Rural Wales 1: Commuting will integrate the country and the city

Paul Milbourne says in future we can expect to see people travelling ever greater distances to find work

So far as the Welsh language, culture and landscape are concerned rural Wales is associated with tradition, belonging and stability. In other respects, however, it is subject to dynamic change, especially in terms of economic development and migration.

Although we still await the latest statistics from the 2011 Census, it is clear that the rural population has continued to grow over the last decade. Migration remains a major force shaping rural demographics, with the relocation of large numbers of outside groups to the Welsh countryside being accompanied by net out-movements of younger people from many rural areas. Within both processes England continues to play an important role as the origin and destination of significant numbers of movers.

Future of Rural Wales

This is the first in a five part series we are running this week on the economy of the Welsh countryside. Tomorrow Nerys Owens and Jon Radcliffe find that a major issue is access to distant services.

More recently, rural Wales has witnessed the in-migration of groups from beyond the UK, as large numbers of migrant workers from Central and Eastern European countries have moved to rural towns in search of employment opportunities. The impacts of such population movements include:

  • Welsh-speaking communities struggling to cope with the influx of outside groups.
  • The rural population ageing at a faster rate than in other parts of Wales.
  • A rapid expansion of the larger settlements to house new rural residents.

In recent decades the rural economy has expanded and diversified and its rate of growth has been higher than that in other parts of Wales. This has concentrated on particular employment sectors, initially manufacturing and more recently services, with the agricultural workforce continuing to decline.

The public sector is a significant provider of employment in rural Wales although spending cuts are beginning to reduce its impact. Generally speaking, and as was the case for much of the second half of the 20th Century, many local labour markets in rural Wales are dominated by low-skill and low-paid employment. In turn this prevents many young people gaining access to local housing markets and leads to their moving away from rural towns and villages.

The Welsh Government’s transition from a sector-based to system-based approach has created new connections between food production and consumption, as well as between the food and other rural policy areas. In addition, it is likely that European rural policy in the post-2013 period will broaden rural development and agri-environmental goals, creating new relationships between farming, the economy, society and the environment. The increasing significance of community growing projects in the Valleys and urban areas, together with the growth of Community Supported Agriculture in rural areas, is also creating new local food systems across Wales.

A broad range of essential key facilities and services have been cut back across rural Wales during recent years. This has created real problems for rural residents without access to cars and led to the adoption of elaborate coping tactics to deal with the realities of everyday rural life. Moreover, the scale of this retraction of key services has meant that rural living in the smaller and remoter settlements is now only possible for those who are able to travel between rural and urban places on a regular basis, calling into question the social sustainability of these places.

It is likely that further cuts in services will follow as the Westminster and Welsh Governments work within more constrained budgets. There is a danger that, with their higher delivery costs, rural services will be particularly vulnerable to the austerity agenda. A partial solution may lie in the realm of virtual mobility, as the roll-out of high speed Broadband to the smaller and more remote places of rural Wales opens up new possibilities for small businesses, home working and shopping. Nonetheless, the future of service provision in rural Wales remains bleak.

It is likely, too, that rural spaces will become increasingly drawn into debates about policy responses to climate change, for example on the effects of rising sea levels and increased risks of flooding in its riverside and seaside localities, the contribution of forests to carbon storage in the uplands, and the linkages between transport and domestic fuel costs and rural poverty. It is also probable that the visual aesthetics and environmental conditions of rural spaces will be further altered by the expansion of renewable energy production in rural areas. Whether in terms of solar panels on the roofs of domestic properties or increasing numbers of wind turbines, the climate change agenda will introduce new sets of scalar tensions between national energy requirements and the traditional values attached to Welsh rural landscapes.

It needs to be recognised there is not one rural Wales. When we look across the Welsh countryside it is clear that it is a heterogeneous space. At one level, it is possible to identify an east – west differential in relation to demographic change, economic structure, income levels and language. The remoter western, and particularly north-western parts of rural Wales have the lowest levels of population growth, highest rates of unemployed, greatest low income households, and largest numbers of Welsh speakers.

Looking below this regional level, individual local authority areas are themselves characterised by considerable internal differentiation, particularly in relation to differences between towns and smaller villages. Moreover, we need to remain sensitive to important relationships between rural and non-rural spaces in Wales. In future we can expect greater commuting of people between rural and urban Wales as people travel ever greater distances to find work.

Paul Milbourne is Professor of Human Geography and Director of the Wales Rural Observatory at Cardiff University. He is Editor of Rural Wales in the Twenty First Century, published by the Wales University Press in 2011. This article originally appeared in the current, Summer 2012 edition of the welsh agenda

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