Inclusive participation in rural Scotland: research report

Preliminary exploration report details the findings of research into barriers to participation facing lesser heard voices in the context of rural Scotland. Specifically, it focuses on the LGBTI community, disabled people, carers and ethnic minorities.

5 Research methods and findings

Section summary

  • The experiences of barriers to participation in rural Scotland, include, for example: dispersed populations and social isolation, inadequate service provision and access, inadequate infrastructure, employment patterns, the nature of the rural economy, a lack of representation on decision-making bodies, and minority stress.
  • Overall, it appears that there are both barriers that result from rurality, and barriers that result from communities of interest facing discrimination. In the rural context, it is possible for these to overlap and reinforce each other, creating a double disadvantage.
  • Overcoming barriers may entail the inclusion of lived experience on decision-making bodies and addressing rural economic challenges (e.g. through a universal basic income).

5.1 Methodology

We conducted interviews with six stakeholders who, in a professional capacity, had engaged with the communities of interest in rural Scotland. Stakeholders were approached based on their organisation’s role in relation to these communities. While some stakeholders spoke about the communities of interest more generally, others focussed on a specific community. Interviews were approximately 45 minutes long and followed a semi-structured format. Interview questions focussed on the experiences of the communities of interest in rural Scotland, barriers to their participation in rural policy and decision-making, and possible means of overcoming such barriers.

5.2 Experiences and barriers

5.2.1 Rural geography

The geography of rural settings was seen as important in shaping the experiences of certain groups, with one stakeholder stating that:

“The biggest problem for LGBTI people who live rurally is they don’t live in one part of rural Scotland […] It’s a community without a specific geographical location”

This highlights that members of a community of interest in rural Scotland are often dispersed over a large geographic area. One problem that extends from this is that the provision of – and access to – services and support tailored to the needs of this community of interest is made more difficult than it would otherwise be with a centralised population. As highlighted by another stakeholder, a dispersed population can also lead to feelings of isolation amongst members of a community who may not live in close proximity to others who share their experiences. Another stakeholder highlighted that isolation can further frustrate service access with isolated individuals turning a “blind eye” to services and not accessing them. Low numbers in a given geographical area was also cited as a barrier to communities of interest establishing meetings and groups, irrespective of the desire to do so.

One stakeholder, speaking more generally, highlighted that in rural areas identity is tied to geography (i.e. those that live in close proximity to you). Identity in urban areas, by comparison, may more likely be linked to shared interest. For the communities of interest in rural settings, this can stand as a barrier to participation if you are perceived as being on the social periphery of this geographic community. In this context, being perceived as an “incomer”, a concept this stakeholder noted may be applied quite broadly, and the internalisation of this perception, can limit people’s voice in shaping their community. However, it should be noted that this particular stakeholder was wary of making “blanket statements” about rural Scotland citing it as both geographically and culturally diverse.

5.2.2 Rural economy and employment

Stakeholders highlighted how the structures of local economy and employment could act as barriers to participation in the community more generally. One stakeholder spoke about how someone’s voice in the community may be linked to their economic standing or ability to generate monetary wealth, stating that:

“It seems that your right to have a say is dependent on your ability to be economically independent”

This is especially problematic for those who may face barriers to employment as a result of, for example, being a disabled person or having caring responsibilities. This stakeholder stated that if people do not feel their contribution to the community is valued – because it is not recognised as generating monetary wealth – they may not feel that they have anything to contribute in terms of decision-making in the community.

The importance of supporting wider economic activities (e.g. unpaid care work, childcare, and informal voluntary work), which sustain rural communities and generate “community wealth”, was emphasised. These activities are often undertaken in conjunction with waged work in rural settings, where such work is often precarious and poorly paid. This stakeholder explained that participation in community groups would require that the costs of childcare, care, and transport were covered, as these costs are typically beyond many people’s means. There is a perception that funding is prioritised for initiatives that stand to generate monetary value over other initiatives that support rural communities.

Speaking generally about rural communities, one stakeholder discussed the potential of a universal basic income to alleviate a number of the challenges these communities face thereby permitting greater participation in processes of decision-making:

“The one thing that would really help, and would help also with participation and democratic decision-making, is really a universal basic income. In an [rural] area like us where everybody, despite the fact that they work maybe two or three jobs, will still volunteer and do so informally. The whole of the society is predicated on volunteering. If you alleviated some of the financial stress on people it would create a lot more of an equal footing for people to actually participate”

This participant also talked about potential benefits of localism and local decision-making, but qualified this with the need to maintain a conversation in rural communities about equality issues and the experience of disadvantaged groups.

Another stakeholder highlighted that while equality and diversity is on the agenda of organisations and companies more generally, this is less likely to be the case for those that are smaller and operating in rural areas. As has been established elsewhere, rural economies, and particularly remote rural economies, are characterised by high levels of micro-enterprises, with fewer large employers than in urban areas (Scottish Government, 2018). This was reiterated by another stakeholder who discussed divergent ‘attitudes’ between rural and urban areas in relation to disabled people, and argued that rural organisations have less awareness of reasonable adjustment and the Equality Act 2010.

One stakeholder described how, in parts of rural Scotland, ethnic minorities employed in low-skilled work – namely the agricultural and service industries – face barriers to participation in society that extend from employment. Research estimates that there were approximately 9, 225 migrant workers employed in Scottish agriculture in 2017, who were employed for an average of four months a year (SRUC 2018). This stakeholder felt that the barrier is a lack of English language skills which is often favoured by employers:

“Our experience is that it works in the employer’s favour to have separate teams working different shifts who are all of one language group and there is no collective action they need to worry about, they can sort of divide and rule”

In this stakeholders view, this is compounded by other barriers such as long shifts, living on site with a lack of amenities (e.g. an internet connection), and a lack of public transport, thus creating a “bubble” around work. They argued that this may result in employers effectively functioning as gatekeepers to the participation in society of their employees, giving them the power to undermine such participation to meet their own ends:

“They [the employers] don’t want people to know what their rights are, and it’s quite clear from the way they interact with us”

Not only does this exclude ethnic minorities in such employment from support services, but they may also face employment practices that limit their opportunities to engage with the rural communities they live in.

5.2.3 Rural services and infrastructure

Another challenge is related to service design and local amenities. One stakeholder stated that, for LGBTI people living in rural Scotland, services are felt to be unable to meet their needs:

“a lot of [LGBTI] people that live rurally say to us basically there is nothing for them in rural areas. So, whether it is socialising or whether they are looking for equalities competent healthcare or whether they want to speak about their mental health […] they don’t feel like there are services in rural areas for them, so many people come into the urban areas for that”

As the quote highlights,, LGBTI people in rural areas travel or move to urban areas to access services.. The cost and poor availability of transport, as noted by a number of stakeholders, may pose another barrier. It is worth noting that, in 2018, Scottish Rural Action undertook a survey about the costs of transport in rural areas for young people (Scottish Rural Action, 2018). Among other findings, the survey of 308 young people aged 16-26 from rural areas noted that 48% of young people have been prevented from going to work because travel is too expensive and almost 30% of young people have been stopped from accessing education or training because travel is too costly.

A lack of service provision meeting the needs of disadvantaged groups ties into the previous point regarding dispersed populations and the difficulties this poses – the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in this context, and the emergence of online service provision, will be discussed shortly. This stakeholder also noted that funded LGBTI organisations based in the central belt are expected to reach people living rurally, but that this expectation is not matched by the additional funding that would be necessary.

In relation to disabled people living in rural Scotland, one stakeholder discussed the lack of investment in services and infrastructure:

“There is a real, from what we’re seeing, lack of investment in terms of providing disabled people who live in rural and remote areas with decent public transport, with decent services, access to healthcare. The investment in buildings is often lacking as well.”

These factors all stand to limit the participation of disabled people in society, and lead to a differential experience between disabled people living rurally and those living in urban areas.

5.2.4 Representation in rural decision-making

There was also a sense in which stakeholders felt there was a lack of representation of certain communities of interest within the decision-making structure. One stakeholder identified that a lack of representation on decision-making bodies can result in “indirect discrimination”, as these bodies may be blind to the lived experience of disadvantaged groups:

“[D]iscrimination may not be active but there’s potential there for decision-making bodies to be blind to your particular experiences and issues”

It is conceivable that this could function to further reinforce the problem at hand.

A prominent theme that emerged was that the responsibility for addressing barriers does not lie with the communities of interest. Without addressing barriers, it is unlikely groups will become involve in decision-making:

“But without addressing some of those [barriers] it’s quite difficult to convince that it’s worthwhile for people to put themselves on the line and get involved in decision-making because it kind of feels like a lost battle.”

In relation to this, this particular stakeholder emphasised the importance of what they described as “messaging”:

“Minority communities and marginalised communities, no matter what they are, if they don’t see efforts being made to reach out, to find out more, to learn, then they’re not going to trust and involve themselves”

Another stakeholder spoke of ‘real’ participation, which was contrasted to an example of already established decision-making bodies reaching out for a ‘representative’ voice while not actually fostering participation in the community. They also cautioned against a “quick fix”, stating that addressing these barriers is not simply a task of setting up and funding an action group on short-term basis.

One suggested approach to overcoming barriers to participation was to actively invite communities to the decision-making table and provide the space for lived experience to inform decisions. This could be through organisations that have an already established relationship with disadvantaged groups. In the case of disabled people, Disability Access Panels[6] (DAP) have existed in both rural and urban Scotland since the 1980s. These groups help support to social inclusion of disabled people and help improve physical access in their communities. As one stakeholder observed:

“Scotland has this network of joined up access panels, staffed by disabled people who volunteer their time for nothing other than improving accessibility in their local community, who have that lived experience. And it’s frustrating when you see organisations and businesses still getting it wrong. […] Scotland shouldn’t be in a position where we have built environments that are so detrimental to disabled people and have such an impact on their ability to live an independent life.”

As this stakeholder emphasises, DAPs can involve considerable volunteer engagement and are engaged in a complicated process of seeking to influence the planning process to benefit disabled people. However, as the quote indicates, the recommendations of these panels are not necessarily always taken forward despite these efforts.

Attitudes, including a lack of engagement with and consideration of disabled people in decision-making, was said to result in unintended consequences. An example given was a lack of representation at the planning stages of infrastructural projects with this leading to poor accessibility. However, the stakeholder emphasised the broader context of such examples in highlighting that disabled people have been historically underrepresented in all walks of life.

5.2.5 COVID-19 and the move online

The 'move online' that has followed the Covid-19 pandemic has important implications for rural populations.. Two stakeholders separately discussed how services and social opportunities were increasingly made available online for the LGBTI community. This was beneficial, in that it allowed rural LGBTI people to socialise and participate in online events and discussion groups that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to in person. One stakeholder said that:

“I think one of the benefits that have helped a lot of people living rurally is the ability to meet online. Because, before even COVID-19 they weren’t able to meet with other individuals or groups, just because of where they were it is quite difficult to access those groups.”

This may not be the case, however, for older members of the LGBTI community living rurally who face digital poverty or indeed those living in households that may not be accepting of diverse sexual orientations or gender identities. Related to this, poor internet connection in rural areas was also noted as an infrastructural barrier by stakeholders which could hamper access to online activity.

Counter to the positives of moving services online, one stakeholder spoke of how the online space has become an increasingly toxic place for the LGBTI community with rising transphobia, biphobia, lesbophobia, and homophobia. This may not be a comfortable place for some to engage with services or activities. The stakeholder also spoke of how COVID-19 resulted in the cutting of health services seen as essential to LGBTI people. This concern was also noted in the 'Further Out' report produced by the Equality Network, which observes that:

“Health inequalities for the LGBTI population in rural Scotland have long existed. The Covid 19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities. This is most evident when looking at gender identity services and mental health related services that are necessary to aid in crisis.” (Crowther et al., 2020: 74)

With respect to disabled people, one stakeholder described similarly how the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in events being held online instead of in person. This had the beneficial effect of being more accessible to those with a disability than prior. However, poor internet connectivity was, again, highlighted as an issue for those living in remote rural locations.

5.2.6 Minority stress

A final, and important, theme to emerge from the research was the experience and impact of minority stress[7]. This was expressed by one participant, who noted:

“There’s so many socio-cultural issues and all of these things add to a feeling of minority stress which in turn leads to low wellbeing, which in turn leads to poor mental health. Poor mental health leads to all kinds of issues all over the place, in terms of physical health, work, employment, all of the above”

Not only does this stress have an adverse effect on health, wellbeing, and outcomes in other aspects of life, it has wider consequences in relation to LGBTI people’s participation in society as the following quote from the same stakeholder illustrates:

“It’s historical. We’re not talking about just that people aren’t being spoken to, we’re talking about decades and decades of beating down and silencing, keeping in the closet and not being able to be open, as well as prejudice and misogyny. There’s so much to it that stops people from being who they are and therefore being visible, and therefore getting involved in things, being out in the community, being able to speak, being able to recognise the challenges”

It is possible, moreover, that this experience extends to all disadvantaged groups here, and those that are protected under the Equality Act 2010 especially. Further research may be needed to provide a greater understanding of the impacts of minority stress in rural Scotland.



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