Fears over Norfolk’s isolated vulnerable

Jon Clemo, chief executive of the Norfolk rural community council.Photo: Bill Smith

Jon Clemo, chief executive of the Norfolk rural community council.Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2011

A warning has been issued that vulnerable people living in rural isolation in Norfolk could have their made lives worse if vital services end up being the victim of council cuts.

With Norfolk County Council needing to plug a £182m funding gap over the next three years, campaigners fighting to protect communities in rural areas have said it is 'critical' that people living in those places are given a fair deal.

That, they say, is vital to prevent people from falling into poverty and their health from suffering because they cannot access key services such as shops and GP surgeries.

The county council has set up a working group of councillors to look at what the authority is doing to alleviate rural isolation and whether more can be done to tackle the problem.

Some 37pc of Norfolk's population live in communities of fewer than 2,500 people, where access to services, jobs and education can be difficult.

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A lack of transport, whether public or private, not only contributes to social exclusion, but can also be the cause of it in the first place.

And, with Norfolk's ageing population, there are also concerns that people who lose their loved ones can end up lonely and without support.

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The rural isolation working group has been set up to look at issues such as that – and at things such as the loss of pubs and post offices, the availability, or not, of broadband, the impact of rising fuel costs, provision of public transport and whether people are able to live independently in their own homes in rural areas.

Jon Clemo, chief executive of Norfolk Rural Community Council (NRCC), welcomed the decision by the council to look into the issues and urged them to keep rural areas at the front of their minds when figuring out where to make savings.

Research carried out on behalf of NRCC in April 2010 showed 47,360 people in rural areas of Norfolk are 'income deprived' – more than 42pc of the total across Norfolk.

And 38,115 people in rural areas reported themselves as having a limiting long-term illness – more than half of all people with such an illness in the county.

Mr Clemo said: 'Rural Norfolk has a significant proportion of deprivation in Norfolk overall and it can be difficult to identify.

'If you have a row of picturesque cottages, then in one you can have a retired person who is quite affluent, the one next door might be a second home, but then in the other two you have a former public worker who has just been made redundant and someone with low skills who works in the tourism or farming industry but who is living in poverty.

'The cottages all look the same, but the people living in them can be very different.'

He said the problem in isolated areas was in getting access to services. He said: 'What we have seen over the last couple of decades is the withdrawal of services. That's not just the public sector, but the private sector.

'Pubs and post offices have vanished because of a lack of economic viability, while public transport is often very poor.

'That's fine if you've got a reasonable income and you can drive to services elsewhere, but if not then it creates a huge problem.'

He said isolation could have a significant impact on people's health and wellbeing, with a recent survey by Age UK showing that being isolated from family and friends was linked with a 26pc higher death risk over seven years.

Mr Clemo said: 'This isn't about old people feeling a bit lonely and wouldn't it be nice if they didn't. It has a significant impact on people's lives and ability to live independently for longer.'

Of the council's scrutiny of rural isolation, which will see councillors speak to the likes of the NRCC, district councils, public health and community service teams, Mr Clemo said: 'I think it is critical. It is essential to make sure that council policy is what I call 'rural-proofed', so service delivery does not proportionately disadvantage people in rural areas.

'The obvious one is around service cuts. It's easy to think you can save money by having central provision for services and ending the outreach work. But that puts the cost of accessing those services in the pockets of the service users – who are vulnerable people. There must be a fair deal for rural communities. And the other side of that is, if they are looking at communities doing more for themselves because that's a viable way to provide services, then the support must be there.

'It's no good withdrawing a service and hoping the community will pick it up.

'There has to be investment in the community to get replacements up and running before withdrawing the service gradually.'

Colleen Walker, Labour county councillor for Magdalen division, which includes parts of Great Yarmouth, Bradwell and Hopton, is a member of the working group.

She said: 'The people who have talked to me about it say that transport is one of the biggest issues. It's quite often young people and students who say there are not many buses and the ones which there are do not fit around their lives.'

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