The plight of rural England over the past decade is (sadly) all too familiar. Last week the Commission for Rural Communities announced that in the second half of last year, unemployment in rural areas rose by 73 per cent. Widespread deprivation in rural areas is often hidden by the hedges and the urban-skewed indices of poverty.
Pubs, Post Offices and local services have been closed or reduced. Escalating fuel costs and lower incomes hit rural family budgets particularly hard. Rural enterprises are held back through little or no access to (fast) broadband. Young people are too often forced to move away to find work and afford a home. As Prince Charles said in the Telegraph earlir in the month:
“The church, the village school, the shops and pubs all depend on a local economy … take all this away and we are left with ghost communities, populated by little more than second-home owners.”
There is no one solution to these problems. However in the ‘age of austerity’ what is obvious is that throwing government money at the problem can no longer be the default response to difficulties. Across the board, the structural crisis in our public finances necessitates new methods of financing regeneration based on private sector free enterprise, philanthropy and local leadership. On this, Prince Charles is to be congratulated for leading the way.
The Prince has now announced the creation of a new charity, The Prince’s Countryside Fund. Its website states that the fund is about:
“…raising money from a wide range of businesses who have responded to The Prince’s call to action to improve the long-term viability of the British countryside and its rural communities. The funding raised will be channelled into providing grants to projects, large and small, that are delivering the three core objectives of The Prince’s Countryside Fund. These objectives focus on improving the sustainability of British farming and rural communities, targeting the areas of greatest need; reconnecting consumers with countryside issues; and supporting farming crisis charities through a dedicated emergency funding stream.”
Crucially the fund goes with the grain of rural Britain’s long and proud tradition of self-help and community responsibility.
The serious financial situation the government finds itself in will have many consequences. The scale of cuts required is hugely challenging. But the Chancellor is right to insist that deep thinking takes place in government departments on which areas the state can pull back and leave open for innovative community solutions. Our current fiscal position presents a hugely exciting opportunity to unlock a renaissance of 19th Century style philanthropy and local leadership.
The recent success of Cambridge University in reaching their £1 billion target for their 800th Anniversary Campaign shows us that, despite the recession, well targeted fundraising can work in a tough economic climate. People give to people, places and institutions they have a connection with more generously and quickly than they give to Government. The Cambridge donations will help on bursaries for the poorest students, new research and state of the art premises for our leading academics. But it also shows an institution that is heavily reliant on public funding successfully diversifying its income base.
The Prince’s Countryside Fund is welcome not just for its financial contribution to rural areas nor for another opportunity to highlight the difficulties of rural England. It is the clear and simple reminder that without big government and its (unfunded) big chequebook, there are other ways to deal with “unmet need”. Philanthropy has a strong history in Britain, and with public figures like Prince Charles blazing a clear path, it could once again become our sustainable way of providing assistance to those that need it.