception of the countryside as affluent and idyllic.

“The lack of affordable homes to rent and to buy continues to be the single biggest issue highlighted to me on my visits. I heard about growing numbers of people not qualifying for social housing, but not earning enough to afford to buy a house either.

“Affordable homes underpin the future sustainability of rural communities, and while I welcome the attention to tackling the problem in the Housing Green Paper, rural housing targets need to be reflected in regional strategies.”

Impact on rural communities

Such difficulties are having a profound impact on the make-up of rural communities, said Dr Burgess.

“The countryside is also facing significant demographic change, causing rural communities genuine concern about their future viability.

“There are now nearly 400,000 fewer young people aged 15-29 in rural areas than there were 20 years ago, and at the other end of the spectrum the average age of rural people is getting three months older every year.