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Living in rural areas

A farmer's market

Get involved in The Big Tree Plant

The Big Tree Plant LogoThe Big Tree Plant aims to encourage people and communities to plant more trees in urban and residential areas. The five year campaign will encourage local community groups to plant and care for trees in their neighbourhood, particularly in areas that don’t have many. The Big Tree Plant partnership brings together civil society partners and conservation organisations, working with Defra and the Forestry Commission. For more information on how to get involved visit The Big Tree Plant website

Defra is the rural department in government. Most of what it does, for example in relation to farming, food, environmental protection, landscape management, water, flooding, and climate change adaptation, has a direct bearing on rural England. It also has a wider role in promoting the interests of rural people, communities and businesses across government as a whole.

Rural places make up 86% of the country and are fundamental to our natural character and history. Nearly one-fifth of our population lives there, in a patchwork of farms, hamlets, villages and towns that symbolises much of our national heritage, culture and character. Rural areas are also living, dynamic communities which contribute significantly and proportionately to the national economy.

There is a rural dimension to virtually everything the government does, rural children need good schools; rural dwellers need accessible GPs, dentists and hospitals; rural families need affordable houses; rural people need reliable public transport; rural places need to receive high speed broadband; rural communities need to feel safe and secure from crime; rural businesses need access to finance and support; rural towns and villages need thriving shops, pubs and Post Offices; and rural workers need well-paid and worthwhile jobs.

The case for government action

While evidence overall indicates rural areas are doing just as well as or better than urban areas on most key elements which go to make up successful and sustainable communities (health, education, employment, crime, social capital and quality of life, etc), the government recognises poverty and deprivation exists in even the most idyllic rural places.

The government also recognises the desires and interests of rural people, businesses and communities have not in the past always been effectively reflected in policies and programmes. Defra is committed to improving the quality of life in rural areas, to ensure the interests of rural people, businesses and communities are fully and fairly recognised in all government policies and programmes. Also, that rural communities themselves are free and able to address their own needs through locally-driven initiatives and innovations.

Latest news

On 29 June, Defra’s Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, announced as part of the review of Defra’s arms length bodies, the Commission for Rural Communities will be abolished and a strengthened Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra will be created. Ministers have decided rural policy is best delivered from the centre of government and the new Rural Communities Policy Unit will work across government to ensure the interests of rural communities are fully reflected in policy and priorities.

Key facts and figures

  • 19.3% of the population of England live in rural areas
  • 86% of England’s landmass is rural
  • Rural is defined as settlements with populations of fewer than 10,000
  • Much of rural England is essentially peri-urban – more than half of the rural population lives within 6 miles of a town of 30,000 people or more
  • Economic indicators show, on average, rural areas are performing well, usually on a par with or better than urban areas
  • Rural areas (especially those in the North West and South West) are some of the least affordable places to live in the country. Latest figures show that the lowest house prices in rural areas are 7.6 times the lowest annual earnings, compared to 6.7 times the lowest annual earnings in urban areas, but in some locations, the differential can be much higher.
  • Educational attainment is, by and large, higher in rural areas
  • On average, people in rural areas live longer, have better health outcomes, and enjoy healthier lifestyles
  • Rural communities are on average older than urban areas, and the average age is increasing at a faster rate. It is expected that by 2030 the proportion of the national population over 60 will exceed 26%. In rural areas, this proportion was reached in around 2006.

The current situation and background

Defra is working across government to ensure all of the government’s social and economic objectives are achieved fairly in rural areas, including through:

  • Working closely with all relevant government departments to ensure rural interests are fully addressed both in their existing and new policies and programmes. While all policy areas remain important, the focus is particularly on four priority areas:
    • Broadband – it is essential rural communities and businesses not only get a basic level of broadband service as quickly as possible, but that they are not left behind as the next generation of high speed broadband is rolled out in the future;
    • Affordable housing – rural areas are some of the least affordable places to live in this country, and we need to ensure our rural towns and villages have the freedom to determine the scale and type of development they want and need;
    • Rural transport – transport is regularly cited by people who live in rural areas as their single biggest concern, and we will work to support and promote public and community transport solutions to meet their needs;
    • Rural services – shops, pubs, Post Offices and village halls are the heart and soul of rural villages, and we are working to identify and promote ways in which they can be maintained, supported and improved.
  • Working with government at the local level to ensure it has the freedom and flexibility it needs to implement national policies and provide the services people need effectively and efficiently in all places.
  • Talking and listening to rural people and their representative organisations to ensure we have a clear understanding of their needs and concerns.
  • Generating, gathering and publishing intelligence about the issues affecting rural people and about what works in addressing them.

But it is not all about what the government will do. Rural people and communities are resilient, imaginative and innovative, and understand their own responsibilities. They have a long history of solving their own local challenges in ways that suit their own local needs and circumstances. From holding clinics in village halls, to running village shops and pubs as social enterprises, to providing transport services in the community-owned minibus, to looking after older residents through locally-appointed Village Agents, to establishing community broadband schemes, rural communities across the country have found their own solutions to their own particular problems, and done so in ways that are almost always cheaper and more effective than anything the State could provide centrally.

The government intends to support and promote this approach to addressing rural challenges, by:

  • working with civil society groups who help and advise rural communities, such as the Rural Community Councils;
  • identifying and removing unnecessary restrictions preventing voluntary groups from providing the services rural people want and need; and
  • collecting and disseminating examples of good practice in all types of community endeavour, so others can learn, be inspired and emulate.

Page last modified: 31 January 2011