The response to coronavirus needs to consider the different issues facing rural areas – from poorer digital connectivity to a higher proportion of ‘vulnerable’ residents.
The effect of the COVID-19 emergency – and the impact of the national responses to it – on rural communities will not be the same as in urban areas. It is essential that government interventions take account of the different factors at work.
The Rural Services Network (RSN) is the national champion for rural services. Its membership includes district, county and unitary councils as well as the wider public services and private, voluntary and community sectors – all working to support communities and businesses across rural England.
That role is even more important now to ensure that ‘rural’ has a strong voice where and when it matters.
Our rural communities are suffering from a lack of good quality broadband and digital connectivity – so critical right now for businesses, education, community support, and to help combat isolation and loneliness among all ages.
We also have a well-documented higher proportion of older (and therefore ‘vulnerable’) residents who are self-isolating and unable to access goods and services. Many of these people previously played a significant role in sustaining local community organisations. Another unique aspect of rural areas is the high numbers of small businesses and the self-employed.
Together with the chairs of the Rural Coalition, Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) and the Plunkett Foundation (which helps rural communities establish and run community businesses), I have written to George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, raising a number of concerns and offering our support to the Government in the urgent search for solutions to these problems.
Fuller details of the issues we raised can be found on our website, www.rsnonline.org.uk. The main issues highlighted were:
- adverse impacts on high streets in rural towns and small, independent retailers
- loss of income from cancellation of festivals and events and the severe impact on rural tourism
- the seasonal nature of much rural employment and problems finding temporary workers
- the future for village shops and rural pubs (including supply chain issues)
- the impact on the incomes of community buildings and village halls.
It is important to remember that COVID-19 followed hard on the heels of two serious flooding events that devastated many rural communities, compounding economic and social difficulties.
The RSN highlighted the deleterious effect on rural councils of dramatically pared-back staffing levels and services because of budget cuts over the past decade. This has left them with weakened resilience to meet the needs of their areas in the current very challenging times. Yet rural authorities are doing their utmost to rise to those challenges.
The RSN is part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Rural Impact Stakeholder Forum, which feeds into its Rural Impact Cell. The cell acts as a coordination, stakeholder and policy hub for COVID-19 impacts on rural communities and businesses.
Weekly stakeholder forum ‘meetings’ are taking place, where we raise the issues and concerns of our members. As they carry out their essential work supporting their communities, we can be their voice to government while they are our eyes and ears on the ground.
We know that our rural communities are resilient, and that communities and local councillors – who have huge wards to cover – are working together to support their vulnerable residents. We will be sharing these stories with our membership.