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Inequality exists in the countryside too

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  • Picture of Becca Antink
    Becca Antink
    Former Researcher, Public Services and Communities
  • Communities
  • Public services

There are around 9.3 million rural citizens in the UK, compared to London’s population of 8.8 million. Rural areas are crucial to the prosperity and wellbeing of our nation as a whole, and it is unimaginable that the needs of people living in them would be so easily overlooked if they were not geographically dispersed.

Rural areas are where we source most of our food, clean water, clean air and sustainable energy - the very basics we need to live. They provide the green space which is essential to general health and wellbeing, and these spaces and landscapes have shaped our culture and our complex, often contested, notions of national identity. However, the State of the Nation report published this week by the Social Mobility Commission has highlighted that spiralling inequality in the UK is resulting in rural areas, alongside coastal towns and former industrial areas, being at particular risk of being “left behind economically and hollowed out socially”.

Whether you are a twenty-something working with no job security in the gig-economy in London, a social worker in Oldham who has seen their workload rise and income fall, or a dairy farmer in Pembrokeshire operating at a loss, it is clear that we are living through a period of time characterised by growing disaffection with how our society and economy functions, and pervasive uncertainty about what the future holds.

Increasingly, there is a sense that this uncertain future it is unlikely to be better than the past: that many young people will find it harder to build upon the achievements and quality of life of their parents and grandparents.

While post-industrialisation in the UK and the globalisation of the world economy have brought prosperity to some, these benefits have not been evenly distributed. In contrast, the accompanying social and economic restructuring has affected everyone. The impacts of this restructuring may play out differently in a rural Welsh village compared to a post-industrial town in Northern England, but they are just as keenly felt in both. These lived experiences are varied and complex, but the ways in which people’s working lives, home lives and communities have been affected often run counter to narratives about the benefits of trickle-down economics and the prosperity created by market mechanisms. Since 2008, these narratives have lost some of their legitimacy, but they continue to dominate policy.

At the RSA, our Inclusive Growth Commission outlined a framework for places to ensure a fairer society and economy. In an era of devolution deals and new Combined Authorities primarily focused on urban areas, there has been a tendency to frame discussions about growing inequality and social disaffection in urban contexts.

Most rural areas have not participated in discussions about devolving the powers and responsibilities of central government. This has resulted in a failure to address challenges particular to rural places, or to consider the implications of policies or public service delivery models in these areas.

Delivering public services to a population which is aging fast and geographically dispersed is particularly challenging for councils and the NHS. And rural incomes are around 19% lower than urban ones, while rural citizens need to spend 10-20% more to cover everyday expenses.

At the same time, many small rural towns and villages have lost the amenities which bring people together and help sustain a sense of community. Even relatively small villages used to have pubs, shops, post offices, schools and regular public transport, while larger ones often had banks and libraries too. Now many of these have disappeared – in 2015-16 600 banks were closed across the UK, with rural areas the worst hit. Tellingly, the once-influential Campaign for Community Banking Services closed down last year, with the group’s founder claiming that there was no hope of preventing closures.

However, in the context of these challenges, there is a higher rate of third sector and community volunteering in rural areas than in large towns and cities. There is a rural culture of self-sufficiency in tackling day-to-day setbacks: if a resident in a remote village drives their car into a ditch, they are unlikely to call their insurance company; instead they pop down the road to their nearest farmer and ask for a tractor tow. This same culture is often also behind many rural communities setting up social enterprises to run their village shops, and local groups taking over their village libraries rather than see them close.

Community business models are growing in popularity, and colleagues here at the RSA are involved in important work looking at how these approaches can unlock the potential in communities to tackle complex social challenges. These actions can help build a sense of community and strengthen individuals’ capabilities, and at the RSA we also advocate strongly for public services to be more open to citizen collaboration and participation in these kind of ways. But it is important that communities are involved in the design and delivery of services in the right way, and for the right reasons.

If not, there is a risk that the retrenchment of public and private services accelerates, and rather than being a positive, long term solution, transferring unsustainable services to communities becomes a means by which to distance local and national decision-makers from the responsibility of closing them down themselves.

In addition to all of this, Brexit will result in the loss of billions of pounds of EU funding which largely goes to the poorer and more rural parts of the UK, while at the same time there is a growing awareness that for the key rural industry of agriculture, increasing UK farmers’ ability to grow and produce more of our food is a national priority, as we face a future with little certainty about trade deals, tariffs and food quality standards.

These are all daunting challenges, but they are now shining a light on rural issues which have been overlooked for a long time. Strong support for Brexit in the countryside was a defiant howl of protest to the powers that be, but the referendum was a blunt mechanism. At this stage it is far from clear if, and how, Brexit will result in positive change, but it is increasingly apparent that a window of opportunity has opened for rural places and their citizens to make their voices heard, and call for a better future of reinvigorated communities and more equitable rural economies.

If you want to make your voice heard in this important debate, sign up for updates from the RSA’s new Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

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  • An interesting article painting some very familiar pictures.

    The part which perhaps interests me most is around 'capacity building' and the fact that there is not much in the way of strategic investment for this at all (certainly in England.) I work for one of the Rural Community Councils, and in real terms the funds we receive from central government that support capacity building work are worth around 17% of what they were in 2008. We now have more than forty organisations (public, private and VCSE sector) co-funding specific aspects of capacity-building work (at an average of around £11,000 a year each - but size and scope does vary), to support a staff team of just over 8 FTE who in turn provide a range of services to help between 400 and 500 rural community-led projects take place each year. Almost 50% of the funding received is on an "in arrears and by results" basis too, which makes strategic planning for services to develop capacity in rural communities more challenging than once it was too.

    The rural capacity building investment picture varies greatly across the country, so what occurs here in Kent may not be typical (local authority support is yet a further story - we are fortunate that there is still some, however), but is something that could - with a little research, positive partnerships and powerful stories - be transformed at relatively minor cost nationally. This transformation would not be reliant entirely on the public purse either - and could help make good use of future rurally-targeted project funds regardless of the sector from which they were sourced. 

  • Structural changes impact on all areas of our economy and society and rural communities as you suggest are perhaps more vulnerable to the impacts of those changes than many urban areas. Again, as you mention and Gordon Morris points out, rural is very much more than food and farming. Barn industries and small industrial estates, hospitality and leisure, value-added service industry and the potential of the littoral, from boatyards to transport, all weave a complex and interdependent fabric of the rural economy.

    Volunteering, social enterprises and a 'can do' culture as you rightly suggest can plug some of the holes left by structural change. This is more likely where there is a higher level of social cohesion and cultural congruence, where Burke's Little Platoons are not discouraged from acting. As a committed Localist I am all for a far greater devolution of power than we have at present, but as a realist there are areas in which State economic intervention is inescapable.

    One is the provision of adequate rural broadband. If banks, post offices and market town shops go, then the transition to online transactions must be in place. We are woefully ill equipped for 2G in the countryside, let alone 4G or 5G and part of this is reliance on the copper cage. I am writing this on a blistering 4G network in a remotely populated Alpine gemeinde all enabled by the mobile network, with not a single copper or fibre optic cable in the ground or overhead.

    A second essential is mobility, critical for schoolchildren and the elderly. Again, here in this remote Alpine gemeinde and throughout each gemeinde in the province we have Go-Mobil, a state subsidised ultra-local fixed-fee taxi service, one vehicle and driver for about 2,500 people, the vouchers on sale at all local outlets, with journeys geographically limited to include shops, medical, schools, social, church, pubs etc within a radius of about 10km, so as not to challenge commercial taxi operators.

    Capacity building within rural communities is also critical  and again this needs intervention - at the least 'nudge' encouragement, at its greatest education and training in self-sufficiency, governmance and local administration.

    Money from British taxpayers previously directed to rural communities through the EU (after deductions) will still be there post-Brexit. In fact somewhat more will be available overall. Now is the time to enter tax and spend discussions - and to take steps to implement Localist solutions that include tax as well as just rationing a spend decided in Whitehall. 

    And I totally and utterly agree with you that our rural communities have a window of opportunity to make their voices heard, and to take control of their lives, their communities, their governance and their economies, and I fervently hope that the RSA assists this process.

    • Thanks for your comments Michael, and I am glad that you agree that this is a crucial moment for rural citizens and communities.

      As you say, connectivity - in terms of both broadband access and transport - is really key to the success of rural communities, and my curiosity has been particularly piqued by your reference to Go-Mobil as a response to meeting transport needs in areas with low population density, so I'll definitely be having a look into how that model works!


      You also raise some really interesting points regarding rural capacity building and fiscal devolution. At this point in time, I think it would be great to see more rural areas follow the lead of Cornwall and North of Tyne to pursue devolution deals, but agree that there is a need to build capacity at a local level in terms of governance and administrative infrastructure for this to be successful.

      These are some of the many issues which we anticipate will come up during the engagement stages of the Commission, and it will be really interesting to explore them further. If you are keen to be kept up to date on opportunities for Fellows to get involved with the work of the commission, I recommend signing up for the updates (link at the bottom of the original piece).

  • Aninteresting article, the contents of which I found all too familiar; a definitesense of .I worked for the Rural Development Commissionand the Countryside Agency (both long gone), and now work with Exeter and Bournemouthuniversities (currently considering, with colleagues, research into rural homelessness).Your article, the RSA’s Food, Farming andCountryside Commission, and the work of the House of Lords’ inquiry into the NaturalEnvironment and Rural Communities Act, 2006, suggests that “rural” might, onceagain, be moving up the policy priority list.However, the commission’s (specific) emphasis on food and farming, and theLords’ committee’s members’ land owning and farming interests, makes one wonder– based on past experience - how much importance will be attached to non-landedinterests (eg social justice, access to services, housing etc)?Nevertheless, good luck with it all, and thankyou.

    • Thanks for you comments Gordon, and I'm glad you found the blog interesting and that it chimed with your extensive experience of these issues.

      In response to your query regarding the focus of the Commission's work, while it will definitely give significant attention to food and farming issues, broader, more systemic concerns around equitable communities, access to services etc will also be very much in scope too.

      Your planned research on rural homelessness sounds particularly interesting and it would be good to link up with your work  - drop me a line (Becca.antink@rsa.org.uk) if you would like to discuss.

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