25 May

Changing Times for Rural Devon says Philip Wagstaff

In the Western Morning News, DR Director Rev. Philip Wagstaff writes about how rural Devon is responding to changing times.

Whilst most of the population in the United Kingdom live in large towns and cities it is vital that Government, local authorities and the UKs industries remember that a significant number of people live and work in the countryside. According to the Office of National Statistics 18% of the adult population in the UK live in the countryside. Devon is notably rural – as Devon County Council’s Overview of Devon notes “Devon is the seventh most sparsely populated county, with few large settlements and a dispersed rural population, covering two national parks.” Communities large and small, urban and rural, are affected by national, regional and local policy making which has an impact on different communities in different ways. It is within their local framework that communities work, a framework which has changed over the years as communities have changed over time. However the fortunes of the countryside have always also been dependent on external factors and this will remain the case. So how is rural Devon responding to changing times?

Within the South West, farming and its associated industries have provided both financial and social stability. Farming is changing. Due to the topography of the South West that change is not as rapid as it has been in other parts of the country, for example, in East Anglia, where there are more options for farmers. Agricultural practice in rural areas has been affected by declining numbers in farm workforces, changes in farm incomes, increasing paperwork and diversification. These changes are carving out a new landscape. Farm incomes in the South West are challenging and it is increasingly difficult to attract the next generation into working the family farms. However, there are positive signs that young people remain engaged with, and interested in farming, as demonstrated by the thriving South West Young Farmers’ Clubs. The farming sector remains a large part of the economy of the South West and its fortunes have an impact on the way that the rural economy works.

Also facing the challenge of change in rural areas are the market towns who have had to explore ways of developing their ‘brand’ to compete in an era that has seen consumers favouring supermarkets, online shopping and products out of season. In addition, the auction markets have become less in number and have become more centralised and with those changes one of the reasons for the Market Town’s existence has disappeared. That, combined with the changes in shopping patterns (both locally and on line) has meant that many market towns are struggling to attract traders and shoppers. This is a challenge to local politicians, community development workers and residents alike. Numerous Market Towns are looking at how they can ‘rebrand’ themselves as they face these challenges. Many Market towns in the region are exploring ways that their town can engage with its community, its commerce and its visitors and develop for the future.

There are a plethora of villages which have slowly lost their local services, as community spaces such as pubs, shops and chapels closed and transport links were severely restricted. There are emerging now though many enterprising schemes which are bringing services back into communities. The community buildings which remain are being used in different ways, community shops are being opened, community centres, village halls and church buildings are being upgraded with new facilities being added and entrepreneurs both social and economic are continuing to have a positive impact on village life.

Many of these businesses remain small businesses but they are enhanced by the provision of external funding which together with other sources of income provide for development of small scale enterprises. This is among what the South West does well but such development needs appropriate direction and funding to facilitate and support increased employment and community development opportunities. This is part of the mix of large and small employment opportunities supported by many councils and agencies across the region.

We know the fortunes of the countryside have always been dependent on external factors and this will remain the case. There is however an increasing development of small micro business in rural areas, which together with an entrepreneurial spirit has brought about a reassessment of the economic resource that is available within our rural communities. To support and enable these businesses organisations like the DR Company can help to assess those ideas to look at their viability and opportunity and new forms of business practice and social entrepreneurship can emerge.

Through the years I have seen the way that the DR Company supports the development of rural business, forestry and farming through fund and project management, business advice, research and through monitoring and evaluation which have had a positive impact on businesses and the wider community. This is why I have actively supported the work of DR (www.drcompany.co.uk) and will continue to do so in the future.

Rural market towns, villages and hamlets in the region seek a positive, creative and responsive commercial, financial and political base to bring about the best opportunities for local development and growth. There are different models for this which communities are exploring. Perhaps a model for community growth which is people centred, which seeks to be sustainable and which is developed in the light of the opportunities that a community has, is one that should be encouraged.

Rev Philip Wagstaff
Director, The DR Company