Government urged to rural proof pandemic rebuilding plans

The report finds that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital-first lifestyles across rural areas
The report finds that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital-first lifestyles across rural areas

The government has been urged to rural proof pandemic rebuilding plans following the release of a new report highlighting the growing rural-urban divide.

Farmers and rural residents face being digitally excluded and locked out of key services as the nation builds back from the pandemic, Rural England CIC's report warns.

This is due to underinvestment in rural connectivity and skills, despite a growing desire in these areas to embrace digital for health, shopping and other needs.

The report, State of Rural Services 2021, finds that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital-first lifestyles across England’s rural areas.

The Covid crisis has quickened the move away from in-person activity, with 53% of rural residents expecting to make less use of town centres after the pandemic than they did before.

Rural England CIC's report also demonstrates the need for ongoing support for many farming and rural businesses to help them recover.

Examining the period after March 2020, the report found 93% of rural residents increased their use of those online services that they already used before the pandemic, while over half started using some online services for the first time, for clothing and food shopping.

More than a quarter (27%) used online or virtual consultations with a local GP for the first time, while 15% used online banking for the first time and 63% increased their use of online banking.

Despite the appetite to shift to online, both for rural businesses and for rural service users, the report cautions there is risk of entrenching barriers to those who may find it hard to adapt or are unable to access fast digital connectivity where infrastructure still lags behind.

For example, around one in six rural residents cannot access superfast broadband and over half cannot get an indoor 4G mobile connection on all four networks.

The physical barriers to getting online to access services risks widening the rural-urban divide, the report says, with the threat that rural areas will be locked out of the post pandemic recovery and further disadvantaged.

The previous State of Rural Services report, published in 2018, made clear that there is less public funding available for rural residents than in urban areas, despite the higher cost of providing essential services.

Equally, with rural areas having a higher proportion of older adults compared with the England average, there are particular vulnerabilities when access to services relies upon the availability of digital knowledge and skills.

The report cites data from the Citizens Advice Rural Issues Group that 34 percent of those using its services have some degree of difficulty with IT literacy.

The report highlights the need for rapid upskilling of digital skills in rural areas, and calls for a national digital skills strategy to ensure that rural populations can access the services they need.

Lord Ewen Cameron of Dillington, who chaired the launch event of the report, said it was 'clear' that farmers and other rural residents faced large barriers to key services.

"The gross imbalance in the funding per head of nearly all our rural services, despite the fact these services cost more to deliver, means that rural populations continue to be overlooked compared to urban areas.

“It is critical that the government does not ignore rural residents and businesses as the nation rebuilds from the pandemic."

Brian Wilson, report author and chairman of Rural England CIC, said the findings suggested that the pandemic may have left people living in rural England 'facing a catch-22 situation'.

"The growing appetite for online services is no bad thing, but it will have significant consequences for those rural residents facing digital exclusion due to lack of online skills and connectivity.

"Rural areas, which already face disadvantage, needs to be supported to ensure that businesses and communities can thrive."