‘Pull together’ plea as Norfolk’s rural crisis deepens

Deepening rural deprivation can only be tackled if Norfolk knuckles down and draws on all its traditional self-help and caring resources, a conference in the county heard yesterday.

Bulk-buying heating oil and sending medics out to lunch clubs to save elderly people costly trips were among ideas mooted when voluntary groups gathered to hear about the worsening crisis in the county.

Norfolk's rural communities are battling to cope with the triple burden of ever-increasing petrol prices, soaring heating fuel costs and cuts to vital public services, Jon Clemo, chief executive of the Norfolk Rural Community Council (NRCC) told the Cost in the Countryside conference held in North Walsham.

And with nearly 15pc of the county's residents struggling to survive on less than �10,000 pa, Mr Clemo said the future was 'very challenging – but not without hope.' He and fellow conference speaker Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities, stressed the need for Norfolk to develop its long-standing 'Big Society' traditions of resourcefulness and supporting neighbours in need.

Disturbing NRCC statistics reveal that:

n petrol prices rose 4.4pc between January and December to a record-breaking �1.28 per litre – there is much greater dependence on cars in the countryside where public transport is scarce or non-existent. The average daily round-trip commuting journey in Norfolk is 32 miles

n heating oil costs rose by 44pc during 2010 – most people in rural Norfolk are not connected to mains gas

Most Read

n fuel poverty – where households have to spend more than 10pc of their income to keep warm – affects 22pc of the population in north Norfolk.

n Norfolk County Council has agreed �60m of cuts to services in the coming year – rural residents may need to travel into towns or Norwich to find support.

'It's going to be a particularly tough year. There is very, very little new funding out there and we have all got to be smarter and do as much as we can on a limited amount of money. We have the talent here – and examples of best practice – to do that,' said Dr Burgess.

No-one should be seriously disadvantaged because of where they lived, according to Mr Clemo. There was a strong and proud record of self help in local communities and Norfolk needed to tap into it.

NRCC is planning a meeting in Hemsby next week to gauge support for a scheme, in partnership with AF Affinity Ltd, part of Anglia Farmers, to bulk-buy kerosene, keeping costs down. If successful, it could eventually be rolled out across the county.

And there were also plans to approach doctors' surgeries and ask if staff could go out to clubs where numbers of elderly people met in order to give them 'flu jabs, saving dozens of difficult and expensive individual trips from villages to surgeries.

Voluntary groups, already coping with funding cuts, were also talking to each other about sharing resources, according to Andrew Campbell, of conference hosts the vcsTogether forum, representing nearly 400 voluntary and community groups in north Norfolk.

But he said the coalition government's promotion of a Big Society, relying far more on volunteer support to keep services running, had to be backed with public money.

'The voluntary sector is used to living from hand to mouth but these difficult times are unprecedented,' he added. 'What we do has real value and is very cost-effective. We help vulnerable people stay healthy, enjoying life longer – everybody benefits.'

Dr Burgess, whose role is non-political, said he would be reporting back on the conference to Richard Benyon, the minister for rural affairs, emphasising the need for a 'small amount of core funding' to kick-start and support voluntary projects.

The commission he chairs has had its own budget slashed from �6.3m to �500,000 and Dr Burgess said 50 members of its staff would receive their redundancy notices on Monday.