Raising the rural stakes

29th August 1997 at 01:00
What's the difference between an urban and a rural training and enterprise council? "There's more space between the people," jokes David Rossington.

Mr Rossington, chief executive of Lincolnshire TEC and chairman of the Consortium of Rural TECs (CORT), may play down the differences between town and country, but the countryside has become an issue in its own right since rustics invaded Hyde Park earlier this summer to insist that the proposed ban on fox-hunting was an attack on their way of life.

Some 11 million people live in the countryside, and the dispute over fox and deer-hunting will ensure the spotlight is on rural issues this coming season. In education and training there is a sensitivity and vulnerability which may well be aired.

"With this Government we have to be careful to deliver information about the rural case. It is predominantly an urban government and takes many things for granted," said Roger Phillips, chief executive of Somerset TEC.

Mr Rossington says that many so-called urban problems - drugs, street crime, homelessness, the isolation of single parents - are equally rural problems. "The difference is that if you go to an inner- city area you can see the deprivation all around you. But in Lincolnshire all you can see is beauty and tranquillity."

TECs may popularly be seen as bodies devoted to urban problems but rural TECs have a unique role to play in supporting their local communities. This includes researching how BSE has affected employment and seeing what can be done to retrain those who have lost their jobs; applying modern technology to aid trainees living in isolated areas; and finding ways of attracting young people back to rural areas.

Britain's countryside is changing as fast as its towns and cities. In Lincolnshire, for example, only 8 per cent of people are involved in primary industries such as farming, mining and fishing.

In the 1950s a typical farm would employ nearly 50 people - now it is more likely to be father and son (or daughter).

Problems can vary from region to region. Further Education colleges, increasingly forced to become cost-efficient, find it difficult to justify high-cost activities which only a few students undertake - not because of unpopularity of courses, but because of a real lack of numbers.

The TECs undertake a strategic planning role to ensure that subjects such as motor vehicle main-tenance, construction, painting and decorating and machine tool engineering do not disappear completely, but are located in centres of excellence.

With the funding of colleges linked to bums on seats, the rural institutions have a much harder task. Somerset's Roger Phillips points out that some areas may have only two buses a week, so getting to a training centre can be particularly difficult.

The possession of a car, or even two, in the inner city, may be seen as an example of affluence. In rural areas the car comes before the fridge or freezer.

Mr Phillips has been involved in trying to get new jobs or retraining for those who lost work because of the BSE outbreak. "You need to generate jobs where people live. The TECs have been very much at the heart of trying to find solutions locally. We have to consider the wider picture."

Young people leave home for the bright lights of the city and do not return. "They have to leave - you cannot blame them," said Mr Rossington. "The brightest and the best leave and stay in the urban areas. One of the reasons we put money into the university in Lincolnshire was that we were concerned about this one-way traffic. We are getting people back, but so far only marginally. We are still losing talented people."

Industries as well as people have to be attracted back. This poses an even greater problem. People like living in the countryside because of the quiet, the open spaces, the higher quality of life. To attract a car-making plant with 500 jobs would rather defeat the exercise. The emphasis, therefore, is on smaller, high-tech industries where the volume of traffic is "virtual" and exists inside a telephone cable. If you want a rural community you cannot leave it to market forces.

Britain's true countryside-dwellers (there must be a better phrase) live and work in the country. But people do retire to the countryside, and although they are relative newcomers they may be the ones who block local development and thus prevent more people working in the country.

Roger Phillips sees this as one of the crucial problems. The people who move out tend to be the most economically active. Those who replace them are the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) brigade. And so the farmer who loses his or her livelihood and wants to diversify by going into small-scale manufacturing is opposed by the recent incomer who objects to the planning proposal. "In objecting they ensure that local jobs do not go to local people, that local training is not seen as a necessity, " says Mr Phillips.

The Consortium of Rural TECs was formed to promote the role of training and enterprise councils in contributing to the regeneration of the rural economy. It lobbies within the UK and Europe, fosters good practice on rural issues, and carries out research on national issues. A key area has been to help TECs to deliver effective training to dispersed populations.

In the Government's Welfare to Work proposals, for example, there is concern that some areas may not be able to offer options on the Environmental Task Force. TECs are liaising with each other to see if they can develop schemes to ensure rural people will not miss out.

A more difficult problem is ensuring that the employment is available to everyone. In many parts of the countryside there is a litter of small employers taking on between one and five members of staff, so the creation of a new job would pose problems.

Mr Rossington says: "It is difficult to persuade people because they are weary of government wheezes and the bureaucracy imposed.

"And I think that in some areas it will be very difficult to provide employment, especially if the emphasis is on private-sector employment. "

It seems that keeping the same way of life in the country has to involve change.

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