Sunday, April 02, 2006

Rural Areas - the Dark Matter in Local Government

I had the opportunity to talk at the Henry Stewart Conference on City Regions or Cities and Regions on March 29th 2006.

The debate was considering whether Cities should be the centres of their own regions - or whether Cities should interact in some overarching way with their hinterlands while preserving the status quo of administrative boundaries.

There is no doubt that a significant group of policy leaders are focussing on large Cities and their impact on growth and prosperity to the detriment of non-City areas. Cumbria got particularly bad press, being told to just accept that this is not their time.....

My concern is not that the urban centric argument is wrong - indeed my presentation was about how ALL towns or any size offer exactly the same opportunity for focussed growth. The problem is when only Cities count for anything and areas of the Country without a City are written off in policy planning terms.

Rural Areas are the Dark Matter in the Local Government Universe.

If we do not pay attention to the very significant population that lives nowhere near a large City and not very close to even a small town we are denying the rights of many people and potentially increasing deprivation.

Whatever the administrative boundaries of Counties, Regions, Districts or Cities there is an overarching natural affinity shown by real people for foci of specific interest. Travel To Work, Travel to Play, Travel to Shop, Travel to Learn, Travel to Hospital can frequently all have a different answer for the same one person, and that answer will be dependent on preference - citizens exercising real choice.

To limit growth and investment in job and facility creation to large Cities is to rob the rural areas of their ability to sustain the massive population that resides NOT in a City.

In South Somerset there is no City.
In Somerset County Council there is no City.

Residents of South Somerset are an hour or more away from Bristol, Bath, Bornemouth, Exeter. Influence of each of these is felt in some way but no one City is either dominant over the others or sufficiently imposing to (of itself) affect the local economy directly.

South Somerset has one town, Yeovil. It is about the 300th largest town in England, the same size -ish as Amersham, Grantham or Winchester. One third of the population of South Somerset live in Yeovil. One third live in about a dozen Market Towns, the largest of which (Chard) is about 1500th in the scale of largest towns. the remaining one third live in small villages, hamlets or in the open countryside.

All of these 150 / 160,000 people have the same right to economic support and potential sustainable growth as their counterparts in Cities. Indeed the cost of sustaining a rural environment is potentially significantly lower due to the lack of recovery work needed just to keep our Cities alive.

Unless Yeovil and Chard are developed to be the centres for local industry, health, learning, retail and are served by sensible infrastructure then the economy and viability of South Somerset will suffer compared with more 'fortunate' locations closer to Cities. This is both divisive and unfair.