Five key priorities to boost Norfolk's rural communities
- Credit: Nick Butcher
After Norfolk County Council launched a consultation on its new rural strategy, we asked five members of our countryside economy what the top funding priorities need to be for the next three years.
FARMING: Rebecca Mayhew is one of the owners of Old Hall Farm at Woodton, near Bungay, which has a Jersey dairy herd and a farm shop, which launched an online order system during the lockdown.
Although her business has benefited from increased online shopping, she said it was equally important to encourage people back to rural shops and market towns in person.
"People have got a much bigger demand for the internet, and that is important, but a big part of me says let's not encourage that reliance too much," she said.
"It is good for businesses but it makes me worried for the state of our mental health. It makes people more isolated. I think we should encourage people to go back into shops and market towns and keep these market towns alive, rather than relying on online shopping.
"We can concentrate on all the measurable things like infrastructure and technology, but I think it would be much better if the county council can find a way to get people back out onto farms and into the countryside to learn about food and nutrition."
EDUCATION: Chris Edwards, headteacher of Reedham Primary School, said online learning developed during the lockdown could "change the dynamics of homework" - but it underlined the continued urgent need for better rural broadband connections.
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He also said a "significant body of work" was needed to support the mental health of children as they reintegrate back into rural classrooms.
"We have had a really good uptake with online learning but the fact remains that you get a number of children who freeze on the screen or get cut off the call," he said.
"We try to make it straightforward but if you have got connectivity issues and they get frustrated and annoyed that is not what we want. The bottom line is that children won't learn unless they feel happy, safe and secure.
"It is a real challenge to figure out where that support needs to be targeted because there could be underlying anxieties and mental health issues. We are going to have to do a significant body of work on the mental health aspect when trying to reintegrate the children."
ONLINE RETAIL: Stephen Newham is founder of Crush Foods, a manufacturer of rapeseed oil products at Salle, near Reepham, which also acts as an online hub for more than 15 Norfolk food and drink firms selling via its website - with another 10 brands expected to join in the next few months.
"Our biggest worry is the ability to employ the right people in the right jobs in the right place," he said. "Norfolk is made up of lots of small communities and, being so inherently rural, it must not forget it needs interconnections even when more people are shopping online now.
"We need an integrated strategy to connect people, not just with technology, but with public transport and links with education and housing all the way through to employment."
TOURISM: Jason Borthwick, who runs the campsite and coastal leisure base at Burnham Deepdale, called for an urgent overhaul of road signage for community events, tourist attractions and information points.
"It is immensely important when it comes to support for business," he said. "We need signage that reflects the diversity and creativity of rural businesses and supporting them in developing their business. It is about helping business opportunities, no putting barriers up.
"They (the county council) have adopted the national guidance but they have just not modernised anything and there is no joined-up thinking process at the moment. I want the county to realise that they need to understand what it is that people do and talk to us, not just make arbitrary decisions."
NATURE: Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the Holkham Estate, said a major achievement of previous rural strategies was the compilation of a detailed database of Norfolk's "natural capital assets". He said now the county needed to act on it to combat climate change and the rising demands on over-stretched rural infrastructure.
"We need a greater understanding of our natural capital in Norfolk, which has such vast areas of landscape and food production and nature," he said.
"We have created this report and now we need to act on it to address species decline while still allowing people to enjoy these places.
"We have got climate change, species loss, habitat degradation and water quality issues. And there is a lack of infrastructure for rural villages.
"North Norfolk hosts 4m visitors a year and the infrastructure and road system was not built for that, so we need a strategy for how we move people around the county, and how we make it more accessible, without damaging the need for tranquillity. We have a rich abundance of wildlife in parts of Norfolk and we need to protect that."