Rural commissioners hear evidence from Wensleydale and Swaledale communities

Jasmine Brown.

Rural commissioners have been told of the need for better public transport to help young Dales residents access educational opportunities.

During a day of evidence, the North Yorkshire Rural Commission listened to accounts and evidence from those living and working in the Dales.

The Rural Commission was set up on November 2019 by North Yorkshire County Council to review the evidence base and make recommendations, which will to help the county’s most rural communities grow and prosper.

In their last evidence session ahead of publishing their report later this spring, the first community project presented was A Good Life – a programme originally established to ensure that by 2028 the upper Dales would be the best place to grow old in England.

Commissioners heard how the community action project, which included practical help and advice, was not only delivering a better quality of life for many residents, but had provided the springboard to tackle loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic.

Julie Greenslade, a project coordinator for A Good Life, which is part of the Upper Dales Community Partnership said its aims were to improve wellbeing, reduce inequality and improve social collectiveness and connectedness.

The intention of the project, which has nearly 280 signed up volunteers, is to encourage collaborative work and effective social action to support people of all ages in deeply rural areas and to make sure they receive the support they need in the way they need it.

Julie explained to commissioners how the project has taken on a life of its own since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said: “Right at the beginning of the pandemic our volunteers  delivered leaflets and posters to every village in our area and we began to receive call from people who needed general help, and we set up village champions to coordinate this support.

“Volunteers have been brilliant and everyone has gone above and beyond.”

Julie added: “We have set up a community food order, as we found people were struggling with supermarket orders and volunteers put the orders together and delivered them to residents.

“Some of our residents who were elderly and shielding still wanted to help out so we sourced donations of fabric and those who weren’t able to leave their homes volunteered to sew scrubs and face masks for the local hospitals.

“We set up a buddying up system, and as we found residents were spending long periods of time in their gardens we used  a grant from Yorkshire dales millennium trust to buy plants from local businesses and  over 3 months we delivered trays of plants to over 60 houses in the upper dales.

“One of our local teenagers volunteered to run the village shop in West Burton for 107 consecutive days as the owner was not able to open it.

“In 17-week period we helped over 1100 people.

“The Good Life project represents what people in our community think, feel and need. We want to keep community at the forefront of everything we do rather than focus on the development of the project itself; it’s proved vital in our area.”

However, the Commissioners also heard about the challenges, which were faced by younger people – particularly around access to work experience and broad education opportunities – were linked to transport limitations.

Jasmine Brown, 17, was the youngest person to address commissioners and talked passionately about the need for a better transport solution for very rural communities as well as more local things for young people to do if they are to stay.

She said: “We have to stay in education till we are 18 but transport to education is limited, especially to college.

“For example Kendal College is a local college in Cumbria, but there is a couple of people in the area who have no way of getting there as there is no transport link.

“It’s also difficult to get support for things like mental health – you have to travel quite far out of the area to access it.

“In fact options for young people altogether are quite limited round here.

“We have a youth club but the age range for the youth club is nine to 14, so a bit awkward for me as a 17 year old. It’s not really a place for teens to hang out, so we don’t really feel included.

“A lot of us are now getting the option and help to go into bigger careers and want to train to become lawyers or nurses. However, locally there is nothing available. It’s not helpful to travel hours away to do courses.”

Rural Commission chair, The Very Revd John Dobson, Dean of Ripon said: “It’s critical to hear a broad range of voices and evidence before we publish our report later this year.

“Jasmine’s account of life in a very rural community is compelling.

“Hearing first-hand about the challenges faced by our younger generation will help us to understand what needs to be done to unlock opportunity for them and prevent them from leaving the county to pursue opportunity.

“This retention of youth and talent is really critical for the county’s future economy and balance.”

Commissioner Dr Debbie Treblico said: “Cracking the issues of rural transport and connectivity in general, is critical.

“We must be practical and we understand there cannot be endless subsidised rural transport services as we accept that a network of colleges are not going to pop up in deeply rural communities.

“However, we must be innovative – there are opportunities in the modern world around the ‘uberisation’ of transport and online learning opportunities looking ahead.

“Equally we must harness the energy of young people like Jasmine to ensure communities and their offer reflect the needs of all.”

Other communities presenting included Hudswell, near Richmond – a community where a mix of volunteer empowerment and innovation has seen the community save the pub, set up a thriving shop, which has transformed its fortunes during the pandemic, and provide affordable housing for families.

Next on the community list is the transformation of the village’s former church into staycation accommodation.

Commissioner Martin Booth has first-hand experience of the villages’ journey.

He said: “In North Yorkshire there are many examples of where when we empower local people to lead on their own development, the change is both locally led and embraced.

“That is so important because no one wants to feel like change is being imposed on them or done to them.

“If we learn from these successes we can be focused in a positive way not on what North Yorkshire’s communities need from the world, but what we can offer it.”

Amongst the successes commissioners also heard more about the challenges faced by communities where people enjoy them so much they stay – but planning and other policy restrictions prevent the development to allow them to expand and attract more families.

The housing offer is often extremely limited around affordable rent or buying options and together this can result in an imbalance in communities.

One example given was Castley in Harrogate district where commissioners heard an account of one resident who moved into the village 35 years ago when it was a vibrant family hub, alive with activities with 16 children. When the family home was sold, there were no children in the village.

And then then was the blueprint of the village of the future with a presentation on North Stainley Garden Village, near Ripon – a community being built around a zero carbon future.

The village has been transformed from a roadside hamlet to a growing and a popular community of circa 750 people.

But this growth has still not delivered all of the facilities needed for the community to be regarded as truly sustainable.

Giving evidence, James Staveley of North Stainley Estate, said: “In the last 10 years the shop and garage have closed, as has one of the pubs, with the other only recently re-opening following a series of failed enterprises over the same period. The school is full and has no way of expanding due to its location and age.

“Some of our land is under-utilised due to its quality and farming has also changed so some of our buildings, like the school, are no longer fit for purpose.

“We want to utilise these opportunities to help address the challenges associated with creating a better and more sustainable place to live, learn, work and enjoy.”