Charity reveals village decline

The toll of pub, post office and shop closures on rural life is to be measured in a once-in-a-decade survey of Norfolk villages launched today.Every community with a population of 3,000 people or less will have a chance to say how the changing times have affected their village.

The toll of pub, post office and shop closures on rural life is to be measured in a once-in-a-decade survey of Norfolk villages launched today.

Every community with a population of 3,000 people or less will have a chance to say how the changing times have affected their village.

The survey's organisers hope the results will help focus minds on the future of the countryside and prevent villages from becoming “empty husks full of holiday homes”.

Last night MPs backed the Norfolk Rural Community Council (NRCC) survey, which will be the first detailed study of village life for 10 years.

It also comes in the wake of the EDP's Shop Local campaign, which has encouraged consumers to think of village amenities when it comes to buying produce and services.

But the last comparable survey was carried out by the Countryside Agency 10 years ago and the NRCC expects to find that the number of shops, pubs and post offices have dwindled markedly.

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Janice Howell, of the NRCC, said the charity wanted to gather evidence that could help shape policy in future and that 500 villages will be contacted to take part.

“We are pretty sure, anecdotally, that things are worse with pubs and shop and post offices closing,” she added.

“But the survey will help to formalise what we already believe is the case and also, hopefully, can influence policy for rural areas. We know we need to have substance behind what we say.

The NRCC is already fighting against what they say is the misconception that village shops cannot make money and is determined to respond to the changing nature of rural living.

“In the last few years there has been a high in migration of people coming from urban areas,” said Mrs Howell. “In the future, travel and energy is going to become more expensive so it is finding ways of keeping smaller villages so that they do not become empty husks full of holiday homes.”

There are also plans to help villages cut costs by combining services, such as putting a shop with a post office into a pub or village hall.

“There are successful village shops out there, run by people who know what they are doing,” said Mrs Howell. “It does come down to the business acumen of those wanting to do it.”

Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, said village services were crucial.

“It's a terribly important part of village life and once it goes, you rip the heart out of that community,” he said.

“And there are practically problems for a lot of older people without cars as it then becomes hard for them to access shopping.

“These shops are the heart of the community and they are somewhere people can go and meet,” said Mr Lamb. “Take that away and older, vulnerable people will struggle more.”

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, said combining shops and post offices or other services could be crucial.

“To meet the challenge of real needs, new kinds of joining together between villages and stores to tackle the cuts that are being made,” he said, referring to the series of post office closures in recent years.

“It's about a village not having a post office and a shop and a village hall but instead having them all together,” he added. “You accept there is going to be cuts, but there is a way around it.”

Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for South Norfolk, said the growing population of East Anglia offered an opportunity to make villages more viable.

“Instead of building huge concentrations of new homes, allowing gradual, organic growth in villages would help sustain village shops, pubs and post offices,” he said. “It's also important that those who claim to support village shops actually get out and do it.

“I was talking to a shopkeeper who was horrified that the post office inside had shut and he told her it had closed seven months before,” added Mr Bacon. “On the other hand, I was in a village recently where they are talking about putting a post office in the church.”

In recent years, communities have started taking over village shops in order to keep them open, with villager taking over the general store in Mileham, near Dereham, on March 12.

Brancaster, on the north Norfolk coast between Wells and Hunstanton, also has a community-owned shop,