Call for post-lockdown action in rural areas

07 May 2021

Many more rural residents will be at risk of poverty and financial hardship after lockdown ends unless action is taken, a new study has warned.

The study into the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns on people in Harris, East Perthshire and Northumberland, was carried out by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Newcastle University and the Impact Hub Inverness

It found that as government support schemes end, and other sources of support become more constrained, rural residents will be more at risk of financial hardship and vulnerability – unless appropriate action is taken.

There have been fewer Covid-19 cases in rural areas because of lower population densities and less mixing on public transport, but the reliance on tourism and hospitality employment has led to a severe economic impact during the lockdowns.

While these impacts were mitigated by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self Employment Income Support Scheme and through an uplift to Universal Credit, people in rural areas warn of growing unemployment and poverty when these are withdrawn. There are also many who did not benefit from these schemes, including seasonal, casual and freelance workers and some self-employed people.

The research findings are published in the report Covid-19 and financial hardship in rural areas, published today (Thursday 6 May). This is the second report from the Rural Lives project, funded by the Standard Life Foundation, which explored why and how people in rural areas experience and negotiate poverty and social exclusion.

It highlights how difficulties relating to distance, mobility and access, as well as issues of visibility and stigma, are more severe in small rural communities.

It also recognises the support provided by a wide range of formal and informal groups across the public and voluntary sectors.

Lead author Dr Jayne Glass, from the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC, said: “The pandemic amplified the impacts of digital exclusion in rural areas, impacting on many people’s experiences during the lockdowns, from children’s ability to engage in home-based online learning, to people’s access to advice and support services in relation to welfare applications.”

Professor Mark Shucksmith, from Newcastle University, said: “Voluntary and community organisations have been crucial in ensuring that hard-to-reach groups have access to financial and other support. However, many of these organisations face a challenging future with respect to their financial resources, particularly if council budgets are squeezed further as the National Audit Office has warned, and in respect of their ability to generate income from retail sales or fundraising.”

Polly Chapman, of Impact Hub Inverness, emphasised how important it is that “as the economic impacts of the pandemic unfold, service providers and the voluntary sector in rural areas continue to play a joined-up signposting role, connecting their clients with information and advice”.

Rebecca Graham, Programme Manager at Standard Life Foundation, said: “As we emerge from lockdown it is apparent that some areas have been affected more than others, leading to increased insecurities and inequalities. The challenges faced by people living in rural communities mean that many will be at risk of falling on hard times. Policy must be put in place to deliver support and solutions tailored to the unique situation of people living in rural areas if we are to protect people from financial hardship.”