Supporting the rural economy and rural communities
The research identified supporting the rural economy and rural communities as a guiding principle for future agri-policy, particularly considering the significance of agriculture to rural communities. In particular, there was a preference for economic support for rural communities given the prevalence of rural poverty and outward migration of working age adults in rural communities; moreover, there was also support for service provision to be strengthened in rural areas particularly transport and digital infrastructure and connectivity.
These results emphasise the importance of economic development in terms of future support to rural communities. This is important in terms of balancing social and civic goals as well as economic goals in terms of future support. Having said that it should be borne in mind that the economic impact of rural community support is often difficult to quantify and measure.
Perceptions of rural community issues
A majority (70%) agreed with the statement that there is a lack of jobs and opportunities in rural areas, and reflecting this view, 64% agree with the statement that rural areas need more support than they currently receive. In relation to services, 62% disagree with the statement that broadband availability is good in rural areas.
These results reflect data from the Scottish Household Survey which show that there are lower levels of broadband connectivity in rural areas, and higher levels of fuel poverty comparative to urban areas. Furthermore, while economic data shows that unemployment rates are lower in rural areas, this may stem from the outward migration of working age people to urban Scotland in search of jobs and opportunities which may be concealed by the baseline employment figures.
Figure 6.1. Perceptions of rural community issues
There were key variances in perceptions of rural community issues by urbanity and rurality.
- Those in rural locations - particularly remote small towns - were more likely than those residing in urban locations to agree that there is a lack of jobs and opportunities in rural areas and that rural areas need more support than they currently receive.
- The issue of broadband availability was particularly pronounced for those residing in remote small towns.
- Those in remote rural locations, were more likely than all other location breaks by the six-fold urban-rural classification to strongly agree that those living in rural areas have a better quality of life than those who live in urban areas.
On the issue of community ownership of land and buildings, there was a higher level of agreement among those in rural locations that rural communities have more access to community ownership than in the past. In contrast, there was a higher proportion of "Don't Know" responses among those residing in urban locations. Reflecting these results, those in rural locations were more likely than those in urban locations to agree that people in rural communities need more support to take ownership of lands and buildings and use them to support community benefits.
Table 6.1: Attitudes towards rural communities by 6-fold urban-rural classification (agree %)
|Overall %||Remote rural %||Accessible rural %||Remote small towns %||Acessible small towns %||Other urban areas %||Large urban areas %|
|Lack of jobs and opportunities in rural areas||70||72||73||86||74||68||69|
|Rural areas need more support than current||64||76||75||78||56||63||58|
|Rural communities need support to take community ownership of land and buildings||58||67||57||62||64||59||54|
|People who live in rural areas have a better quality of life than urban||51||60||63||59||42||53||46|
|Rural communities have better acces to community ownership than in the past||31||55||33||37||26||28||30|
|Broadband availability is good in rural areas||61||62||58||61||49||64||73|
Priorities for the future of rural communities
Reflecting perceptions of rural community issues, priorities for the future of rural communities included improving public transport links (65%); improving broadband connectivity (61%); and ensuring there are more jobs and opportunities for those who live in rural areas (52%).
Figure 6.2 Priorities for the future of rural communities
While there was a consistent focus on services and jobs within the research, the literature emphasises the gains of encouraging businesses to set up or move to rural areas - selected by 31% of respondents to the research survey. Bosworth and Atterton 2012 cite in-migrant business owners as an important source of rural economic development arguing that a mix of locally embedded and extra-local sources are needed to enable access to wider opportunities and knowledge exchange within rural networks.
There were some variations in terms of the priorities identified in the survey research for the future funding of rural communities by those in rural and urban locations.
- There was a higher level of importance attributed to improving broadband connectivity in remote rural locations than overall (73% compared with 61%).
- Furthermore, the issue of ensuring there are more jobs and opportunities for those who live in rural areas was stressed more strongly among those in remote small towns compared with overall (62% compared with 52%).
In addition to the variance by urbanity and rurality, there was also variance in the data by age. Those aged 35 and under were more likely than the rest of the sample to want government to focus on improving access to and offer of services in rural areas (42% compared with 36%), which is pertinent when considering the out-migration of young people in rural areas.
The common priorities identified in the quantitative research relating to transport provision, broadband, and jobs were also reflected in the qualitative elements of the study.
Transport provision was commonly seen to be limited in rural areas, and there were specific issues related to infrequent bus and train services, and disruptions to ferry services. For those in remote rural locations there was a view that the limited availability of public transport creates a reliance on cars which in turn affects the environment.
"The system relies on old buses which don't service all of the routes and break down quite a bit" (Interview participant)
In addition to transport services, there was mention of service closure such as banks, post offices, out of hours hospitals, and schools. There was a perception that limited service provision stemmed from the low population density in these areas as population numbers are needed to justify service provision.
"The RBS bank has closed down, which means there are less ATMs which are needed by tourists" (Interview participant)
"Rural areas need to have people living there at the right age (young people) so they need schools, internet, roads, and a transportation system" (Interview participant)
One participant discussed the development of Euro Park in Calderbank Village as an example of a housing development being built on green belt. There was the view that, a hospital and school is being built alongside the development as it is bringing affordable housing for many people. Indeed, there was an implicit assumption that these services would not be available if the development was not being constructed.
With respect to schools, however, the University of Highlands and Islands campuses were cited as a positive development, including the distance learning courses offered by the institution.
There was also specific mention of a lack of health and social care services in rural areas - one participant discussed moving from a rural to an urban location to be able to receive the care package she required. There was a perception that homes for disabled people were few in rural areas, and therefore "stuck out", and likely to become centres for anti-social behaviour".
In addition to service provision, there was the issue of electricity shortages and poor communication infrastructure such as mobile connectivity and broadband. One participant mentioned, that there is only 2G network coverage in some parts of Skye.
"The electric cables run from Ullapool to the Island and the electricity goes off more often than when we had our own electricity plant… sometimes the whole island has no electricity" (Interview participant)
In particular, improving digital infrastructure was seen to be important in terms of supporting service provision, such as online learning, and e-health. It was felt that an emphasis should be placed on developing rural broadband "as we live in a technological age, rural communities will get left behind". These findings are consistent with the literature on the issue, Atterton et al. 2018 point out that improving digital connectivity in rural areas is imperative to ensure equity between urban and rural areas.
Moreover, while participants in rural areas did not self-identify as being in poverty, there was a perception that there were high levels of unemployment in rural areas and thus a reliance on the welfare system. Conversely, those in urban areas recognised that there is often a difference in wages between those living in urban and rural areas; however, there was a caveat that the cost of living might be lower in rural areas, thus in part justifying the differences.
There was the view that high levels of unemployment in rural areas stemmed from a lack of jobs in these areas. One participant discussed having to show 35 hours of job searches related to claiming universal credit, which was not feasible as there was a limited availability of jobs. Discussions around the lack of jobs was couched in descriptions in the decline in industry jobs, and a lack of consequent regeneration of the local economy. Having said that, there was a recognition of tourism as a means to stimulate rural economies, although this was seen to have both positive and negative impacts on communities.
Points of consideration:
- The issue of place is becoming increasingly significant in the adoption of inclusive growth in Scotland, and agri-policy which has conventionally included rural development priorities can be key in addressing some of the issues related to stimulating the rural economy - in particular, the research identified the view that there is a need for more jobs, opportunities and support for rural areas, particularly among those in remote small towns and remote rural locations. Importantly, 31% said that government should prioritise encouraging businesses to set up or move to rural locations;
- Community ownership of land and buildings provide opportunities for rural communities to use land ownership to identify independent revenue streams and use these for local re-investment, 58% think that rural areas need more support in capitalising on opportunities for community ownership which is an area that future policy could focus on;
- A consistent theme in the research is a lack of service provision, and given digital by default, there are gains to be made by improving digital infrastructure so that those residing in rural locations can access services online;
- The research shows that there is a more acute understanding of rural community issues among those residing in rural areas than those residing in urban areas. At the Motherwell forum there was a view that future agriculture policy can help to connect urban and rural populations as a way to bridge this gap.