Welfare system poorly adapted to meet needs of rural areas

23 March 2021

The UK welfare system is poorly adapted to meet the needs of those living in rural areas, new research has found.

The research, which was carried out by Newcastle University, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the Impact Hub Inverness, found that the benefits system is unable to deal fairly with the volatility and irregularity of rural incomes, increasing the vulnerability of those living in rural areas to poverty.

The centralisation and digitalisation of the welfare system in recent years creates further difficulties, in light of the poor broadband and mobile coverage and loss of public transport in many rural areas. The study team also found that the centralisation or reduction of other services such as education, health, social care and housing also exacerbate many of these issues.

As a result, greater importance is now placed on the voluntary sector in providing support and advice, but it is finding its own resources and ability to reach into rural areas increasingly limited as a result of cuts in funding.

Professor Mark Shucksmith, Newcastle University, said: “There is poverty in rural as well as urban Britain that national policymakers are not addressing adequately.

“This research highlighted that the support and advice offered by voluntary and community organisations is valued by, and invaluable to, those in rural areas experiencing or at risk of financial hardship and are most people’s first port of call - and sometimes their sole source of support. We found many examples of innovative practices involving voluntary and community organisations and local partnership working.

“Policies could be improved with the benefit of local place-based knowledge that exists among these organisations. There is a real opportunity for rural proofing of policy but it’s crucial that this involves rural stakeholders who have this local understanding.”

The research findings are published in the report ‘Rural Lives: Understanding financial hardship and vulnerability in rural areas”. The project, which was funded by the Standard Life Foundation, explored why and how people in rural areas experience and negotiate poverty and social exclusion, with a focus on financial hardship and vulnerability, including the influence and roles of wider society, individual circumstances and various sources of support.

Many rural residents are at risk of poverty, even though it is widely perceived as an urban issue. Rural economies now have far fewer jobs in traditional sectors such as agriculture and forestry, with more people employed in tourism and retail. And much local employment in rural areas is also precarious, low-paid or seasonal, with volatile and unpredictable incomes creating financial vulnerability.

The research was carried out with residents and organisations in Harris, East Perthshire and Northumberland, and highlighted that difficulties relating to distance, mobility and access are more severe in remote and island areas.

Rebecca Graham, Programme Manager at Standard Life Foundation, which funded the work, said: “This project has shone a spotlight on the financial challenges faced by people living in rural communities, as well as some of the changes that have taken place in these areas over the last thirty years. When making policy decisions on areas including but not limited to employment and housing it is vital that rurality is taken into account, as well as consideration of who is best placed to deliver support and solutions, particularly given some of the strengths of rural communities that have been highlighted in this research.”

Dr Jayne Glass, from the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC, said: “The report sets out a range of policy interventions that could address the challenges identified in the research. These include better support for face-to-face provision of welfare advice and support in rural areas, and routine assessment of the rural impacts of any new national initiatives, like the approach being taken in Islands Communities Impact Assessments in Scotland.”

Download the report.