The Rural Services Network (RSN), in its fourth annual State of Rural Public Services report, has highlighted the uncertainty facing public transport, post offices and health services in rural England.
Over 200 organisations are members of the RSN, including local authorities, public bodies, charities and voluntary groups, and it provides support to the all-party Parliamentary Group on rural services.
The group’s latest report drew on a range of research and statistics, an online survey with councils, interviews with specific sub-groups and a major conference. With ‘rural’ defined ‘as any settlement of less than 10,000 people’ then 18 per cent of the population in England live in a rural setting.
The RSN backed the government’s new guidelines requiring all public sector departments to consider the rural impact of their policies. Using a formula based on per head of population it advocates for a ‘bigger, fairer share’ of government funding.
Rural communities certainly could do with additional support, and the rural communities debate in Parliament on 9 January 2014 heard many MPs express concerns that cost of living increases are seriously hurting their constituents.
The RSN examination of public transport in rural areas makes for grim reading. The department for transport stated in 2012 a desire to attract more people onto buses, and there have been some noted improvements in connecting buses with rail transport. Community transport schemes in which volunteers play a prominent role have also increased.
Car sharing schemes have multiplied. But the combined impact of all the above has been massively underscored by huge public sector cuts, including a 20% cut to the bus service operator grant. Consequently, the proportion of rural households with an accessible regular bus service has fallen dramatically as demonstrated on the Campaign for Better Transport’s interactive website map.
Unlike public transport, the decline in Post Office numbers has been slowed in recent years. Under Labour much of the network was closed with 840 closures alone between 2008 and 2009. The RSN is largely supportive of plans to create 2,000 Post Office Locals, where the post office service is integrated into another nearby retail outlet. The organisation is though concerned that these changes may lead to longer waits and less privacy.
Health issues are another worry. In an urban environment, 100 per cent of residents live within 4kms of a GP surgery. But, in a rural area, the figure drops to 65 per cent. Anyone without a car faces difficulties in accessing a GP or hospital, especially when public transport is being cut.
Rural locations receive significantly less per head of population towards health care. The RSN believe the imbalance should be reduced, especially as rural areas have more elderly people, a trend set to increase. The RSN is also concerned that the phasing out by 2021 of the minimum practice income guarantee, under which small GP surgeries are subsidised, will hit rural practices hard.
You can view the report at:-