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The Church of England in Lancashire (Blackburn Diocese) held its first Rural Focus Group Conference recently with keynote speaker Edwin Booth – CEO of Booths supermarkets.

Held at Abbeystead Community Hall, attendees included clergy from across the Diocese – including the Archdeacon of Lancaster, the Venerable David Picken and Rev Cindy Rigney, Vicar at Dolphinholme with Quernmore and Over Wyresdale and Chair of the Group.

Also attending were lay leaders from our parishes and key stakeholders from community groups across the County. Discussions took place about workable solutions for creating a sustainable future for rural Britain.

As well as his role with Booths supermarkets, Mr Booth is also trustee of the Prince’s Countryside Fund and the current High Sheriff of Lancashire.

In a fascinating and wide-ranging talk he gave some insight into his company’s new working from home policy and how he envisaged that being a positive catalyst for sharing expert knowledge and expertise in the rural communities where many of his employees reside.

Mr Booth said: “When I went into our head office today there were approximately 15 people in the building. I will never see more than 80 people in our offices from now on as a result of Covid. Many of my people live in the countryside and are working from their homes.

“We are enabling some of our experts to volunteer in their local communities, because if you get these sorts of people involved the whole village becomes stronger for it.”

During the inaugural event, Mr Booth pointed toward farming as the lifeblood of rural Britain and said future prosperity was intrinsically linked to the fortunes of our villages.

He continued: “Reductions in the amount of labour on farms has changed the face of our rural villages and towns. A lot of low-cost properties have been repurposed to create high end homes; some of which are holiday cottages.

“Rural surgeries are closing and there are not as many people in these areas to keep an eye on the more elderly residents of the district.

“Our farms are getting larger because sometimes succession is not an option and amalgamation is the only way. Farmers are going to need to look within their farm boundaries and make as much out of what they can within it.

“So many elements of farm life have been subsidised and this represents a huge slice of income, but with upcoming changes a lot of this subsidy stands to be lost. Our farmers are going to need help to try and adapt.”

Later, the Rural Focus Group concluded that diversification, better forward planning and mitigating risks could help farming and rural communities survive. They also suggested recommendations for more inclusivity and better rural transport links.

Mr Booth promised to relay the feedback he’d received to fellow trustees of the Prince’s Countryside Fund.

Thanking Mr Booth for his contribution, Archdeacon David made a commitment for the group to convene again in 2022 and said: “As leaders, we all have our role to play in encouraging our various partners to work together.

“We have so much to learn from each other – and our Rural Focus Group is committed to providing a forum for those who work in rural areas to keep exploring our strategies and actions to help our communities thrive.”

With thanks to Carl Hudspith of the National Farmers’ Union for quotes and photo

  • Caption for above photo: front row, centre, is Edwin Booth, flanked by Archdeacon David and Rev Cindy Rigney and joined by some of the other delegates attending the Rural Focus Group conference.