Rural services in decline

Rural England, a not-for-profit research body, has released its latest ‘State of rural services’ report, exploring trends across varied services, including: rural transport; digital connectivity; hospitals; public health; libraries; youth services; and retailing.

The evidence shows many services are scaling back or withdrawing from rural areas, sometimes rapidly so. This trend is, perhaps, most evident where services are delivered by local government and their delivery is largely discretionary. Years of austerity appear to have taken their toll.

Subsidised rural bus services are a good example. In 2016/17, 202 services were withdrawn altogether in shire areas and a further 191 were reduced in some way. This follows years of similar figures and leaves a situation where four rural shire councils no longer hold a budget for bus subsidy. In parallel, the number of bus passenger journeys made in rural areas has declined since 2014.

“In almost every public service… spending per resident is lower in rural than urban areas

Another example is the provision of youth clubs or centres. Shire local government spending on young people’s services has fallen 38 per cent in the space of three years, with the impact falling heavily on youth clubs and centres. In some places, these have found ways to survive outside the public sector, while others have simply folded.

Youth services can play a key role, offering those who use them positive activities and a safe environment. In that regard, analysis for the report found that young people from rural areas score badly on public health measures of risky behaviour, alcohol consumption, smoking and being bullied.

One finding common to almost every public service examined is that spending per resident is lower in rural than urban areas. Rural residents have 63 per cent less spent on them for bus subsidies, 36 per cent less for public health and 25 per cent less for library services. This cannot help their survival. It also poses interesting questions about the equity of rural provision and whether differences on this scale can be justified by patterns of need.

Unsurprisingly, fixed broadband and mobile phone networks have bucked the trend and extended further across rural areas. Around 76 per cent of rural premises can now access a superfast broadband connection (30 Mbps) and 89 per cent a basic broadband connection (10 Mbps).

Yet there remains some way to go. Turn those figures around and 11 per cent of rural premises, including many small businesses, are still without a connection that telecoms regulator Ofcom considers necessary for everyday applications. Mobile provision is arguably a bigger issue still, with a basic phone call not possible inside a third of rural premises on all four networks.

There is clearly a growing expectation of communities and volunteers to sustain rural services, from libraries and youth clubs to village shops and community transport schemes. These can deliver benefits, reshaping services around community needs by widening the service offer or improving opening hours.

They also come with risks, such as limits to volunteer capacity and a variable response where communities lack sufficient time or skills. Community-run shops, which can stand on their own two feet, have a high survival rate. Community-run services that rely on grant funding or similar may face a less certain future.

Solutions that involve communities and put more provision online can certainly pay dividends. But with funding constraints as they stand, it’s hard to see the loss of services from rural areas halting any time soon.

The Rural Services Network is a special interest group of the LGA, see www.rsnonline.org.uk.

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