This is just to confirm that I am standing for re-election as your Woodbridge County Councillor in the forthcoming Suffolk County Council elections.
Voting takes place on May 4th.
This searchable blog gives a fair picture of my many activities on your behalf over the last 9 years. I will be uploading more Woodbridge-specific information over the month. I hope it will encourage you to trust me with the future of our beautiful and special town for a fourth term.
What is the larger political picture within Suffolk? Well, the Conservatives have run the County Council since 2005, and have consistently reduced services, instead of looking after the real needs of the local people they were elected to represent. They’ve prided themselves on providing a 7 year council tax freeze, but you get what you pay for – and the horrible state of our roads and pavements, of adult social care, the fragility of our libraries, the loss of bus services (and – in parts of Suffolk – even of the capacity to use your disabled or older person’s bus pass) are all mute testimony to their short-sighted policies.The administration is now sitting on a knife edge, as it reaps the predictable results of seven years of underfunding – all in the name of ideology.
Suffolk Lib Dems believe there is a better way . We need urgent action in some important areas:
SUFFOLK Liberal Democrats’ SIX top priorities for local people
Provide a £5m boost to adult social care
Invest in Suffolk’s infrastructure to support planning of new housing – investment in roads, schools and doctors’ surgeries
Fund a county-wide mental health programme in schools
Fix our roads and pavements
Invest in local bus services and make park & ride buses more frequent
This is the last year of the four year county council electoral cycle. Apart from the ultimately bathetic non-event of Suffolk’s devolution – which managed to take up an extraordinary amount of last year’s council administrative time with absolutely no ultimate outcome – a lot of other things have happened in Suffolk over the last 12 months. Here are some of the most important to people in Woodbridge:
Agreed 20mph zone & calming in Woodbridge Years of requests from Woodbridge Town Council, individual bodies and local residents came to fruition in February when I presented a report and a mass of supporting documentation to Suffolk’s Speed Panel – and got through – ambitious proposals for speed calming in Woodbridge. I am grateful to the contribution of former Mayor Nigel Barrett to this and much cross-party support in managing to make this finally happen.
The overarching intentions will be:
to ensure that the ancient centre of Woodbridge is calmed
that heavy traffic is discouraged
that (often elderly) residents and visitors have easier access between the heart of the town and the riverside area
that children can walk and cycle safely to school
to help solve longstanding and persistent problems of heavy traffic in the Thoroughfare and surrounding streets
to assist in dealing with longstanding traffic related air quality problems at Melton Hill which is a designated Air Quality Management Area and an action for SCC to resolve
and by supporting the 20mph signage in the centre with a holistic scheme, to prevent unintended consequences of people ‘rat running’ elsewhere in the town
to support the Woodbridge ‘Walkers are Welcome’ initiative.
The approval of the panel, though vital, is only the first step. All speed changes have to be put out to community consultation before current speedscan be changed and funding has to be found from a variety of sources. There will be 4 years’ Highways funding from the County Councillor, and we will hope to draw from money for Air Quality and CIL money payable on account of local development.
Thoroughfare traffic improvement I regrouped the Thoroughfare Working Party in November to try and tackle the continuing issues of traffic in the Thoroughfare – balancing the needs of residents, visitors, traders, shoppers, pedestrians and (necessary) vehicle users. Representation is from all 3 levels of council (cross-party), retailers, residents, police and highways engineers. The aim is to try and find consensus for a short, mid- and long-term plan to improve footfall and preserve the future of the Woodbridge Thoroughfare in all its aspects because it is the heart of Woodbridge and the lifeblood of the town.
There are two different issues with different enforcement needs (people driving through and people parking).
We look as if we are close to reaching a solution which can be put out to community consultation.
Woodbridge Youth Centre Although some years ago I had been assured by Suffolk’s Chief Executive Deborah Cadman that no decision concerning the Woodbridge Youth Centre would be made without full disclosure to all Woodbridge councillors, I was called into a meeting last summer to be told the centre would close imminently.
The line was “we’re afraid something significant over the next year might force closure at short notice..so we thought we’d force closure at short notice now.”
The centre had been home to many community initiatives: Not only was it home for Just 42, there had been a youth club there for decades, The Gateway social Club for people with learning disabilities met there for 30 years, Company of 4 used it for rehearsals, it housed classes for Pilates, baby massage, country dancing, French, Italian, English as a second language, tai chi, as well as having a very important role in young people’s social care, and as a ‘safe house’ for children to meet parents in difficult home situations.
Suffolk County has offered the site on a long lease if a good business case can be made within a year for a new centre, and (once Just42 was rehoused in temporary accommodation), we have got a group together to ensure that we can rebuild the youth centre on its present site as soon as possible for all users!
New rural Community Transport – new difficulties for Bus Pass holders After Suffolk’s Conservative administration stopped supporting scheduled bus services in many parts of rural Suffolk back in the Andrea Hill era rural dwellers have relied on a patchwork of demand responsive services.
In June these were brought together under a new community franchise offer, with the aim of rebranding and savinf significant sums (the county no longer provide free vehicles – saving some £570k (which largely voluntary bodies would have to find) – but also SCC would HALVE the community subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years) Although Suffolk was told this would create parity across Suffolk, it has instead created a postcode lottery .
While Suffolk Coastal Community Transport -operated by previous operators CATS and FACTS (in Felixstowe)- will be operating the same services as before: a mix of Demand Responsive Transport (on which bus passes will be accepted), and door-to-door and community car services on which passes won’t be accepted (exactly as before.) in mid-Suffolk, the franchisees no longer operate Demand Responsive Transport in their Community Transport offer – eg Bus Passes will NO LONGER be accepted, under-16 fares will only apply if are accompanied by an adult, and the under 18 reduction is derisory with no provision for young people to use SCC’s Endeavour card.
This leaves all people eligible for concessionary passes in mid Suffolk with the choice of accepting £100 in vouchers and no pass (for travel outside midSuffolk) or a pass that cannot be used where they live. And of course Suffolk bus pass holders from other districts cannot use them to travel into mid-Suffolk either.
Queen’s 90th Birthday Commemorative Badges for Woodbridge Children In the past Britain’s schoolchildren were always given a souvenir to commemorate special occasions and this year it seemed – particularly in this time of austerity – a good idea to revive this custom. So I funded a commemorative badge for every child in every Woodbridge school to celebrate and commemorate the Queen’s 90th birthday (2975 badges). Over the birthday week deputy Mayor Clare Perkins and I personally handed out about 2000 badges.
Suffolk Highways Maintenance Controversy: A new Highway Maintenance Operational Plan, and Contract extension In the summer Suffolk’s administration agreed a new Highway Maintenance Operational Plan with contractors, Kier, and towards the end of 2016 extended their contract – despite their record of appalling performance.
Basically Suffolk’s administration had little option for the former because the past Highways Maintenance plans have been a disaster, criticised by everyone, regardless of party affiliation. (And anyway, the new Plan had been running (‘trialled’) without Cabinet consent since early May.)
The good news is that it concedes that the previous way of Highways Maintenance working was unwieldy and inefficient, as county, town and district councillors across Suffolk could testify. There should now be a much more unified and strategic way of working between SCC and contractors Kier to try and make things work more efficiently than they have, meaning that the Highways small schemes backlog – created solely by this administration’s ideologically driven decision to outsource the contract in the name of efficiency savings – may clear at long, long last.
The bad news is that the mantra of ‘you’ve got to pay the market price for the work you get’ is very much to the fore, so there is no suggestion of many highways schemes being affordable any more. (I have recently been quoted £5,000 to ‘design’ the siting of a single bollard!) Small towns like Woodbridge will no longer be able to rely on their County Councillors’ Highways budgets. Currently these are half what they were at best (mine is £6660 this year). Yet jobs will be many times more expensive.
At county Cabinet meeting I asked whether this was not a case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’? That this newly designed Highways Maintenance Operational Plan (the second one in a year!) had been constructed to fit the contractor because the contractor had been unable to stick to the agreed plan?(This was loudly rejected – but with little evidence).
In particular I pointed out the utter absurdity of a private organisation mouthing the ‘you’ve got to pay the market price for the work you get’ mantra whilst providing no competition to ensure that they are offering good value for money. I was talked down, of course.
As for Kier’s contract extension, this appeared to be for no more cogent reason than Macbeth’s “I am in blood so stepped that should I go no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Again, I spoke and urged the council to return to cheap, efficient, knowledgeable in-house provision as we had in the past. Again, the quiet voice of reason was overlooked. Cassandra could take my correspondence course.
Political Make-Up of Suffolk County Council A lot of these unpopular decisions have been forced through by a wafer-thin majority: the Conservative run council has spent the last year balancing (and occasionally tipping over the edge ) of a minority administration. As we come up to the council elections the current balance is technically hung 37:37 with one vacancy . The make up is
Liberal Democrat: 8
So, if you don’t like the state of the roads, of social care, of the libraries – remember to register your dissatisfaction through your vote. (The Suffolk LibDems county manifesto can be found here )
Another Cuts budget for Suffolk, 2017-8 Suffolk County Council’s County Budget 2017-18 was set at the beginning of February. The Conservatives emphasised keeping spend down and how they have amassed large reserves over the past seven years of zero council tax rises. Labour wanted to spend to preserve services and give the residents of Suffolk what they need. Lib Dems felt the Conservatives were cutting too hard but Labour were spending at the top limit of what would be possible. The Conservative’s slender majority carried the day and a further £30million will be cut from services.
Woodbridge Library petition gains 1200 signatures in 10 days Amongst the many cuts to this forthcoming year’s budget, Suffolk County Council is inflicting a further £230,000 cut to the library service. (£280,000 if we include the archives) on top of the significant cut made in this last year.
In ten days in February I got 1200 signatures in Woodbridge to amypetition which read “We oppose any further reductions to the funding of Suffolk’s invaluable and irreplaceable library services, and urge Suffolk County Council not to make this cut. “ The people who signed were of all ages, backgrounds and political affiliations – the eldest was 101. The one thing they agreed on was that these cuts were unacceptable. Over and over again the signatories’ comments repeated the fact that our libraries are ‘essential’, ‘vital’, and that users want “No more cuts!”. At the budget meeting I asked the administration, on behalf of the people I represent, to withdraw this cut. Once again, they did not listen.
Proposals for Ipswich Northern Bypass – and how each impacts on Woodbridge Woodbridge residents may think that a Northern bypass for Ipswich has little to do with them – but the plans will bring it close. With Ipswich coming to a standstill every rush hour and every closure of the Orwell bridge, a progress report into the need for additional road capacity to the north of Ipswich, has been published (the long-proposed Ipswich Northern bypass). Initial broad route corridors have been considered for a potential link between the A12 and A14; and are:
an inner corridor from Martlesham to Claydon
an middle corridor from Woodbridge to Claydon
and an outer corridor from Melton to Needham Market.
All of these will impact on residents of Woodbridge. Obviously each potential corridor would have different impacts on the environment, and on the potential to support future growth. We now have to wait the next stage of study will examine route options in more detail, including traffic, economic and environmental impacts. It will also consider the extent to which the options might support potential future scenarios for housing and employment growth beyond 2031.
First “No Cold Calling Zone” for Woodbridge Suffolk Trading Standards and I visited every home in Morley Avenue to talk to residents about their experiences with cold callers, to set up a ‘No Cold-Calling zone’ in the Avenue and to supply “No Cold Calling” door stickers advertising this.
Woodbridge Library Reading challenge 400 children registered this year, 60% of whom finished the challenge. This meant Woodbridge Library volunteers spent 250 hours helping with the scheme over the summer, and I presented 240 certificates at the award ceremony in September!!!This year I augmented the scheme by funding story-reading sessions for the children over the summer, a Dream Jar competition and a magic show to finish the afternoon off in style, once the certificates had been presented.
Planning Developments I have, as ever, made representations both to planners and to Highways officers regarding proposed developments in my division where I have been concerned that the impact on county council infrastructure and services would be unsustainable. The Gladwells and Queen’s House developments were cases in point.
County Councillor’s Surgery My regular monthly open access County Councillor’s surgery in the library, now in its 7th year, continues to bring in more and more people from across an ever-wider sector of Suffolk Coastal. It is clear that many Suffolk residents would be grateful if their own county councillors held open-access monthly surgeries. Currently I am the only one. Just saying!
Overwhelming issues are parking, speeding, road surfaces, and pedestrian problems. However I deal with problems as diverse as deportations, youth issues, special educational needs, disability concwens, social care crises, homelessness, charitable organisation support – and benches!
Locality Spending My Locality budget spending this year has covered such diverse grants as: new sessions for the New Horizons Lunch Club, a contribution to the Rural Coffee Caravan (which has volunteered to do sessions in parts of Woodbridge); rent for Woodbridge premises for the head injury charity Headway; badges for all schoolchildren 16 and under in Woodbridge to commemorate the Queen’s 90th birthday; promotion and publicity materials for Woodbridge Community Circle; support for Woodbridge Library’s reading scheme; support for the first Woodbridge Ambient Music Event; reading materials for Got to Read’s adult literacy scheme in Woodbridge; sessional funding for Suffolk Rape Crisis; in addition to a large £7000 grant to kickstart the rebuilding of the Woodbridge Youth Centre
Very positive news about speeding in Woodbridge and sorting the Thoroughfare issues offset news of yet more budget cuts and library cuts. There is also hope for Woodbridge for the new Park & Ride. I’m also planning to ‘claim’ a piece of land for a bus stop.
Suffolk’s County Budget 2017-8 Suffolk County Council’s County Budget 2017-18 was set at the beginning of February. The Conservative emphasis was on keeping spend down and how they have amassed large reserves over the past seven years of zero council tax rises. Labour wanted to spend to preserve services and give the residents of Suffolk what they need. Lib Dems felt the Conservatives were cutting too hard but Labour were spending at the top limit of what would be possible.
Suffolk Library Services suffer further cut Amongst the many cuts to this year’s budget, Suffolk County Council is inflicting a further £230,000 cut to the library service. (£280,000 if we include the archives) .
Over the last years, staff and volunteers have worked to keep all the Suffolk libraries open as IPSs and to increase and improve provision across the county. They consider they have already streamlined services as far as practicable. Investing in the immense range of things our libraries do so well and so cheaply is building social capital that benefits Suffolk in a huge range of ways. In my view it is simple madness to damage it or throw it away.
In the last ten days on the streets of Woodbridge, I managed to get 1200 signatures for a petition which says “We oppose any further reductions to the funding of Suffolk’s invaluable and irreplaceable library services, and urge Suffolk County Council not to make this cut. “ The people who signed were of all ages, backgrounds and political affiliations – the eldest was 101. The one thing they agreed on was that these cuts were unacceptable. Over and over again the signatories’ comments repeated the fact that our libraries are ‘essential’, ‘vital’, and that users want “No more cuts!”. At the budget meeting I asked the administration, on behalf of the people I represent, to withdraw this cut.
Sadly, they did not listen.
20 mph zone and calming proposals for Woodbridge We are on target to get the report to the Suffolk County Council Speed Panel for the meeting of 22 February where I will present it.
(STOP PRESS: I GOT IT THROUGH. More to follow)
Woodbridge Thoroughfare Working Group update This is meeting very productively with reps from all Woodbridge’s elected parties, and councils, the police, the Highways officers, the traders and the residents with the aim of trying to find consensus for a short, mid- and long-term plan to improve footfall and preserve the future of the Woodbridge Thoroughfare in all its aspects because it is the heart of Woodbridge and the lifeblood of the town.
A sticking point is enforcement, and only some of the enforcement issues can be solved by the prospective decriminalisation of parking offences and its transfer from the police to Suffolk Coastal District Council.
(Speeding issues could be assisted by a change in speed limit. STOP PRESS: The Thoroughfare is part of the newly agreed 20mph zone See above!)
As the mystifying signs at the beginning of the Thoroughfare are the legal consequence of the current TRO (traffic regulation order) it would seem sensible to simplify the TRO (hopefully in advance of the transfer) so as to be able to discourage unnecessary through traffic by correct, legal and simple signs.(Read all about the complexities of the situation here)
Currently questionnaires about usage, access, and deliveries are being filled in by traders and residents, and various options of simple signage are being investigated to best reflect the consensus. A TRO could be built around this
Proposals for Ipswich Northern Bypass – and how each may pact on Woodbridge With Ipswich coming to a standstill every rush hour and every closure of the Orwell bridge, a progress report into the need for additional road capacity to the north of Ipswich, has been published (aka the long-proposed Ipswich Northern bypass).
Initial broad route corridors have been considered for a potential link between the A12 and A14; and are:
an inner corridor from Martlesham to Claydon
an middle corridor from Woodbridge to Claydon
and an outer corridor from Melton to Needham Market.
All of these will impact on residents of Woodbridge.
Preliminary traffic modelling has indicated that roads in each of these corridors would have different effects on traffic eg. an outer corridor would have more benefit to longer distance trips than trips more local to the Ipswich area.
Each potential corridor would also have different impacts on the environment, and on the potential to support future growth.
The next stage of study will examine route options in more detail, including traffic, economic and environmental impacts. It will also consider the extent to which the options might support potential future scenarios for housing and employment growth beyond 2031.
Proposed Bus Shelter opposite Notcutts Having been unable to find out ownership of the untended strip of land next to the Cherry Tree on which there is a broken bench, SCC Highways intends to put up notices ‘claiming’ it so as to allow us to put up a bus stop there without (potentially) being sued!
County Councillor’s Surgery My monthly County Councillor’s surgery in the library, now in its 6th year, continues to bring in more and more people. December’s surgery had people waiting for the 9am start, was packed from start to finish, and lasted for three and a half hours (so finished an hour and a half late) due to pressure of numbers.
The overwhelming issues are parking, speeding, road surfaces, and pedestrian problems. However I deal with issues as different as deportations, youth issues, special educational needs problems, social care crises, homelessness, and charitable organisation support. Unfortunately I had to cancel February’s surgery through illhealth – the first time I’ve ever done this in over 6 years.
There will only be to more surgeries in the remainder of this electoral cycle:18th March – and my final surgery of this electoral cycle on 15 April.
Suffolk County Council have just voted in a further budget of cuts – in which various Conservative councillors (the sixth age of Man “In fair round belly with good capon lined“) stood up and explained portentously how these cuts were due to their prudence, and concern for the welfare of the people of Suffolk, hem hem.
So no mention at all that these cuts could have been mitigated if
the very same Conservative councillors hadn’t foolishly boasted that they could run the country as efficiently as ever without raising the council tax over the last seven years (or as Leader Colin Noble gleefully puts in his blog of 25 -03-2013 “And even better news we have promised that if elected we will freeze the Council Tax for the whole of the next term. So that[‘s] 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%! ” -a simple explanation for the truly appallingstate of Suffolk roads, social care, and community transport services etc. over the last few years!
The current situation could also have been mitigated IF the same Conservative administration had actually spent their entire committed budget every year, instead of squirrelling away an annual seemingly planned spending shortfall of £10m, on top of their reserves. Some cuts they have made therefore – the cuts to library budget, for example – seem to be cuts that they made by choice. Because – again, I quote Colin Noble’s blog *:
I do not know what planet Councillor Noble is living on – or who the people are he thinks he represents! Clearly not library users.
Amongst the many cuts to this year’s budget, Suffolk Conservatives proposed a further £230,000 cut to the library service budget . Concerning because since they became IPSs, our libraries have been well used – and used for so many purposes – by readers, reading groups, writing groups, clubs; for old, for young, for retired, employed, unemployed and first job seekers; for AGMs, poetry readings, play performances, and the ever-popular reading challenge. I hold my monthly surgery in Woodbridge Library because it is such a community hub.
As Woodbridge county councillor I vehemently oppose these cuts to library services. My party opposes these cuts. The residents I have spoken to locally, regardless of age, background, or political affiliation, have opposed these cuts. Investing in the immense range of things our libraries do so well and so cheaply is building social capital that benefits Suffolk in a huge range of ways.
In my view it is simple madness to damage it or throw it away.
Yesterday the Labour party presented an amendment to the Conservatives’ budget, overturning the cuts and suggesting over £15m of expenditure from reserves to replace some of the damage Cllr Noble’s administration has done over the last years.
I am supporting the Labour amendment, not because I agree with all of it, but because we need to make a stand for the communities we represent against what has clearly become a culture of cuts in the name of ideology, covered thinly with the cloak of Austerity.
A few years ago the administration opposite were trumpeting the virtues of theNew Strategic Direction ‘s ‘virtual council’– now in our Chief Finance Officer’s report , “the county is committed to being a smaller and ever-more-effective Council with a much greater emphasis on commissioning and much lower levels of direct service provision. “
Isn’t it time to replace ideology with some practical common sense?
I am very concerned on behalf of the people of Suffolk that the administration wants to be “a smaller council” “with a much greater emphasis on commissioning” because then they need not take responsibility for being less effective. The proposed Library budget cuts are comparatively small. And our libraries are an irreplaceable resource: they lend books, support study, provide a knowledge base, host clubs and hobby groups and foster new writing and literature and that’s just for starters. In the last ten days on the streets of Woodbridge, I managed to get 1200 signatures for this petition which says “We oppose any further reductions to the funding of Suffolk’s invaluable and irreplaceable library services, and urge Suffolk County Council not to make this cut. “ The people who signed were of all ages, backgrounds and political affiliations – the eldest was 101. The one thing theyagreed on was that these cuts were unacceptable. Comments range from asking “Are you mad?” to “A brilliant community service”,”Shame on you!” “Libraries are an integral part of our future and our history – knowledge is power”. Over and over again is repeated the fact that our libraries are ‘essential’ and that users want “No more cuts!”
So why cut? If Suffolk has underspent by millions year on year (as both LibDems and Labour disclosed) we didn’t need to cut the library budget last year on the grounds of affordability – and we certainly should not have the brass neck to cut it by a further quarter of a million this year . Suffolk Libraries are scooping up people failed by the employment, education, social care services, all on top of their – statutory, may I remind you – remit to lend us books. Funding is cut to the bone –and STILL Suffolk’s administration proposes cuts. And will no doubt wash their hands of the consequences, like jesting Pilate.
I agree with many things in the Labour amendment – in an absolute requirement for Suffolk to support public transport and education transport and to support those of all ages in need of help and care, but if it were only to ensure that our wonderful libraries remain the admiration of the rest of the country – which they currently are – I can have no option but to support this amendment!
Such eloquence, eh? But still the prevailing Conservative vote was against common sense and common interest. I’m sorry, folks. We tried.
*I have provided a screengrab for Cllr Noble’s blog because astonishingly enough one is unable to access it via a County Council computer. Should you try, you get the message
“Oops, it looks like this site isn’t categorised! Uncategorised websites aren’t available as they may be unsafe.”
Today I stood with like-minded people outside Woodbridge Library with a Petition opposing yet more cuts to the Suffolk libraries budget. Freezing cold and blowy, and we had 200 signatures in two hours. A fantastic start!
Suffolk County Council is proposing to slash a further £230,000 off the already pared-to-the-bone budget for Library services, despite the £150million reserves this Conservative-run administration have built up and hold “against a rainy day”. (In other words, for a time just like this.)
Our wonderful libraries have made amazing efforts to maintain services in the face of massive reductions to library funding ( there’s been a 30% reduction since 2011). The budget has already been cut to the bone. This further proposed cut is a cut too far.
As your county councillor I vehemently oppose these cuts to library services. My party opposes these cuts. Everybody I have spoken to in Woodbridge, regardless of age, background, or political affiliation has opposed these cuts. Investing in the immense range of things our libraries do so well and so cheaply is building social capital that benefits Suffolk in a huge range of ways. It is simple madness to damage it or throw it away.
THE BUDGET WILL BE DEBATED AND VOTED ON ON FEBRUARY 9th2017. THE CURRENT ADMINISTRATION HAVE A WAFER-THIN MAJORITY. IT MAY BE POSSIBLE TO CHANGE THEIR MINDS Please sign and circulate the petition (you can download it here: Library Petition 2017) and return to me by 8 February.
And if you want a reminder, here are some Reasons to FIGHT for SUFFOLK LIBRARIES
Suffolk Libraries are essential because they:
provide friendly, welcoming, and helpful facilities for recreation and study that reflect the changing needs of local people
support study for students of all ages – and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds
provide materials for many people’s leisure-learning and hobbies, enhancing and maintaining their growth ad mental health
provide a centre for social activities and interaction of many types enhancing community cohesion
introduce our children to the lifetime pleasures of reading
provide a place for quiet study, and particularly for those who don’t enjoy such facilities at home
provide a source of reference material in both physical and on-line formats
are a key resource for the unemployed to help support them back into employment
provide internet access for people who can’t afford such equipment, don’t have the space to accommodate it, have occasional need or just need help with the processes
provide mobile libraries to ensure a service can be maintained in low-population-density rural areas