Residents of rural areas should be helped to help themselves if their communities are to thrive, says a Newcastle University academic.Professor Mark Shucksmith, an expert in rural affairs, says if the countryside is to grow, its communities need to play a key part in deciding how they want to develop in the future.
“The present UK government is encouraging localism,” said Professor Shucksmith, who is Director of the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal. “But it remains to be seen whether it will offer the necessary support to enable all rural communities to respond to this opportunity.”
Professor Shucksmith has jointly edited a book, Rural Transformations and Rural
Policies in the US and UK which examines policy and attitudes to the countryside in the two countries which are often considered to be very similar. He presented the final chapter, at the World Rural Sociology Congress, in Lisbon, on 2 August.
Professor Shucksmith identified two areas, the Glendale Gateway Trust in Wooler, Northumberland and the Galson Estate, on the Isle of Lewis, as successful examples of communities which have taken charge of their futures.
In Wooler, the Glendale Gateway Trust was set up in 1996 to support the community. Since then it has attracted investment and helped to regenerate the area including buying up derelict buildings in Wooler and converting them into retail units and housing.
In 2007, the community took over the running of the Galson Estate, one of the largest in the Outer Hebrides. The 56,000 acre estate includes 20 crofting townships with a population of around 3,000 people.
Professor Shucksmith said: “Both Wooler and the Galson Estate show that with the right support, communities can make a real success of deciding their futures.”
Professor Shucksmith and colleagues from Newcastle and partner universities, found that while there are parallels and differences between Britain and the US, rural areas in both nations would benefit if the people who lived in them helped to shape their future, but to do this they need support.
“As we examined the similarities and differences between rural development in each country, it became clear that if a community is to thrive, then the people who live there need to be involved,” he said. “But only a few communities can do this without support and advice. If governments leave it to local communities without offering support, this will lead to increasing inequality.”
Until now the two countries have differed significantly on this aspect of rural policy. “In the US, there really isn’t much rural policy as such, particularly compared to the support there has been in the UK since the Development Commission was established in 1909,” said Professor Shucksmith. “
Professor Shucksmith believes both countries have something to learn from each other if they are to keep their countryside thriving.
He said: “The approach to the countryside is very different in each country. In the US the focus is on the individual and on the market. They could look at how our rural policy has supported rural communities and encouraged growth and small business. On the other hand, we could learn from the way they use business to boost their rural areas’ economies.
“Rural areas in both countries will experience rapid and uneven change as the countryside, like everywhere else, is affected by globalisation, new technologies, migration and other external factors. However, research shows that the ability of rural places to adapt and thrive in the context of such changes is that much greater where the people who live there can come together to think about and influence how they change and develop. Some rural communities are already doing this effectively but most communities need support to build the necessary skills, trust and institutional capacity.”
published on: 6 August 2012