Making connections for good at the Scottish Rural & Islands Parliament

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Taking Action on Rural Poverty Team,
The Poverty Alliance

Becky, Annie, Nicky and Ralph from the Taking Action on Rural Poverty team reflect on their recent visit to the Scottish Rural and Islands Parliament...

The Poverty Alliance was heartened to see the Scottish Rural and Islands Parliament include poverty as a theme for the first time this year. We have just started work on an exciting three year project, Taking Action on Rural Poverty. It’s funded by the Robertson Trust and will focus on Argyll and Bute and Aberdeenshire, so SRIP presented a great opportunity for the new project team to hear from rural stakeholders about what poverty means for their communities and their work.

We know that one of the key drivers of poverty in rural Scotland is the higher cost of living. So during our hybrid session, we focused discussions on housing, transport, food, and fuel and energy – the essentials that are significantly more expensive in rural areas, creating a “rural poverty premium” and unjustly increasing hardship for those struggling on low incomes.

We asked about

- the barriers that put people on low incomes at a particular disadvantage in rural areas

- examples of local solutions, innovations or opportunities.

Crucially, we wanted to learn about the inspiring ideas that haven’t quite got up and running, or the promising pilot projects that have since got stuck – and what sorts of change could help.

Over forty people joined our workshop at Fort William’s Nevis Centre with another 15 coming together online. Spanning Scotland’s geography from Orkney to Sutherland to Jura to Dumfries, we had representatives from UK and Scottish government, foodbank volunteers, development trusts and housing associations to name a few. The richness of expertise, experience and examples that our participants brought will shape our project. Here, we reflect on the key messages people shared.

On Transport table we heard how transport costs stack up for people on low incomes. Not just the obvious costs of longer travel to access services or expensive public transport, but how lack of connectivity creates a barrier to opportunities or reduces people’s options. It forces them into car ownership that they can’t really afford, or limits their ability to get to work, to education settings, to cheaper shops, or to leisure activities. A unifying theme of the suggested solutions was the need for collaboration and to involve local voices in looking at the bigger picture. Of course investment and infrastructure came up, but equally people mentioned the need for partners to work together to get transport links in the right places; for support for community car schemes where transport gaps would otherwise be disproportionately expensive or impractical to address, or understanding where modest provision for transport costs can pay dividends by sustaining vital volunteer-led work.

In the Housing discussions, people reflected on how land ownership, housing tied to employment, excess costs of building, and ageing housing stock contribute to make rural housing scarce or unaffordable. But by far the most common concerns were second home ownership and short-term lets. They affect not just house prices but rental availability for key workers, and further reduce people’s employment opportunities through knock on effects on the viability of local businesses and services.

A key message was that change is needed – and it’s possible. We heard about transformative projects led by local development trusts and charities to create sustainable housing and nuanced allocation policies that recognise the community’s specific needs. On a bigger scale, potential solutions centred around interventions to protect local stock: piloting the use of rural burdens (conditions on the occupation of the property), parallel markets for local and second home ownership, or explicitly costing housing into structural investment programmes, where it’s a known barrier to filling local jobs. Strengthening tenancy rights was also considered crucial, whether through awareness raising for tenants, or by encouraging longer tenure or models like 'let-to-buy’.

It was no surprise that our Food conversations covered a whole menu of issues. Economies of scale and transportation impact on cost, and choice is often limited in rural areas. A lack of linkage between local producers and consumers is bad for both sides, and current solutions often rely on communities putting profit aside to make food systems work better. But this itself involves unsustainable levels of volunteer work. Ideas for innovations focused on the mechanisms and resources needed to strengthen local links at a range of scales - whether through community larders or voucher schemes for local shops, better support for growing initiatives, or encouraging more regional models of procurement. One surprise was how rarely people mentioned the big structural levers that could support people on low incomes. A couple of people did refer to the role of social security provision or that “food poverty is just poverty” and can be addressed by ensuring adequate incomes. However, those working with people on low incomes clearly understood that stigma is another huge barrier in rural communities to accessing support or even advice.

On Energy and Fuel, common themes again included lack of choice and high costs – and again, barriers to accessing help. From difficult-to-heat housing stock to inundated advice services or lack of accredited local contractors, participants felt that off-the-shelf solutions just don’t match the needs of rural areas. Examples of good practice or potential opportunities tended to mention local solutions serviced by local structures. For some this meant support for small scale community led energy generation, locally embedded and tailored advice, or skills training to build the area’s labour force. For others the answer involved structural changes to the rules that govern access to locally produced energy, or how community benefit from commercial windfarms is shared out.

Across all the topics, we heard that rural poverty is a real emergency that’s driving depopulation and limiting people’s lives. That’s unjust, and while we were inspired by the range and diversity of projects fighting to make things better, there was consensus that greater change can only happen when those living with poverty have their voices heard and get to shape that change.  In our next blog we’ll explore how Taking Action on Rural Poverty can help that to happen

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