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Roads to Nowhere

Rural services are feeling the pressure

James MacColl's picture
Photo: rural bus stop

Rural areas are losing their buses. And without buses, many residents are also losing access to a whole range of other services. So says Andy Dean, one of the Directors of Rural England CIC, who produced a report this month entitled State of Rural Services 2016. Andy has written this guest blog for us.

"It will come as no surprise to anyone to find out that public and private sector service provision is reducing in rural areas – broadly due to a combination of austerity and competitive pressures.  Community action has increased and plays a growing role but the ever-ageing nature of the rural population will continue to pile on additional pressures.

The State of Rural Services 2016 report, an objective assessment of existing research and available national data sources, points to two services currently at particular risk of cutbacks – local buses and bank branches.  The loss of bus services, of course, affects access to a whole range of other services. Forty-nine per cent of households in smaller rural settlements (villages) have access to a regular bus service – which means 51% do not. In 2015/16 (alone) there were 124 bus services withdrawn and 248 reduced / altered.  The largest cuts were to subsidised services in shire areas.

Bank branch closures have increased.  Some 124 closures in 2014 were a last branch in their neighbourhood, many in rural or coastal places. However the Post Office network still has significant reach with more than half of its outlets in rural locations and the size of the rural network fairly stable.  For many rural people the PO is the nearest place to access their bank account.

Take-up of online service provision, of course, is growing and has real scope to impact positively on service accessibility – but there are clear issues associated with those not online or with poor broadband speeds. In addition, there is the question as to whether the growth of online services is contributing to the reduction in physical service outlets, further marginalising those who struggle to access online services. In reality, there is little robust evidence about the take-up of online services by rural users, despite the obvious opportunities that this presents, and this is an area where additional information is a critical need.

Rural areas have a high proportion of older people and their populations will age fast, placing extra demand on services like GP surgeries and adult social care.  Indeed, almost a quarter of rural older people are themselves carers. Care providers face rural challenges including staff recruitment and urban-based day care centres and contractors unwilling to serve outlying clients. Despite the extra costs associated with delivering services to sparsely populated areas, funding for public health is much lower for rural than urban local authorities.  Some rural areas get under £30 per resident.  The England average is £51.

For younger people, only half of rural users can get to a FE College by public transport or walking in a ‘reasonable travel time’ (as defined by the Department for Transport) and just 39% of rural users can get to a school sixth form by public transport or walking in a ‘reasonable travel time’ (and that transport may be infrequent).

On the plus side, there are almost 10,000 village halls and other rural community buildings, managed by volunteers and hosting a wide range of activities and services. Community-run shops have grown steadily in number and most are rural – there are 277 in rural England with more than 100 others being planned – and there are now 170 Community Land Trusts, a number which has doubled in just two years.  Most of these operate in rural areas.

The purpose of our report is to shine a light on what the existing research proves about services in rural areas. Policymakers and funders alike need to make sure they at least consider these issues in making decisions as to where to invest in helping to create sustainable futures."

Launched at the House of Commons on 17 January 2017, the State of Rural Services 2016 report was produced by collating and representing existing rural research, and by undertaking some rural analyses of national data sources.  Its purpose is to improve the rural services evidence base in order to stir debate and inform policy making and delivery.

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