Much of the British population live in urban conurbations that are well supplied with educational, social and welfare services. But those who live in rural areas are frequently disadvantaged because of low population density and the distance from essential services. Those without cars are not helped by the infrequency of public transport.
Indeed, rural services in general are seen to be in decline, as village shops, post offices and pubs are forced to close in the face of economic competition from supermarkets and high-street chains. Yet many people would prefer to live in rural communities, seeing there an enhanced quality of life.
Leadership and professional skills may not always be available to local communities seeking to develop strategies for meeting their needs and overcoming social exclusion. Yet proven methods exist to overcome these problems, and they provide exciting opportunities for both organisations and individuals to achieve solutions. Unfortunately, these are not sufficiently well known and, as a result, are not always applied to provide long-term benefits.
Government has always recognised that a community that works actively to develop its own future is more likely to achieve a high level of economic performance than one that has not found the people or mechanisms to take it forward. As in so many situations, a combination of specific knowledge and appropriate leadership and management skills is the key to success.
The opportunities for organisations to help in providing local solutions can also benefit their own staff, who are exposed to real-life situations rather than just business-school exercises. The challenges involve real people and diverse community groups. The training opportunities for both organisations and individuals are varied and broad.
In this situation, the local needs present businesses with a training opportunity that involves building on the existing strengths of the community and the professional competence of local organisations. Business and the community can both win in the process of working together as communities develop their future with the help of additional knowledge, resources and professional skills.
This may be achieved through the establishment of better facilities, welfare or educational services that enhance the quality of life. Businesses gain by having the chance to develop and train selected members of their staff to work outside the usual remit of their job while still being supported by their organisation. The tasks involved can be more demanding than those experienced in the commercial world, yet can also be significantly more satisfying, because the skills needed depend more on personal leadership than hierarchical dominance.
A number of organisations exist to support this style of business development. The role of Business in the Community is well known, especially in urban areas. However, it is now working in rural areas, often supported by the local Rural Community Councils. These two organisations provide a means of matching communities to organisations and individuals who wish to help them.
And it's not just the communities that can benefit from additional resource and advice. There are often situations where shops, village halls, pubs and post offices are running at a commercial loss but provide a wide range of desirable services to the community. With additional resources and expertise, it is often possible to run them as effective social enterprises.
Operating on a not-for-profit basis may, for example, allow these social enterprises to obtain extra discounts from suppliers who recognise the benefits to their own businesses of offering special terms; in doing so, the companies demonstrate to their own employees their commitment to the local community.
Those who have a working knowledge of how to access different funding streams from government departments, charitable trusts, sponsors and other sources can be particularly helpful. Multiple funding and ownership are techniques that have been used. In some villages, the post office/shop is run by volunteers and owned by most of the members of the community, who are in effect individual shareholders of the enterprise.
Finally, there are retired people who have skills, experience and management capability that would allow them to assist in a variety of ways. Persuaded to continue to practise their professional competence on a part-time voluntary basis, they will find significant rewards for doing so and take special pleasure in achieving results by working in partnership with others. To coin a Churchillian phrase: 'It is seldom that such an opportunity and a solution can offer so much benefit to all those involved.'
With 2005 designated the Year of the Volunteer, organisations and individuals should be encouraged to respond to the community challenge.
CV John Hazelwood CBE DL was deputy chairman of Walls Ice Cream, and general manager of the Birds Eye Walls site in Gloucester. He is deputy chairman of the Design Council and chairman of Rural Community Councils in South West England. He chairs the Reservists Employer Support Group for Wessex and is a member of the National Employer Advisory Board, advising the Secretary of State for Defence.