Nerys Owens and Jon Radcliffe find that a major issue is access to distant services
Just over 989,300 people live in towns, village and remote areas across rural Wales, a third of the Welsh population. Moreover, the service sector represents a dominant part of the rural economy, currently employing 77 per cent of the working population. A vibrant service sector is therefore vital for a prosperous local economy and for meeting the needs of the rural population.
Evidence gathered through the Wales Rural Observatory’s research programme since 2004 has informed a deeper understanding of the key challenges facing the delivery of services to rural communities across Wales. The tri-annual Rural Services Survey, carried out in 2004, 2007 and most recently in 2010-11, has looked in detail at the provision of rural services at town and community council level and offers a good source of data on experiences and levels of satisfaction. By comparing the results from the most recent survey with those of the previous surveys, a number of consistent messages emerged.
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First, was the issue of declining services. Information provided by town and community clerks indicated that there had been a real decline in levels of provision across a range of key services, most notably post offices, schools, pubs, petrol stations, libraries and public transport. The loss of such services from rural areas affected the fabric of community life in ways that were far more invasive than might be expected. For example, schools, post offices and facilities such as a village hall were frequently described as community ‘hubs’, and made the difference between living in isolation and being part of a community.
A number of communities also noted that it was through the provision of such services that communities were sustained, as they represented focal points, not only geographically, but through shared interests and day-to-day interactions. In communities where service provision had remained broadly the same since 2004, there were concerns over reduced opening hours, higher prices and limited choice.
A second and related issue concerned mobility and accessibility. These included discussions about prices, frequency of services, and accessibility for particular groups within rural communities. The findings indicated that as services were lost or withdrawn from rural communities, the main issue faced by residents was their access to distant services. Although 39 per cent of the communities that responded to the survey in 2010-11 had a daily bus service, it was noted that they were either too infrequent or ran at times that did not allow the communities to depend upon it. Ownership of a car was viewed as a necessity of rural life.
Communities emphasised that there was no realistic choice between cars and public transport in rural areas. As public transport decreased the perceived need for it diminished. For rural residents without access to private transport due to age, income, illness or disability, accessing services became increasingly problematic and, in some cases, could lead to real issues of isolation. It was argued that the cost of fuel and the overriding need to own a car made living in rural areas much more expensive than urban areas.
At the same time there was an acceptance of the limitations of service provision in rural areas, including the long distances involved, low population densities and, because of that, the relatively small budgets available to service providers such as county councils. To a certain extent, communities were prepared to accept lower levels of service provision in exchange for a quality of life perceived to be superior to that available in towns and cities.
The positive aspects of quality of life in rural areas that were mentioned included attractive environments, close community networks, low levels of crime, and a slower pace of life. In those areas where access to services was particularly problematic, there appeared to be a strong sense of community to compensate. Neighbours, friends or family form a key part of the ‘coping strategies’ that were employed by rural residents, with people reliant on others for lifts, or for collecting necessities. There was also a marked appreciation of the importance of individuals who were prepared to offer services beyond the call of duty, whether that was the local postman or local shop-owner. It is in situations like this that a local shop, post office or GP surgery can make a difference between someone remaining in their local area or being forced to move to a an area with better facilities.
An important issue raised time and time again by participants was their inability to access communication technologies. Broadband availability was highlighted as particularly poor in rural Wales. As an increasing number of services became available online, such as those provided by the post office, banks and food shopping from the large supermarkets, the physical isolation of living in a rural area could be further accentuated by lack of access to broadband.
The need to address these challenges confronting the delivery of rural services has never been greater. It will require cross-sectoral coordination at national, regional and local levels, while also taking into account the views of communities on the ground. Only then will our rural communities have, as the Welsh Government’s 2011 Programme for Government promises, “an excellent quality of life with access to high quality employment, affordable housing and public services”.