Projects aim to built commmunity spirit

Richard Batson Historic towns and villages across Norfolk struggling to cope with the biggest wave of social, economic and climate change in 1,000 years are set to get help from their grassroots councils.

Richard Batson

TOWNS and villages struggling to cope with the biggest wave of social, economic and climate change in 1,000 years are set to get help from their grassroots councils.

Communities are feeling the strain of a triple attack on a generations-old rural way of life, leaving them with symptoms such as empty second homes, loss of traditional jobs and shop and pub closures. Once-thriving tight-knit parishes are becoming dormitories needing a new lease of life.

But a three-pronged attack is coming through local councils, driven by Norfolk's support network for parish pump democracy.

The Norfolk Association of Local Councils says the county's 500 grassroots councils are best-placed to reinvigorate communities.

The man leading the initiatives, Stephen Teverson, said communities across Norfolk had not altered much for 1,000 years but in the past century they had faced sweeping social, economic and environmental change.

Most Read

Farming, fishing and forestry had been lost as the main employment sources, replaced by “industrial contract farming enterprises” run and manned from outside the area.

Post offices, shops and petrol stations were closing, depriving people of employment and meeting places.

Socially some people found themselves living alone in a row of cottages which were second homes empty for most of the year.

While better housing was snapped up by second home outsiders and picture postcard village greens were “preserved in aspic”, the quality of housing for locals on the outskirts could be “pretty grotty,” said Mr Teverson, a town councillor and former mayor of Downham Market, until recently chairman of the NALC executive committee.

“The ties that bound communities together are under strain,” he said.

“Some of the changes are subtle. The pub may not close, but could turn into a gastro pub or bistro for people from outside the village.”

And even the hope that gentrification into Chelsea-by-the-Sea second home areas and promotion of eco-tourism would bring new wealth had not materialised.

While fishermen were doing well because lobsters were being snapped up by gastro pubs, and odd job men were busy keeping second homes in good order, other businesses were struggling because those second homes were often empty for all but a dozen weeks of the year.

And visitors such as bird spotters brought very little to the economy as they tended to bring their own flasks and sandwiches.

There was a danger of towns and villages becoming “very pleasant rural retreats for people escaping urban pressures” but in danger of stagnating because incomers also were reluctant to have those quiet villages changed.

NALC's bid to solve the problems involves seeking “trailblazing” parishes to take a lead in their local area through blue, gold and green schemes.

Each of the three schemes needed £60,000, which would be bid for through a Dragon's Den-style citizens' panel of laymen doling out a Norfolk strategic partnership pot of £200,000.

It was hoped to start the first social scheme and by 2010 have 75 councils running community cafes across the county.

Some Norfolk councils were already promoting some schemes, but it was “sporadic,” said Mr Teverson.

“Because of their limited powers in the past parish councils have been parochial and inward-looking, but they are uniquely placed to help, and have more experience and expertise than all other councils,” he added.

Parish councils interested in taking part in any of the schemes should contact NALC on 01603 664869.

The Norfolk Association of Local Councils has a trio of blue, gold and green projects in the pipeline aimed at rebuilding community spirit, stimulating local business and promoting local initiatives to tackle the global problem of climate change.

*The blue social project would provide “tea and biscuits” money to stage meetings in halls, pubs or people's home in a bid to bring communities back together and maybe also run police, health, training and advice sessions through community cafes.

*A gold, economy-related scheme would encourage councils to talk to local businesses and discover what obstacles were holding them back, such as planning or broadband restrictions, along with trying to promote more ventures from vegetable growing to local bakeries and butcheries, providing an alternative to the supermarket.

*The green environment scheme would seek to get parishes working alongside university academics, but also looking at practical measures to combat climate change such as composting schemes, biomass power units and communal heating and fuel buying systems.