Threats to rural services

28th Feb 2017

Public and private sector provision of services, such as transport and banking, is reducing in rural areas while demand increases, according to a new report into the state of rural services launched in January.


Launched at the House of Commons on 17 January, the State of Rural Services 2016 report found that service provision is reducing in rural areas due to a combination of austerity and competitive pressures but the ageing nature of the rural population continues to pile on additional pressures.


The report, produced biannually, brings together existing rural research and national data to inform policy making and delivery.


Two services are highlighted as being at particular risk of cutbacks – local buses and bank branches. Nationally, 49% of households in smaller rural settlements (villages) have access to a regular bus service – which means 51% do not. In 2015/16 alone the report identifies that 124 bus services were withdrawn and 248 reduced or altered.  The largest cuts were to subsidised services in shire areas.  The loss of bus services affects access to a whole range of other services.


The report also found that bank branch closures have increased.  Some 124 of the closures that took place in 2014 were the last branch in their neighbourhood, many in rural or coastal places. The Post Office network still retains significant reach, with more than half its outlets in rural locations.  For many rural residents, the Post Office is the nearest place they can access their bank account.


Take-up of online service provision is, of course, growing and has real scope to improve service accessibility – but many people in rural areas are still not online or have poor broadband speeds. The report raises 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. The report identifies that 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 seen as a critical need.


The report clearly demonstrates that 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, 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 while the England average is £51.


Only half of rural young people can get to a further education college by public transport or by 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 community action is high. The report states that 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, double the number from two years ago.  Most of these operate in rural areas.


The purpose of this report is to shine a light on what existing research proves about services in rural areas. Policymakers and funders alike are urged to make sure they consider these issues in making decisions as to where to invest in helping to create sustainable futures. The report’s findings will be incorporated into the forthcoming update to CAN’s ‘Deprivation in Rural Northumberland’ report.