New report highlights precarious state of rural services

The Rural Services Network has published its fourth annual report on the State of Rural Public Services, concentrating on healthcare, post offices and public transport. The document aims to inform and stimulate policy debate about rural service provision, and to share ideas among local policy practitioners.

Rural populations are less likely to have local access to health facilities, such as GP surgeries and (especially) hospitals, says the document. Some 64% of villlagers live within 4km of a GP surgery, compared with 100% of urban residents.

Rural residents also contend with a limited bus network, making it harder to access important services without private transport, such as a car. Rural community transport organisations receive only half as much local authority funding (per resident) as their urban equivalents, says the document. Conversely, they raise much more of their income from fares revenue. Underlining the importance of transport, those in smaller rural settlements travel 45% more miles than the England average.

Meanwhile, plans to turn 2,000 Post Office outlets into Post Office Locals have met a "quite favourable" response from survey respondents. Post Office Locals are seen as more convenient, although some respondents had misgivings about the speed of service and the limited services available.

"All three service areas covered in this report are subject to major change," warns the document. "In the case of health services, this flows from nationally driven NHS reforms, the rural implications of which warrant careful monitoring." With post offices, the report says the question is whether the roll out of the Post Office Locals model can deliver a more sustainable rural network.

Changes affecting local public transport are largely budget driven, it adds. "In some cases the impacts have been mitigated, including where local authorities and operators work together to find solutions," says the report. "Nonetheless, service losses beg some serious questions about the impact on rural communities (including the most vulnerable) and how far or how well alternative transport options can plug gaps where subsidised bus routes are withdrawn."

The economy may be showing stronger signs of recovery, but the public funding position remained as difficult as ever, said Rural Services Network chairman Roger Begy. "Indeed, the worst may be yet to come, as cuts bite deeper still and affect basic services," he warned in a foreword to the report.

Last autumn's spending review announced further cuts in financial support to local government, which will come on top of the 28% cut imposed by the previous review. Rural buses relied heavily upon the subsidy available from local authorities, so were particularly vulnerable in these circumstances. Health budgets had been broadly sustained, but faced rising demand and costs. This was especially true in rural areas with their older populations, said Mr Begy. "From a rural perspective, the fact is the allocations for NHS and public health services are heavily skewed towards London and urban centres, with no allowance made for sparsity costs. We should be asking how it can be that for every £1 per resident given to the East Riding of Yorkshire for its public health, Westminster is given £5 per resident. Where is the evidence to justify such a difference? A fairer deal for rural areas would, at least, ease the pressure from budget cuts affecting the local government sector."

In a recent Rural Services Network survey, some 65% of rural parish councils said the quality of public services had got worse over the last five years. Cuts were most acutely felt to bus services – along with road maintenance, street cleaning and care for the elderly.

You can download the full report by clicking on the attachment below.

File RSN Online 2013 State of Rural Services report.pdf431.38 KB