Richard Hutchings, corporate director of Advantage West Midlands, explains how the organization is helping rural communities...
Helping rural communities to help themselves - that was the challenge we were set when the baton for socioeconomic projects was passed from the Countryside Agency to Advantage West Midlands earlier this year.
Last year we helped to fund a £3.5 million community centre in Highley, Shropshire; an isolated village which was rocked by the closure of the local colliery more than 35 years ago.
What is unique about the centre is that the residents of Highley have taken all the key decisions at every stage of development and continue to retain overall control of the centre.
We also fund the South Shropshire Furniture Scheme where people donate furniture and household items that are suitable for reuse and local people are trained up to repair and renovate them. The repaired goods are then sold at a reasonable price to needy families and any income generated is ploughed back into the scheme. Ledbury, a Herefordshire town assisted by our Market Towns Initiative, has set up a development trust to continue the regeneration work kick started with Advantage West Midlands money over the last three years.
What all of the projects have in common is that they aim to provide a long-lasting legacy for the communities they have assisted.
This is the test we now face at Advantage West Midlands: how do we make best use the funding we have inherited to make a real and lasting difference to rural communities?
We need to make sure that the activity we fund, such as rural transport schemes, not only makes a real and sustained difference, but that it follows the spirit of the government's 'modernizing rural delivery' programme, making best use of finite resources. That's why we are not jumping in feet first. Instead, we are sponsoring a rural transport study and involving key regional partners to examine all the options. In the Autumn we will be much better placed to make decisions about future investments
Throughout 2005/ 06, Advantage West Midlands will continue to work with our partners to develop new programmes like these. This will be a time of listening to those living in rural communities, hearing what they have to say and continuing to think of innovative and sustainable ways to invest in our countryside.
Hopefully the new arrangements will help to close the gap between some of our most prosperous communities and some of our most disadvantaged. Life in rural communities can be anything but the countryside idyll of glossy brochures and we must all work hard to address the inequalities.
All in all we hope that the new arrangements will mean a more streamlined service for the communities that we serve. There are also exciting times to come with the prospect of European funding for rural areas from 2007-13.