Jenevieve Treadwell is a researcher for Onward.
In the coming weeks, with the publication of the Levelling Up white paper, the Government’s agenda to deliver on its biggest domestic policy priority will take shape. It is an ambitious project, but this is necessary in order to tackle complex, ingrained inequality. As there is no one single problem, uniformly applied, there can be no quick fix. A fact illustrated in the Prime Minister’s levelling up speech. From fighting crime to football pitches, illness to infrastructure and high streets to homeownership, levelling up will work to create opportunity throughout the UK.
Yet in the face of such a far-reaching programme, it is important to remember that the devil often lies in the detail. These places, like the problems they face, are not homogeneous. Rural communities, like the rest of the UK, face hurdles to opportunity and success. But the type of obstacles faced differs wildly between places. In particular, levelling up rural communities will be complicated by demography and geography. These factors shape, among other things, the nature of crime, the experience of inequality and determine access to opportunity and facilities.
The demographic composition of rural areas differs from the other areas of the UK. As younger people move away from rural areas, these same places are becoming proportionally older than their urban equivalents, bringing with it higher associated social and medical care costs. Rural communities are also less densely populated than their urban counterparts. In extremes, urban centres, like London, have population densities as high as 5,700 people per square kilometre versus rural areas with population densities as low as 50 people per square kilometre.
Running a centralised service becomes significantly more costly and difficult when it needs to adjust to the low density and high degree of diversity of context and need across these areas. For instance, in rural areas, common crimes include dog attacks, fly-tipping and increasingly, cybercrime. As farms have diversified, farmers have increasingly taken on new technologies and practices, however, despite their keen adoption, knowledge of the risks of these services is limited. This has led to an increase in cybercrime. While the vast swathes of open countryside and back roads make the policing of many of these crimes difficult. As a result, the 20,000 police officers promised by the Prime Minister are unlikely to be of service to rural communities, where preventing crime cannot practicably be a matter of bobbies on the rural beat.
Similarly, large infrastructure projects, while undoubtedly important, will not make a vast difference in the day-to-day lives of rural communities whose local bus service remains unfunded. Rural communities often lack intra- and inter-area connectivity. In 2017-18, out of the 88 local transport authorities, 56 had either reduced or spent nothing on supported bus services. This is not a recent phenomenon and will be well known to some readers.
It is not only physical infrastructure that is lacking. While it is certainly true that in the two years since this Government was formed it has had huge success in the spread of gigabit connectivity – from 6 to almost 60 per cent coverage – it is also true that the spread has not been uniform. Access to a download speed of above 10 Mbps is a right according to Ofcom. However, it is one not enjoyed by 57 per cent of rural communities.
While this is in part a natural reflection of the challenging geography of rural areas it is also a consequence of insufficient funding. Visible in the downgrading of the government’s gigabit target from 100 to 85 per cent coverage.
This lack of connectivity is destructive. People are limited in their access to healthcare services, as well as educational and employment opportunities. Without the required infrastructure to take people to new jobs and training centres or connect them with online learning and working platforms, reskilling and upskilling are going to be challenging. With insufficient opportunity to better their situation, families and individuals are left with little choice but to relocate, leaving behind smaller and older communities. And so the cycle continues.
It is a vicious cycle but not an inevitable one. As the Prime Minister’s speech outlined, there is space in the levelling up agenda for local leadership and place-based solutions. To begin, all that is necessary is the recognition of difference. Happily, many community groups have been leading the way in this. Free, accessible training sessions on cybersecurity are being run by a diverse range of actors, from local charities like Rural Action Derbyshire to local police-led initiatives. While in Warwickshire, in collaboration with police, farmers are using drones to help in the fight against theft and other illegal activities.
Collaboration may also be the answer to connectivity barriers. Community bus services, designed to cater to the specific needs of a community, have helped to fend off isolation experienced by individuals in hard to get to places while managing to avoid the prohibitive costs of wider-reaching services. These community-led initiatives have found solutions to geography that national operators struggled to overcome.
Supporting rural communities to get the most out of the levelling up agenda means empowering and financing those who are already taking responsibility for their areas. The application of a one-size fits all policy developed with an urban setting in mind is inappropriate and will ultimately be unsustainable. Instead, rural communities need and deserve innovative, tailored solutions.