Ralph Hartley,Policy Officer,The Poverty Alliance
This year the Cross Party Group on Poverty in the Scottish Parliament has been undertaking an inquiry into poverty in rural Scotland. The inquiry will publish its final report in early 2024, but after three sessions we have already heard clearly that the continuing injustice of poverty in Scotland, exacerbated by the cost of living crisis, is being felt keenly in our rural and island communities.
We have also been told that the current policy responses to poverty don’t adequately reflect the specific experiences of communities in rural and island Scotland. This is at least in part because of a deep-rooted predisposition amongst policy makers, politicians and opinion formers to view poverty primarily as an urban issue. This can be seen reflected in the narratives and imagery we associate with poverty – a google image search for ‘Poverty in Scotland’ almost exclusively returns images of urban blight, alongside neglected and high rise housing schemes.
Naturally, this tends to mean that policy making often starts from an urban perspective. Even the key tools policy makers use to understand and respond to poverty – the measures of poverty used in the production of official statistics – are not well suited to helping us learn about the realities of poverty in rural places. These measures either focus on income levels, which do not take into account the higher cost of living in rural areas or deprivation measures which pick up on concentrations of poverty and therefore do not represent the dispersed nature of poverty rurally.
To challenge poverty in rural Scotland we need dedicated policies and interventions tailored to the rural context generally as well as the specific context in different rural and island regions and localities. But, we also need policy making across government to be undertaken with a ‘rural lens’, a tool which enables us to mainstream the needs of rural communities within policy and service design as standard, challenging the default urban perspective.
We can illustrate the need for a targeted approach and a rural lens by looking at the Poverty Alliance’s own policy asks for Challenge Poverty Week 2023. All of these asks are as relevant and urgent for rural communities as for urban, but there are also specific rural dimensions to each issue which will need to be taken account in the course of implementation.
For example, the implementation of a Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG) for Scotland will need to take into account the rural premium (the higher cost of living in rural areas driven by higher energy and food costs). To do this effectively, we will need to know much more about what drives the rural premium and how it is different in different parts of the country. This will help provide us with a rural lens on the MIG, as a Scotland-wide policy. But, at the same time, it isn’t enough that a MIG is merely adjusted to take account of the rural premium – though this may well be a part of the solution. Instead, we also need targeted work to challenge these extra costs which will require collaborative effort across the public and private sector and with people living on a low income to identify and implement solutions.
To ensure we are able to answer these questions, we need to learn more about the experiences of people living in rural and island Scotland and we need to listen to their ideas and solutions. This is why the Poverty Alliance is embarking on a new three year project, funded by the Robertson Trust, and focussed on taking action on rural poverty. Beginning this year the project will work in two rural local authorities (Aberdeenshire and Argyll and Bute) bringing people with direct experience of poverty together with community and voluntary organisations, the private sector and public bodies to identify and test solutions to the poverty premium. We’ll also work to improve processes to involve people in local decision making and to make changes to national policy that will affect rural poverty.
We’re hugely excited about this work and the potential it has to generate transformative ideas for Scotland’s rural and island communities. We’re just at the beginning of this journey and, like all of our work, we know it’s success will depend on harnessing the knowledge, skills and passion of the anti-poverty sector across the whole country. If you’d like to stay in touch with this work as it develops please get in touch and we look forward to providing an update on its launch and next steps. Together, we can challenge the injustice of rural poverty in Scotland.