Transcript: Rural lives: poverty and social exclusion

Presentations from Jayne Glass and Mark Shucksmith, co-authors of the Rural Lives report

Podcast Episode: Rural lives: poverty and social exclusion

Category: Social work (general) 

What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

Kerry: So welcome everybody and thanks for joining us for this, another session in our rural social work forum series. So, today our focus is on rural lives, understanding financial wellbeing and vulnerability in Scotland and I’m delighted to have three of the four authors of the Rural Lives report with us today. So, Dr Jayne Glass, Professor Mark Shucksmith and Polly Chapman, so, thank you all for coming. So, the Rural Lives report which was published earlier this year; in March I believe, provides valuable insight into the vulnerabilities of people living in rural communities and challenges the dominant narratives which often see poverty as an urban only issue.

The report covers how people in rural communities experience and negotiate this and how local communities are able to respond to some of the challenges. So, without any further ado, I’m delighted to introduce our speakers and contributors here today. I’m going to introduce them in order of speaking; so first we have Dr Jayne Glass, who’s a researcher at the Rural Policy Centre and Scotland’s Rural College, she’s also honorary lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Jayne’s main interests include community empowerment, rural community resilience, land reform, upland management and rural land use policy and Jayne’s research aims to ensure that we understand people’s lived experience of contemporary issues in rural Scotland today.

We’re also delighted to have Mark Shucksmith, who is professor of planning at Newcastle University and formally co-director of the Arkleton Centre for Rural Development Research at Aberdeen University. His main research interests include social exclusion in rural areas, rural housing, rural development, social and economic change and rural policy. He’s published widely, been a government advisor on rural issues and in 2009 was awarded an OBE for services for rural development and crofting. So, without any further ado I’m now going to pass to Jayne. Jayne, the floor is yours.

Jayne: Okay, well thank you so much Kerry for the warm welcome. It’s really nice to be here to speak to you all today. As you mentioned this is a piece of work that we published earlier this year and we’ve been working on it for the last 18 months to two years now and we’re actually writing it up now into a book which is really exciting to sort of pull all of the results together. The work was funded by the Standard Life Foundation and it’s worth also saying that it builds on work that Polly and Mark actually did back in 1993 on disadvantage in rural Scotland so, it’s really nice to have a think about what’s changed and what hasn’t in that time as well.

So, the plan, just for the next 10 minutes from me really is to give you a very quick run through of the projects; what we did and what we found and then Mark will talk to you in a bit more detail about some of what we think are the real policies and challenges and opportunities that are coming out of our work as well. I’ll talk to you a little bit about the results and like Kerry said, the report is out there, do take a look. It’s quite easy to read, there’s a nice executive summary version if you’ve only got a few minutes but do take the time if you have it to delve in a bit more. So, we worked in three case study areas; two in Scotland, in Harris and Blair Garry in the glens and then one in the North Tyne Valley in Northumberland and we used the same method in each of the three places.

So, we first of all did a bit of a literature review; thinking about what we know already about rural poverty and financial hardship and then we did some secondary data analysis as well looking at the different contexts for each of those case studies within the regional authorities, or local authorities that they’re in. We then interviewed people from a range of organisations such as Citizens Advice, from the foodbanks, from housing associations, from the local authority, from community organisations and so on. And then we also carried out interviews with individuals in those places who were actually experiencing financial hardship. So, we got that combination of perspectives, I guess, from those who are helping to support people experiencing financial hardship and those actually experiencing it on a day-to-day basis.

We then went back to our case studies after having a look at the results from those and held some focus groups which we used to, not only validate what we found and what we thought we’d learned from the work but also to talk a bit more as well about the impacts of covid because we started this work in September 2019 through to the summer of 2020 so, we were sort of pre and during the pandemic and the lockdowns so we obviously had to adapt our approach a bit but it’s also given us a lot of information about how people have experienced and continue to experience the pandemic.

So, in terms of the approach of our work, we structured it around these four systems of support that emerged from the literature review that we did at the start. So, what we feel that we know is that financial hardship and financial vulnerability are very much influenced and affected both positively and negatively by these four systems. Whether that’s through the market, through availability of employment, access to housing and so on. Whether it’s through the state, through welfare support, etc. Or whether it’s through local support from the voluntary and community sector but also friends and family. So, you’ve got these four different systems interacting to support people who maybe need it in terms of their financial wellbeing.

So, I certainly wanted to present the results and it’s never easy to distil a large piece of work into a few minutes but what I hope we can do is to give you some of the headline findings and then like I say, if you want to ask any questions that will be fantastic or if you want to read any more in the detail, it’s all there in the report but I’ll do my best to give you a flavour of the key results. So, I think the first thing to say is that we all know this really, that rural economies have changed a lot and are continuing to change. We know from the literature that there are considerable structural changes in the rural economy and our field work really did back this up; seeing a shift from the land-based economy to the service and tourism sectors which now dominate really across our three case study areas. But with that comes seasonality, there comes job insecurity, and also low pay that were also features of land-based economy but while there have been changes in the nature of work these features tend to still prevail. We found that work is often unpredictable, it can be volatile and variable and people can often need to have several jobs whether that’s concurrently or at different times of the year as well or at different times of the day with seasonality often playing quite an important role in terms of the jobs that people have access to. There are also more limited opportunities for people to change their employer, similarly for opportunities for career progression when comparing to an urban context and what we tend to find is that people often become generalists, so as organisations are quite small and it’s hard to move from one employer to another.

It can be hard for professional couples to both get work in their chosen profession which means that it’s then harder to recruit teachers, doctors and so on in rural areas. So, as a result of all this, what we see is that self-employment is much more common, it’s not necessarily always a choice, sometimes it’s a necessity but with that also often comes low pay, for example you don’t really need to pay yourself the living wage if you’re self-employed and in the longer term it can lead to low or no pensions. So, that low pay pattern can continue quite far into retirement. We also found that access to housing, access to childcare, access to public transport can all restrict people’s abilities to engage in the labour market and these were an issue right across the three study areas.

So, I think what’s important when we think about rural areas, we think about some of the challenges but actually what we also see is this, almost like a double disadvantage where those lower wages and unpredictable incomes are then coupled with documented higher costs of living. So, whether that’s to do with transport, to do with housing, food, digital connectivity. A particular issue that came up repeatedly in the case studies was fuel poverty. And so, the percentage of households in each area that are fuel poor and that’s people who require fuel costs of more than 10% of their household income, that ranged from 27% in the Northumberland case study to 56 in the Western Isles and so both of those figures are really way above the national average of 27% in Scotland and 11% in England. So, in terms of thinking about the welfare states in rural areas, there have been issues documented about the moves to Universal Credit, which are national issues, but in rural areas, there are certain aspects of that rurality which we found are compounding these issues and making hardship exacerbated rather than addressing it. But that income volatility that I talked about and a mis-match between payday periods and assessment periods for welfare support, we find people are finding that’s leading to overpayment of benefits across the board but this is much more common in a rural situation where you have that likelihood of an irregular income, where you have seasonality or you have multiple jobs and so on.

And the centralisation of services is also a challenge, whether that’s the benefit agencies themselves or whether it’s those people who are trying to help individuals to navigate the system. It really is much harder for people without access to digital connectivity to access that, to who offers that support. And we’re just noticing illustration that in one of our case studies in Blairgowrie, in Rattray I think it was, only 50% of support agency clients had an email address which shows that additional challenge around accessibility, as well, to support, making claiming and accessing that support much more difficult. There’s also less social housing in rural areas, which means there’s less access to money advice and fewer people in the same situation to talk to and share your experiences and get information from. Although that was an exception in Rattray where there’s a cluster of social housing and we were told of the informal networks amongst tenants there; sharing knowledge about benefits and entitlements. But what there also is, is a culture of self-reliance in a rural area and I think we saw that quite strongly in the three case studies as well that people are often quite proud and people don’t really want to ask for help as much so the feeling that even though they might be entitled, they don’t feel that they should or need to take that support.

There’s also increased visibility so maybe there’s a stigma that comes with that as well and that’s potentially harder for some people in a rural context where you’re more visible in the community. And finally, just to mention that we found quite a close link between debt, payment delays and mental health for the people that we were talking to but also to the representatives that we interviewed. And that’s both as a cause and a symptom, I guess, of financial hardship and that can result in a bit of a vicious circle. So, people do need additional support in that rural context, to complete forms, to navigate the system and so on but often that’s done at a distance which creates additional problems in itself.

So, the voluntary and community sector, really are crucial in a rural context for helping people to find out not only what they’re entitled to but also to get support for completing forms and so on. But this sector has really experienced some quite significant funding cuts and there’s been that shift to competitive tendering which has led to this sector really being under quite a lot of pressure. Saying that the sector is still very strong in rural areas and very significant and we really learned how it is often that the first port of call for people who are experiencing financial hardship however and particularly in parts of Scotland, delivery of support across large geographies is a real challenge for these organisations particularly when they’re experiencing funding cuts themselves and that they have more limited digital access maybe as a result of where they’re working. So, what we see is a high reliance on volunteers in those communities but many of those people may be vulnerable themselves.

We heard how foodbanks have become increasingly important in the three case study areas and that was both before and then during the pandemic and there are lots of specialist organisations especially for mental health and related issues. But on a more positive note, there’s lots of really good examples of joint working going on which seems to be quite key to the future survival of these organisations for maximising resources and for helping to reach into those rural areas that need support to make it easier for clients to access the support. I think one example just to mention was in Harris where there was an organisation there working very closely with the Citizens Advice Bureau looking at ways to tackle fuel poverty and that’s a big issue particularly among the elderly in Harris, so those joint efforts around insulation, around heating systems, benefits and tackling arrears and so on, were actually proving really quite affective. There’s also an importance here in terms of the social aspect, not just the services they provide, but these organisations we found were providing lots of social activities and support for people who are experiencing problems but also particularly in Harris, we saw the increasing importance of community development trusts and land trusts as well. Particularly those that have an independent source of income and their capacity was really quite strong so some really interesting findings there around the potential for those types of organisations to help more in the future.

So, the fourth system of support that I mentioned at the start was family, friends and neighbours and as you would imagine yourselves, it’s an important source of help but it’s definitely important in the case studies that we worked in, particularly for housing and employment but what we found is that people’s ability to draw on this type of help tended to vary considerably according to the characteristics and the social norms of each place and the personal relationships that individuals have. It was also important in terms of how help is offered, for example, I remember one of the interviewees we spoke to in Northumberland was explaining that someone might accept some lamb chops from the freezer because you’ve slaughtered a lamb and you don’t have enough room for it yourself but they wouldn’t accept a gift if it was seen as charity. It kind of links back to those points I made there about pride and self-reliance. We also heard that it’s quite hard for a lot of people to admit to family members that they are struggling, particularly if their own family members are not in a great financial position themselves.

For example, a son in the Blairgowrie case study realised that his parents only switched the heating on when he visited until he called unexpectedly one day and found them sitting at home in their coats. We heard lots of stories of individual coping strategies and using budgeting, frugality, foodbanks and also local jumble sales to try to access the goods that people needed. So, living in a small community is another feature of rural life which has positive and negative sides, again depending on the place and the nature of the community. Positive aspects might include kindness and care from the family, friends, and neighbours and sharing information but on the downside we did find that small community life can also mean that people can be subject to social norms and social control and that potential stigma that I mentioned earlier which can limit people’s freedom to live their lives as they wish and they can often be excluded from groups that they would want to be part of.

So, finally to mention Covid, before I pass over to Mark and like I say we did quite a bit of our research, particularly in the Northumberland case study, during the first lockdown, and there has been a large economic impact as we now know on rural communities but particularly on businesses and individuals in the seasonal and tourism industry and also particularly on young people. We know from this research but also from other research done by Standard Life Foundation and others that a lot of people in rural areas fell through the gaps in financial support. Particularly those who were reliant on freelance or seasonal work. There was that big impact on tourism businesses and so on, particularly for those who hadn’t started the season and for one reason or another didn’t qualify for furlough payments. Although traditionally the claimant rate is often a bit lower in rural areas than in urban areas, for welfare support, that rate doubled in Perth and Kinross in the first two months and in Harris and Lewis, the Citizens Advice Bureau saw a 50% increase in their caseload.

One thing to flag is that the interviewees we spoke to in all the case studies did raise concerns about the youth unemployment in the case study areas. And particularly because this is a new concern for them, so, in the past agencies and councils have been more familiar with the challenge of youth underemployment not of unemployment. So, in Perth and Kinross, for example, there were real concerns about potential doubling of youth unemployment in the next few years to come.

On the other hand, and coming back to this context of needing help in a rural community and experiencing financial hardship, the pandemic has, arguably helped to reveal the hidden nature of rural poverty. And it’s possibly changed how benefits, how foodbanks and so on are viewed and taken away some of the stigma associated with such support. And there has been a high impact on children and schooling because of poor connectivity during the school closures but there’s also been a lot of praise for the support that was provided to people through, particularly through the community and voluntary sector, and the way that individual communities responded and particularly how organisations were able to adapt and respond very quickly in removing that normal red tape that might stop them from getting help to where it needed quickly. We do have a separate report on the impacts of covid specifically which is also on the website if you’d like to have a look at that, a bit more detail as well in there.

So, I hope that’s just given you a flavour of some of the key findings. So, I’m going to pass over to Mark now who will root it back more in the policy context and what this actually means for changes that we might need to see going forwards. Thanks, Mark.

Mark: Thanks very much Jayne. So, we’ve tried to distil from all of the richness of the findings that Jayne’s just outlined, some policy challenges and we pulled out eight; we thought that was probably the most that people could cope with, and we tried to think about some ways in which those policy challenges might be addressed. So, I won’t have time to talk about all of them in detail but I’ll talk about half of them in detail and just mention the other four in passing.

I think the first one, and the most obvious one really is that many rural residents are at risk of poverty even though we tend to think of poverty so often as an urban phenomenon. And some other recent work that we’ve done bears that out. We analysed recently, the British Household Panel Survey from 1991 to 2008 and we found that during that 18-year period, half of all households in rural Britain experienced poverty at one time or another and that’s not much below the urban figure which was 55%. Again, more recently, the Financial Conduct Authority found that more than half of rural residents in 2018 experienced financial vulnerability defined in terms of having missed paying bills or redundancy or other difficulties. So, poverty exists in both urban and rural areas contrary to popular perceptions but often relevant policies are not well adjusted to rural contexts. We need policy to be informed much more by local knowledge and local practice so that it’s suited to all the different local contexts across Britain. One of the ways of addressing that is of course rural proofing and island proofing which you’ll be familiar with but we also need mechanisms within government for continuous learning and policy refinement from local experience so that when it becomes evident that there are specificities about the experiences of poverty in rural areas, practice can be adjusted to take account of that.

Another thing that became very clear to us, I think during the research, was that we need to learn how to combine person based and place-based measures more effectively. So, what I mean by those is person based would be things like Universal Credit, Tax Credit, Pension Credit, the furlough scheme and self-employment support scheme, whereas place-based approaches, there are local advice projects, networks, integrated approaches at a more local level. And we found examples where those worked very well together. Jayne mentioned these local projects with voluntary sector working closely with local authorities getting in maybe to equal through fuel insulation but arranging then for them to have benefit checks and so on, so you’re able to pull down Universal Credit type measures through that local project work building up the claim rates and so on. We also found that voluntary community sector offer different entry points to the welfare system, often substituting for roles the state performs in urban contexts.

Welfare system in particular, we found, was not well adapted to rural lives. And rural proofing of the Welfare system by DWP with support from the Scottish government, DEFRA in England, local government and lots of relevant stakeholders for rural areas, is required to address the issues highlighted in this report and we hope that DWP will be interested and engage with some of our findings. I suppose the issues, just to be clear about these though, the issues that Jayne’s already mentioned, the volatility and unpredictability of all incomes and the difficulties that the welfare benefit systems seem to have in working with that, the distance to advice and information, centralisation, the distance to assessments.

We heard, for example, in Harris, that work capability assessments were not available anywhere in the Western Isles, and if you needed to claim and therefore have a work capability assessment, you were asked to travel to Inverness or to Portree or to wait until the very rare visits to the islands by Atos, the privatised outsourced company that does these. And if you actually travelled to Inverness or Portree, the advice from the local voluntary organisations was that that would be a mistake because you would then be turned down because the fact that you were able to travel to Inverness or Portree showed that you didn’t need to make those claims. So, that’s another example, digital exclusion is another thing which was very, very important especially for people without digital skills or literacy skills. The difficulties of trying to fill in the forms that you have to fill in to claim Universal Credit or other benefits are hard enough already and if you lack those digital skills or literacy skills or have mental health problems, it becomes impossible. And of course, there’s the visibility and stigma which has already been mentioned. So, all of those sorts of things are important and it means that you need to ensure face to face provision of welfare advice and support at least for some people alongside digital or phone provision which may be more helpful for other people even in the most rural areas.

We need better funding advice and support organisations to cover the additional costs of reaching into rural areas and that should be seen as a vital component of social infrastructure of rural areas. And of course, gathering and sharing information on how the welfare system performs in all areas is an essential part of this learning process for DWP and councils and others and an essential part of the rural proofing process. So, there’s this big challenge of how organisations can reach into all areas. We found that the voluntary community sector at filling gaps, well the public sector support has been withdrawn. Those cost pressures have led to services been centralised or digitalised but the voluntary community organisations themselves also face challenges of reduced funding and of volunteer recruitment; an issue which changed in many ways during the pandemic with many older volunteers sheltering at home and self-isolating but fortunately many younger volunteers coming forward at that time and we’d be interested to see whether those younger volunteers still have time and continue that volunteering once they resume full time work.

Reinstating supporting mobile and outreach face to face services for the most vulnerable is important but it’s likely to require additional financial support and joint working. I mean joint working may be another cost-effective means of doing that. And we found many good examples of joint working between public sector and the voluntary community sector outreach services to reach all residents facing financial hardship, for example through lunch clubs, through in Northumberland and now spreading through other rural areas in England, Warm Hugs, where people go to have a warm meal but also to receive advice on insulating their homes, reducing their fuel bills and we can bring other advice through that as well. In libraries, there’s Benefits Advice in Libraries Scheme in rural Perthshire maybe in South West Scotland as well, I don’t know, and using GP surgeries and other public buildings. But what’s clear is that all residents and especially the most vulnerable need a plurality of means of accessing services, face to face, mobile, digital and friend services because people are different and they have different possibilities, but they all need to be reached. I mentioned that we had a whole eight challenges and here are four that I’m not really going to go into in detail, just mention in passing in case you want to pick up on them in the discussion.

One of the challenges was that much rural work is not good work or fair work in the sense that there were these low and irregular wages, it’s actually been shown in a number of studies over the years that low pay is actually more prevalent in rural than urban areas and persistent low pay especially so, insecure contracts, lack of childcare, training and skills. We found barriers to entering self-employment and starting micro-businesses, particularly for businesses which were not growth orientated often the support was conditional upon there being plans to double your business in so many months or so many years and there was much less support available for businesses which were just there as a strategy to allow somebody to make ends meet and to have their own … Of course, there’s the intractable problem of rural housing, how can the financially vulnerable access affordable rural housing?

There’s a long-standing policy challenge, I could talk for days about that but I better not. Is this an instance where a place based and locally informed approach might be the most effective? And the other one of these challenges that I’m not going to talk about so much just now, very topical at the moment, we thought, we anticipated from our studies that there was really an element of crisis in the rural social care, now we weren’t in our report going to suggest a whole new system for social care. That’s something which is already promised from No.10 Downing Street and we’ve just had the white paper. What we could say was that any proposed new national policy for social care provision should be rural proofed so that it takes account of high rural costs, particularly for care in the community, travelling between people’s houses, staff recruitment and other rural aspects. And these, it seems to us, are especially important with the older population in rural areas.

I’d like to finish on a positive note which is about creating a sense of hope around a shared vision. We found in all three of our study areas there were narratives of loss and social change. Now alongside perhaps some emergent more optimistic narratives, so for example in Harris there was a lot of talk about how much change there had been. It wasn’t nearly so bleak as when we first studied Harris back in the 1990’s when there was a real concern about depopulation, job loss and the end of community and so on. Now there’d been a tourism revival and so there was some hope as well but there was still this narrative of loss and social change and the loss of many of the less material aspects that were valued by the community. Can we support, therefore, communities to build more positive narratives that place and change from the bottom up and including all voices? I’m not meaning here, some sort of booster-ist, top down, empty, sloganizing. I’m talking about trying to build something which is real and which people feel that which gives the positivity to people and the sense of hope around a shared vision, reflecting both continuities with the past, the things that are valued to want to take forward into the future, but also the need to continually adapt to change. That’s very important and we could draw on lessons from Leader and other community-based approaches to rural development.

We would also say on the basis of our research that encouraging the community ownership revenue bearing assets such as affordable housing or renewable energy can strengthen community-based organisations, gives them greater power, independence and resilience to pursue their own agreed objectives as we’ve seen in the community land movement and in places in the North of England as well. So, we must give hope to the vulnerable as well, it must be a very inclusive process. And I’d like to just end with this rather hopeful quote about what impact the pandemic might have had on rural lives. Somebody said to us, because of the numbers seeking food support and the Universal Credit, this has led the council to recognise that there is an issue around hidden rural poverty and that’s great that that’s now being recognised. So, there’s a silver lining to every cloud, maybe rural poverty will be recognised and some of these actions will be taken. We very much look forward to your comments, your reactions and your own experiences. Thanks very much.

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