Cllr Matthew Dorrance has written about rural poverty for the Welsh Fabians. Read Matthew’s article here:
If you trundle through the lush green, rugged and breath-taking landscapes of Powys you’d be forgiven for not seeing the poverty that blights our rural communities. It’s cloaked by the rolling hills and the old adage that “you never see a poor farmer.”
Whilst it is true that there’s gold (or at least wealth) in them there hills rural communities are blighted by poverty in much the same way as the former coalfields of South Wales — even if it is on a smaller, less recognised level.
Although abject poverty as defined by the United Nations is rarely experienced too few people in rural Wales experience the standard of living expected in a country like the UK. In the community I represent more than 20% of children are in poverty and in some Powys Council wards that figure rises to nearly 40%.
Rural poverty isn’t new but it does get less attention. Fuel poverty, access to services, insecure employment, low wages, poor local transport and poor quality housing are all factors.
Powys, for example, is home to the most deprived communities in Wales based on access to services. That’s a big statement and it needs unpicking to fully understand and mitigate the consequences and impacts of rurality on prosperity and social mobility.
Crudely put, if you live in Powys by choice or by birth you’re more likely to have poorer access to services. I would go further and add that even when you do access public services the quality is meagre because of rotten political decisions and an unending austerity driven down on rural Wales.
Too many rural communities have no public transport routes. Village schools, the post office or the bank have all too often faded into the past and too many people are cut off from basic services.
Life expectancy in rural communities is comparatively higher than the Welsh average but poor access to services creates and sustains a poverty within the health care system. Nearly a quarter of Powys patients travel more than 15 minutes to access a GP appointment (Mid Wales Healthcare Study, 2014) and just seeing the GP takes some arranging if you’re not on a bus route. It’s easy to see how distance decay can set in and further isolate citizens from the things they need most of all.
The cost of living also impacts on rural communities. Take fuel, for example, where in Powys more than 21% of homes are heated with oil and a staggering 16% of homes are estimated to be in fuel poverty (DECC 2013). The price of fuel, poor quality housing and the fact that around 53% of properties in Powys are not connected to the mains gas network demonstrates the vulnerability and fragility of rural communities struggling to cope with fuel and energy poverty.
As a “Townie” I’m often guilty of the long sigh when I lose my 4G signal coverage depriving me of Facebook and Twitter but nearly 30% of households in Powys have no internet access (National Survey for Wales, 2015) and nearly 2% of households are in mobile phone not spots (OFCOM, 2014).
Whilst digital services offer an amazing opportunity to open rural Wales up to investment and decent jobs the reality is that too many people suffer a digital deprivation that would be unthinkable in urban communities. Lack of access is a major contributor to digital deprivation but so is digital literacy which creates barriers for social mobility in rural Wales.
Despite rural communities support for Brexit — Powys voted narrowly to leave the EU — the potential impacts of this are terrifying. Agriculture may be the first thing that springs to mind, and rightly so, but losing EU funding will have significant impacts on the fight against rural poverty.
When Brexit inevitability makes us all poorer, both the UK and Welsh Government must be ready to put in place a tailored package of support for rural communities. A targeted and relentless focus on prosperity for all is a must but so is a more equal Wales. Rural Wales needs to be connected so citizens can access the services they need and we must build the argument to bring down the never ending austerity which asset strips services from these areas.
Rural communities face challenges and we have to respond to them. Prosperity for all must include rural Wales. We have to look to government for a helping hand in dealing with the macro issues.
However, there is also much to be proud of in rural Wales like the sense of community and amazing third sector organisations who step up to the plate where Councils, Health Services and Governments can’t. For example, the St John Centre in Brecon deliver a food bank, an Over 50’s Lunch Club, a Befrienders Service and a Food Co-op.
The future for rural Wales isn’t just in the hands of the policy makers. Yes it’s up to them to respond to the hopes and fears of rural communities, not leave us behind and tackle the big issues but as citizens of rural Wales we must channel our voice, champion the good and fight our corner.