Hedgerows can hide rural poverty new report finds

Despite poverty being widely viewed as an urban issue, many rural residents are just as financially vulnerable as their city counterparts, new research finds.

Professor Mark Shucksmith
Professor Mark Shucksmith

A study of people living in Harris and East Perthshire in Scotland and Northumberland in England, found that income from many types of rural work is often both volatile and irregular.It also found the welfare system is not well adapted to rural lives, and there are serious barriers for those in the countryside wishing to enter self-employment and develop rural small businesses.The study was carried out by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) in partnership with the University of Newcastle and the Impact Hub Inverness between October 2019 and September 2020 – both before and during the coronavirus pandemic.Although they found potential for new rural enterprise, the researchers noted the lack of jobs in land-based activities and manufacturing in rural areas, with most people employed in services such as health, education, tourism and retail.While some residents commute - or tele-commute – to well-paid, secure professional jobs, much local employment is precarious, low-paid or seasonal, with volatile and unpredictable incomes creating financial vulnerability.However, despite many people relying on support from the state, including welfare and pensions, the benefits system is unable to deal fairly with the volatility and irregularity of rural incomes, increasing the vulnerability of those living in rural areas to poverty.The centralisation and digitalisation of the welfare system in recent years has created further difficulties, with poor broadband and mobile coverage, and loss of public transport, in many rural areas.The researchers also found that the centralisation or reduction of other services such as education, health, social care and housing has exacerbated many of these issues. As a result, greater importance is now placed on the cash-strapped voluntary sector in providing support and advice.Lead researcher Professor Mark Shucksmith, from Newcastle University, said that rural poverty was not being adequately addressed.“This research highlighted that the support and advice offered by voluntary and community organisations is valued by, and invaluable to, those in rural areas experiencing or at risk of financial hardship and are most people’s first port of call - and sometimes their sole source of support.“Policies could be improved with the benefit of local place-based knowledge that exists among these organisations. There is a real opportunity for rural proofing of policy but it’s crucial that this involves rural stakeholders who have this local understanding.”Dr Jayne Glass, from the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC, said the range of policy interventions that could address the challenges included better support for face-to-face provision of welfare advice and support in rural areas, and routine assessment of the rural impacts of any new national initiatives.Rebecca Graham, of the programme's funder, Standard Life Foundation, said: “When making policy decisions on areas including, but not limited to, employment and housing, it is vital that rurality is taken into account, as well as consideration of who is best placed to deliver support and solutions, particularly given some of the strengths of rural communities that have been highlighted in this research.”

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