WEEKEND WEB: Making a stand to protect our countryside life

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TIM MACHIN writes our monthly column, RURAL MATTERS...

The world is constantly changing. Things we take for granted are under threat.

We make our decisions about where to live and work and play on our past and present experiences, but what happens when all the assumptions that led us to those decisions are challenged?

Those of us who live in rural communities do so because we enjoy the place that we live in, the services that are available to us, the people - our neighbours and friends, the environment, outlook, tranquility and so on.

We may have to pass up on some of the comforts of a larger town. It may be a trek to a supermarket or senior school, the wi-fi may not be as fast as other areas and you might struggle to get a mobile phone signal, but the advantages must outweigh the disadvantages, or you would ‘up-sticks’ and move.

After a couple of centuries of rural populations moving towards our major cities for work, there is now a reversing trend, with larger numbers choosing to relocate from cities into the countryside.

Between 2011 and 2016, the overall population in rural areas in England grew by 300,000. City dwellers are evidently prepared to put up with some of the disadvantages to reap the rewards of living in the countryside.

But change is inevitable and one of the latest threats to our rural way of life is access to banking. The era of a bank on every market town High Street is waning. All our major banks have a programme of closures as the world moves increasingly to online operation.

Despite informal agreements between banks to ensure towns are not left without banking facilities, it’s getting harder for businesses and individuals who rely on physical banking presence - for example, to pay in large sums of coins or cheques.

And ATMs, the ‘money box in the wall’ that most of us use to get our day-to-day spending money, are now an endangered species as well. A change to transaction charges (although free for us to use usually, there is an internal charge between banks) means that banks don’t think that all those ATMs will be economic and expect to close down a large number.

Although there is a suggestion that no one should have to travel more than a kilometre to find an ATM, it is likely availability and choice will be restricted, particularly in small communities.

The small market town where I live has five ATMs. In future, there may be only one or two, and these could very likely be commercially provided - that is, not by the banks - and could thus charge a fee for use.

And then there are the buses. Nearly one-fifth of all households in the county have no car; that’s about 150,000 people dependent on public transport.

The county council pumps millions of pounds a year into subsidising bus routes, but with ongoing cuts in public spending this may not last. Not all routes are subsidised and last week Stagecoach announced a review of its 505 service between Kings Lynn and Spalding. This route benefits many small communities in both Lincolnshire and Norfolk along its meandering route and the viability of those places could be seriously affected if it is cut.

Speaking up for the countryside is not just about the fields and woodlands, it is also about us, the people who live there and who are an indivisible part of it. The countryside needs people to populate it, own it, manage it, farm it, enjoy it.

We need to stand up against changes that will make living and working here less sustainable.