Action Rural Sussex

Promoting the interests of people in rural communities.
By Veronica Cowan

The origins of Action in Rural Sussex are much older than I had imagined: it was established in 1931, as Sussex Rural Community Council, and its vision for Sussex is of an inclusive, active, community life valued equally alongside economic success and environmental protection. Its role is the provision of practical help and support to Sussex, to encourage and enable them to be vibrant, living and working places.

Barby Dashwood-Morris has been its chairman since 2012, and has plans to retire in March 2016.became involved after being asked to head up the Parish Action Plan Steering Group, and approached Action in Rural Sussex for professional assistance. Within weeks she was giving presentations at seminars on how to do it. “Most of my professional life was in general management, although I trained as an accountant and legal advocate.” She has lived in Sussex for seventeen years and took early retirement in 2002 to escape commuting to London, and has since been a trustee of several local charities and an accredited mediator. “I am both a District and Parish Councillor and an active ‘Friend’ of many rural and countryside organisations [and] passionate about protecting the countryside, the rural economy, affordable housing and sustainable growth.”

Do rural environments need, and promotion, and can you name some examples of where advocacy has been beneficial? Noting that the organisation has been part of the Sussex ‘scene’ since its formation, she observes that  – unlike other charities that have a rural focus – Action in Rural Sussex exists to promote the interests of people and communities in rural Sussex rather than its countryside. “Ever since the 1960s there has been a growing awareness of the need to protect, and more recently promote, the rural environment.  Our job, however, is to help villages in Sussex keep their young and more senior people, their jobs and most importantly their sense of community.  One of the hardest parts of advocating something, especially if it goes against the grain of straightforward economics, is accepting that the job is never done.”

Over the years the organisation has tried to ensure that when decisions are being made that look straightforward from a ‘business’ perspective the potential impact on less well-off people in rural areas are considered. “There would certainly be fewer village community post offices if we had not worked consistently hard over many rounds of cost-cutting and closures to lessen the impact of these on smaller rural village.  The job is never complete and we are seeing even now the impact of reductions in subsidised bus services, closure of rural youth services and housing becoming very un-affordable for young families in rural areas.”

As to the kind of projects Action in Rural Sussex has managed, she comments that, in many ways what rural communities need is not best provided through short-term projects, but making sure they know where they can go for appropriate advice, and that its source is still there years later: “There is a fashion for short-term projects focused on urban areas and often by the time people in rural communities find out about them the funding is no longer available.  Intensive, short term ‘hits’ of activity can be effective in urban areas but tend to be more expensive to deliver in rural ones.  Consequently, over the years, we have run a number of projects that have had a beneficial long-term impact.” A few years ago it persuaded one of the health authorities to allocate capital to enable village halls to re-equip themselves with high quality, safe catering kitchens. This meant volunteers could set up local lunch clubs for people at risk of becoming isolated and lonely.  “We backed the project with a project worker, who not only distributed the capital grants but also helped get the lunch clubs set up.  Many are still going strong twenty years later.”

It’s almost impossible to get government funding to assist with projects now, she observes, and the challenge is that rural people are dispersed throughout many small communities, which is especially true of those with social needs. “This makes these people much more expensive to reach than those with similar difficulties in urban areas.  Value for money is key for all government organisations, so we inevitably see public money being spent where the best ‘bang for the buck’ can be achieved.  Rural people have little choice but to revert to doing things for themselves and this is what we aim to help them to do.”

As to whether it is easy to interest local people in the things Action in Rural Sussex does, she said that a few years ago people in villages immediately put up barriers when something – like affordable housing for local people – was mentioned.  “Now, there is much more interest as everyone is realising that a community made up entirely of people who are over fifty is not viable and probably no fun to live in!”  The debate has moved on to: how the local community can take control; get the development it believes it needs; and pass on the benefits of living in one of the beautiful rural villages to the next generation without spoiling it for their children. “We have found that the initiative of Neighbourhood Planning has great potential to help with this and have been coaching many communities through the process of preparing theirs.”

However, she comments that raising money for Action in Rural Sussex as a charity is more difficult. “We are a bit more removed from our beneficiaries than many charities. We believe in helping communities identify their own needs and finding their own solutions.  We tend to help behind the scenes and this does not make us an obvious candidate for charity giving.  However, some people with a strong philanthropic streak can see the value of our approach and this makes for very committed long term support.”

Looking back what would you say are your most satisfying achievements? “This is very hard to answer – Action in Rural Sussex has achieved so much just in the time I have been a trustee.  But one of the proudest moments was when I visited a brand new village hall, with its own solar and wind powered energy provision.  We had held the hands of the trustees throughout the process of planning, building, finding the funding and here it was – a warm and cosy space in the middle of winter serving the needs of the local crèche, luncheon club and all sorts – wonderful!”

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