The ‘forgotten’ rural north

RURAL communities need to pull together and make their voices heard before they die out, it has been warned.

A perceived divide between the south east of Northumberland and the rural areas, alongside diminishing public transport and a hike in fuel prices, have led to calls for the county’s rural north communities to join forces before it is too late.

Former Alnwick district councillor and Newton on the Moor and Swarland parish chairman David Rixon told the Gazette that he wants an ‘explosion’ to highlight rural needs and the disparity in services between the north and south of the county.

“The rural areas are always losing out and nobody wants to know,” he said. “And nobody cares about us up here. We are at a point now where we have got to get our act together.

“Why should there be a constant subsidy for the south east of the county but not here? We need to make our voices heard.”

The call comes as a review of Arriva’s bus services in the county takes place. It includes a proposal to reduce the number of diversions into Newton on the Moor and Swarland on its route from Alnwick to Newcastle.

At the same time, fuel prices have risen, with Alnwick’s only petrol station charging 135.9p a litre for petrol and 140.9p for diesel and Thropton’s garage charging 141.9p for petrol and 144.9p for diesel. The costs are on a par with some of the most remote places in the country and are well above the national average.

Sir Alan Beith MP has asked the Prime Minister to help rural areas with the cost of fuel in the coming Budget.

The Liberal Democrat challenged the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, asking whether he and the Chancellor recognise the impact of exceptionally high petrol and diesel prices in rural areas, like north Northumberland, where fuel is 5-10p per litre higher than in the cities, while there is very limited public transport.

The Prime Minister replied that he recognised the problem and any announcement would be made as part of the Budget on March 24.

Cuts to the county council budget mean community forums, which were set up to bring local issues to the fore and give residents and parish and town councils a voice, may have to end.

Coun Rixon said: “The rural areas are just being totally and utterly cut off. We are so far away from central government that I don’t think they know we are here. I expected the cuts to the bus service because, despite managing to re-instate a service, roadworks on the A1 meant it was unable to run and when it did come back, it was unreliable because of the works.”

He added: “In the last few years, schools have closed and we have a high school which needs repairing. Little by little, everything is being taken away. Then when we have no public transport, we are hit with double charges. We have an increase in fuel costs then we have to pay for parking in the north of the county but not in the south east.

“It means people will turn to shop on the internet and then towns like Alnwick will lose out.

“If a young person living in a rural area wants to go to college there are few buses, so they get a car. But the price of insurance and then petrol makes it very, very difficult.

“All these cuts are coming in, but how can we have cuts if we didn’t have anything in the first place?

“There has got to start being some investment in the rural areas, otherwise they will die. I do feel that we don’t have enough of a rural voice at the county council. We need to get our fair share.”

Coun Pat Scott, ward member for Bamburgh and chairman of the county council’s Area Committee North, said she was worried about what would happen to community forums without funding for running costs from the county council.

She said: “I think there will be enough commitment on the ground for some but that’s not going to be the case for all. I do see the value of the community forums since the demise of the districts. It’s actually feeding into the county council what’s happening at a local level.”

Jane Pannell, chairman of the Glendale Community Forum, said: “Given the amount of time and investment in the community forums, it would be an immense disappointment if the county didn’t value the good work that has been done. I would also ask how the county intends to engage with communities in the future.”

She also said that the council seems to be splitting the county into the south east and rural areas.