1: Introduction

This chapter introduces the scope and purpose of the book, which presents original research and analysis to fill a gap in our understanding of how poverty and social exclusion affect rural lives following the financial crisis, austerity, Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. This chapter sketches the context for this study in terms of national policies, including fiscal tightening, labour market flexibilisation, welfare reform and other ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’ forms of neoliberalisation and the lack of any coherent strategy to ensure the wellbeing of rural citizens. Finally, the chapter explains the methods used in this study.

In Britain, unlike in many other countries, there is a general impression that poverty is a largely urban phenomenon, associated with inner cities, difficult to let housing estates or ex-industrial areas. Rural areas are imagined as picturesque, idyllic and far removed from such hardship and deprivation. Perhaps for this reason, poverty and vulnerability in rural Britain are neglected both by research and by policy and practice. Yet analysis of the British Household Panel Survey shows 50 per cent of rural households experienced poverty at some time between 1991 and 2008, compared with 54 per cent in urban Britain (Vera-Toscano et al, 2020). Poverty is clearly a rural phenomenon too but, as Newby recognised (1980, 278):

It is easy to overlook these problems amidst the general prosperity of contemporary rural England. The appearance of many villages suggests two-car families enjoying a lifestyle of comfortable affluence in their beautifully restored homes. The other face of rural England is more difficult to seek out since it is less openly admitted.

Addressing financial hardship among the 11.3 million inhabitants of rural Britain (ONS, 2016) is hampered by an inadequate evidence base, according to two House of Lords Select Committees, a Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Group and the Welsh Senedd. Analysis by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) (2018) revealed that 54 per cent of rural dwellers were financially vulnerable (compared with 48 per cent of urban residents) but not how or why. Levels of financial stress are known to be high, with fewer than half of those in the Highlands and Western Isles ‘coping well or very well financially’ (Scottish Household Survey, 2012), and there is widespread fuel poverty in rural areas (Scottish Government, 2018b; DEFRA, 2021). Despite this knowledge, research and policy focus overwhelmingly on urban experiences of hardship and ‘austerity urbanism’ (Peck, 2012).

These issues are important now because poverty and vulnerability have been increasing again, in all areas, exacerbated further by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside falling real incomes, rising debt, welfare reform, Universal Credit and Brexit uncertainties, pre-pandemic research revealed a marked acceleration in the loss of services and population decline in sparse areas (Wilson and Copus, 2018) and a more widespread loss of rural services in England (Rural England CIC, 2022). Some writers speculate that rural lives are better adapted to austerity, through years of underspending by the state and stronger voluntary and community effort, while others argue that rural areas are more vulnerable to withdrawal of those services that do remain, with no definitive evidence either way (Milbourne, 2016a). Indeed, does a high expectation of rural communities’ social cohesion and potential for self-help legitimise and facilitate the dilution of state welfare systems and the withdrawal of the state from its responsibility to rural citizens? What are the implications for the UK government’s policy objective of ‘levelling up’ and its shared responsibility to ensure wellbeing for all? Apart from a few studies (Milbourne, 2016b; Black et al, 2019; May et al, 2020), the effects of these structural processes on the lives and opportunities of citizens in rural Britain are unresearched, unlike in the United States (Sherman, 2009; 2021; Tickamyer et al, 2017) and Europe (Bernard, 2019; Bernard et al, 2019). Our work seeks to fill that gap and so to inform understandings and expectations of ‘rural citizenship’ (see, for example, Painter and Philo, 1995; Yarwood, 2017).

This book presents and reflects on findings from new research on why and how people in rural areas experience and negotiate poverty and social exclusion. It examines the roles of societal processes, individual circumstances and various sources of support (markets, state, voluntary and community organisations and family and friends).

Our conceptual framework focuses on the interconnections between individuals’ and households’ experiences and the structural and external processes bringing changes, for example, in local economies, employment, housing markets, welfare support and services. This is pursued through analysis at both the individual/household level, enquiring about experiences and causes of financial hardship and vulnerability and revealing coping strategies and sources of support, alongside analysis of the economic, social and policy context through which processes of social exclusion operate to generate or redistribute risk, vulnerability or hardship. These include narratives of place and belonging. Indeed, the analysis foregrounds the role of place as another dimension of intersectionality, examining how place modifies and intensifies the effects of other social characteristics such as class, gender and age. Previous scholars (Wyn and White, 2015) have argued, drawing on Bourdieu and Beck, that place constitutes social relations and they emphasised the importance of recognising belonging – the interconnections between biography and social context. We therefore pay attention to aspects of place identity and belonging as well as local opportunity structures (Bernard, 2019) as further significant factors in social exclusion/inclusion alongside standard dimensions of class, gender, age and ethnicity.

This conceptual framework connects our study’s findings with wider sociological concepts of individualisation, risk society, precariatisation, labour market flexibilisation, welfare conditionality, ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’ neoliberalisation and austerity urbanism, for example, so bridging between rural studies and wider sociology and social policy literatures. At the same time, the framework highlights emergent agency (individual and collective) and topical issues around civil society and community empowerment, along with current UK government policy narratives of loosely defined ‘levelling up’ (which includes policies to address regional inequalities and/or social inequalities) and ‘building back better’ (which suggests, but does not provide, a progressive vision).

In implementing this framework we have used financial hardship and vulnerability as a heuristic prism through which to uncover the broader processes of social exclusion. In part, this was because our funder, the Standard Life Foundation (SLF) (now renamed the abrdn Financial Fairness Trust) has relieving financial hardship and vulnerability as its charitable purpose. We were fortunate that the Trust allowed us to interpret this broadly to enquire into the underlying processes of social exclusion. Indeed, our funders were supportive and encouraging in every respect.

The next two sections of this introduction offer brief summaries of recent trends in poverty in Britain and of the changing policy context. These will be important in understanding changes observed in all our study areas. The research methods employed in this study are also briefly outlined.

Poverty in Britain: recent trends

The incidence and nature of poverty in Britain have changed during the last few decades in several respects, and these changes are evident in rural Britain too. Poverty has become less associated with unemployment and with old age: most low-income households are now in work, especially in rural areas; and rather than old age, now ‘you are much more likely to be in poverty if you live in certain regions, live in a family where there’s a disabled person or a carer, if you work in certain sectors such as accommodation and catering or retail, or if you live in privately rented housing’ (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2020, 2).

Poverty in the UK, and in Europe generally, is usually defined in relative terms as a household income falling below two thirds of the country’s median household income. The UK Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) collects information annually on poverty through its Households Below Average Income (HBAI) survey, and we can observe trends over the past 50 years from this, as shown in Figure 1.1. Poverty in Britain is shown both before housing costs (BHC) and after deduction of housing costs (AHC): the widening gap between these lines reflects a rapid rise in housing costs facing lower-income groups in Britain. Indeed, evidence is emerging that housing costs have been rising even more rapidly for lower-income groups in rural Britain who find themselves increasingly in private rented housing (Vera-Toscano et al, forthcoming).

A line graph plots the percentages versus years.
Figure 1.1:

Percentage of the British population in relative low income (1961–2018)

Source: Francis-Devine (2022). Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.

Broadly, poverty increased sharply in the 1980s during the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher, stabilised under John Major’s Conservative government and then fell under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. After 2012 poverty began to rise again under the Conservative-led coalition government. Figure 1.2 disaggregates these data (AHC) by household type for the last 25 years, showing a very marked decline in poverty in old age from 1997 to 2010, alongside smaller variations in poverty for other social groups.

A line graph plots the percentages versus years.
Figure 1.2:

UK poverty rates for children, working-age adults and pensioners (1994–2020)

Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2022) ‘UK Poverty 2022: the essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK’

Specifically, according to the HBAI data, poverty in old age fell from 24 per cent in 1997 to 14 per cent in 2010, then had increased slightly to 16 per cent by 2018. Poverty among working-age adults without children has been fairly stable at around 19 per cent since 2010, while for those with children it has been higher at around 25 per cent. Nevertheless, child poverty fell from 34 per cent to 27 per cent between 1997 and 2010 before increasing again to 31 per cent by 2019.

A further important feature of the last decades has been a steady rise in in-work poverty, ‘because often people’s pay, hours, or both, are not enough. Around 56 per cent of people in poverty are in a working family, compared with 39 per cent 20 years ago’ (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2020). In 2009 an analysis of the DWP’s HBAI dataset showed that ‘poverty in work’ was much more likely in rural than urban areas, and highest (67 per cent) in the most rural council areas, as shown in Figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3:
Figure 1.3:

Share of UK working-age adults living in households with less than 60 per cent of median income 2005–08 (after housing costs)

Note: In the more rural districts around two thirds of working-age people with low incomes live in households where someone works. Only a third live in workless familes.

Source: Palmer (2009)

The changing policy context

These trends in poverty in Britain are closely associated with policy, and specifically with the abandonment of the Keynesian economic paradigm during the 1980s and its supplanting by neoliberalism, alongside globalisation. Neoliberalisation is often understood as having two phases. The ‘roll-back’ phase of neoliberalisation involved shrinking the state and the institutions of Keynesian welfarism and social collectivism through privatisation and cutting public expenditure, which were all features of the 1980s in Britain. The later, emergent ‘roll-out’ phase involved the purposeful construction and consolidation of neoliberalised state forms, modes of governance and re-regulation (Peck and Tickell, 2002). Both aspects of neoliberalisation had important impacts on rural economies and societies. Cuts to public expenditure (roll-back) reduced the funding available to support civil society institutions, while leaving ever larger gaps in state social provision for civil society to try and fill. Thus, healthcare, schools, council offices, churches, banks, pubs, libraries, shops, post offices, public transport as well as emergency services have been gradually lost. Meanwhile, neoliberalised economic management (roll-out) requires voluntary and community organisations to act competitively rather than collaboratively, to seek income from the state through tenders and contracts, to pursue targets and deliverables tangential to their purpose and in short to adopt the modes and practices of private business to pursue the agendas of the neoliberal state.

Prior to the 1980s, the post-war welfare state operated as a risk-pooling mechanism, underpinned by values of solidarity. However, the reconfiguration of welfare regimes ‘towards an increasingly personalised responsibility for managing life’s adversities’ (Asenova et al, 2015, 14–15) has contributed to a modern ‘risk society’ (Beck, 1992; 2000) characterised by profound uncertainty and individualisation of responsibility and risk. The pace of change, the increased role of impersonal systems and institutions, notably global markets, and the rise of insecure employment means that the ability to survive and prosper has become more precarious for many. Indeed, in his book The Precariat, Standing (2011, 1) argues that a central theme of neoliberalism was that ‘countries should increase labour market flexibility, which came to mean transferring risks and insecurity onto workers and their families’, especially when accompanied by a welfare reform which creates insecurity also around social income and self-identity. During the 1990s, following the ‘welfare to work’ approach being deployed by the Clinton government in the US, the Conservative government made numerous reforms to social welfare policies in Britain to make it harder to claim, primarily by increasing welfare conditionality. One of these was the replacement of unemployment benefit and income support with Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA), which reduced benefit levels and increased conditionality by introducing more stringent job search requirements.

Labour governments from 1997 continued applying these conditions but offset them with measures to make work more rewarding and achievable, notably through a suite of New Deal schemes and the introduction of a National Minimum Wage (NMW) in 1999. Of most relevance here are Tax Credit, Pension Credit and Incapacity Benefit. Working Family Tax Credit was introduced as a work-contingent, means-tested benefit for parents with dependent children in 1999 and (renamed the Working Tax Credit) extended to all those of working age (with or without children) from 2003. These tax credits not only augmented family incomes but also included an allowance towards childcare costs. Tax credits, together with increases in Child Benefit rates, are generally regarded as effective in reducing child poverty.

A similar mechanism, Pension Credit, was introduced to address poverty among people of pensionable age, topping up their weekly income to a minimum level set by government. This also proved highly effective, so long as it was claimed, but analysis by Bradshaw and Richardson (Commission for Rural Communities, 2007) in England revealed that take-up is significantly lower in smaller rural settlements. Eligible residents not claiming Pension Credit were 35 per cent in urban areas, 43 per cent in villages and 54 per cent in hamlets and open countryside. Both these measures were administered not by DWP but by the tax authorities (HMRC), nor were they included in the definition of social assistance. Incapacity Benefit (supplanted in 2008 by Employment Support Allowance [ESA]) is also an important source of welfare support in rural areas. Labour’s social policy reforms are generally agreed to have had a marked impact nationally in reducing poverty for low-income families and pensioners (Brewer et al, 2009; Cappellari and Jenkins, 2009; Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2018), and analysis of British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) longitudinal panel data by Vera-Toscano et al (2020) concluded that these policy reforms also played an important role in reducing rural poverty over this period.

Following the financial crisis of 2007–08, the Labour government initially responded with a fiscal stimulus, but the election of Conservative-led governments from 2010 led to marked changes in policy in line with purer forms of neoliberalism. The imposition of public expenditure cuts and ‘austerity’ fell unevenly, with welfare spending and local government particularly hard hit.

The Conservatives’ programme of welfare reform was intended to reduce public spending, reducing working-age welfare spending by £36 billion by 2019–20 (Keen, 2016), and to intensify work activisation. The reforms included reductions in working tax credits; a cap on how much benefit any one household could receive; a ‘two-child limit’ on Child Benefit; changes to the local housing allowance; the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (which penalises benefit recipients in social housing with spare bedrooms); council tax benefit (now at the discretion of each council); and the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). UC was an attempt to streamline benefits, replacing several benefit streams (JSA, ESA, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit), but it has proved highly complex, can only be claimed online and requires a waiting period of several weeks during which no benefit is paid. Meanwhile, working-age benefits have not kept pace with living costs: from 2012, three years of below-inflation increases, followed by a four-year benefit freeze, eroded the value of many working-age benefits (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2021, 5). These measures, along with increasing sanctions and conditionality, added to the pressures on those with low incomes (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2021). A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has been highly critical of these reforms and their impact on the most vulnerable (NAO, 2018). Particularly hard hit were lone parents, people with disabilities, those experiencing in-work poverty, families with children and young people (Asenova et al, 2015). It is notable that childless households were more vulnerable to changes in earnings after the recession but less vulnerable to changes in welfare policies, unlike pensioners or families with children who had gained from Labour’s social policy reforms and were therefore more vulnerable to policy changes (Francis-Devine, 2021). Continuing support throughout this period for pensioners, who benefited from a triple lock ensuring their pensions grew in real terms, contrasted with these cuts made to working-age benefits.

Local government spending was hit even harder: from 2010 to 2015 local authorities in England lost 27 per cent of their spending power (Hastings et al, 2015) with further cuts of 56 per cent over the next five years announced in 2015 (Hastings et al, 2017). Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) (Francis-Devine, 2021) concludes that these cuts were severe but were uniformly applied across councils pre-2014 and, moreover, that this changed little following the introduction of a new formula for allocation from 2013 to 2014. This is disputed by May et al (2020) who reanalysed this data using a different rural definition. Hastings et al (2015, 6) also found that the cuts were uneven with poorer areas hit hardest. The ‘austerity urbanism thesis’ (Peck, 2012) posits these cuts have been focused on cities, and that within cities local authorities passed these on to the poorest in society. Notwithstanding this thesis, many rural councils have also experienced drastic cuts in central government funding and complain of lower funding per head than in cities. May et al’s (2020) analysis, confirmed by Vera-Toscano et al (forthcoming), indicates that within rural Britain too, it was the most deprived areas which suffered the largest cuts in central government funding of local authorities.

By the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the challenges of maintaining and delivering services in rural areas had already been heightened by a decade of these cuts to central government’s contributions to English local authority budgets. The NAO (2021) found this contributed to a fall of around a third in councils’ spending power which, alongside rising demand for services, had left councils more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. The NAO warns of continuing cuts to services in the next few years, including social care, special educational needs, libraries, buses and community centres, as councils struggle to meet the extra costs incurred during the pandemic: 94 per cent of English councils expect to have to cut spending in 2021–22 to meet legal duties to balance their budgets, and several risk insolvency. This pressure is likely to lead to further centralisation or loss of public services in rural areas and provides further context to this study.

Much of this policy context also applies in Scotland, where welfare benefits, pensions and social security are ‘reserved’ matters still mostly under the control of the UK government (within DWP). Scotland’s overall budget is also determined by the UK government through the ‘Barnett formula’ so that, in this respect too, austerity has been imposed on Scotland. However, the Scottish government has not subjected councils to the substantial cuts imposed on those in England. Moreover, some powers over social security have begun to be devolved to Scotland, following the Scotland Act 2016 and the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. At the time of our fieldwork, only minor powers had been devolved, but these will eventually include autonomy over disability and illness benefits, measures to address child poverty, variations in administration of UC and new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility or to top up reserved ones. Among the areas which remain reserved to the UK’s DWP are UC, pensions, Pension Credit and Child Benefit. The Scottish government aims ‘to create a Scottish social security system based on dignity, fairness and respect’, for example, by replacing work capability assessments contracted out to the private sector with consultations with trusted health professionals, campaigning to improve benefit take-up and ‘engaging with people with experience of receiving benefits, to build a social security system that works for them’ (Scottish Government, 2021). In November 2021, after this research was completed, the Scottish government announced a doubling of the recently introduced Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week as part of a strategy to address child poverty. Scotland already has several other differences from England in relation to living costs, including free school meals for all children in classes Primary 1 to Primary 5, free prescriptions and free university tuition. There are also important differences in relation to social care provision. In 2016 the Scottish government announced that all publicly funded, frontline social care workers should be paid the real living wage. Furthermore, there are more care staff on permanent contracts in Scotland and personal care is funded for people at home, the means test is more generous and spend per head on social care is higher than in England. Nevertheless, care worker recruitment and retention remain difficult in Scotland.

There are also differences between England and Scotland in relation to rural policy. While neither country has a current rural policy statement, there has been a stronger commitment to rural issues in Scotland than in England in recent years. In England, the UK government has been under pressure from rural stakeholders and from a House of Lords Select Committee to adopt a rural strategy, but it rejects such an approach, relying instead on ‘mainstreaming’ through seeking to ensure that all mainstream policies are ‘rural proofed’ (considering whether policy is likely to have a different impact in rural areas, because of particular rural circumstances or needs; see Atterton, 2008). However, successive studies show that rural proofing is rarely undertaken and (in its present form) is ineffective (Shortall and Alston, 2016). Scotland developed innovative rural development policies in the 1990s and has subsequently introduced several new measures, such as community-based land reform and ‘island proofing’ (see Atterton, 2019), while giving much greater recognition to the needs of rural communities in the Scottish Parliament and in the post of a Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands. Somewhat paradoxically, therefore, Scotland’s lack of an explicit rural policy and of rural proofing has been explained in terms of the greater importance of rural areas in Scotland’s politics more generally (European Network for Rural Development, 2017, 32).

The commitment of the Welsh Assembly government to rural wellbeing is reflected in their funding of the Welsh Rural Observatory with a remit to support evidence-based rural policy in Wales. Despite this, Wales has no explicit rural policy statement either, relying on rural proofing instead. A report on rural poverty was prepared for the Welsh government by the Public Policy Institute for Wales (2016) and notes the evidence gaps. Furthermore, a ‘Rural Health Plan – Improving Integrated Service Delivery Across Wales’ (2009) sought to ensure that the future health needs of rural communities are met in ways which reflect the diverse conditions of rural Wales.

The context for this research, while varying in some respects between England and Scotland, is therefore one of fiscal tightening, labour market flexibilisation, welfare reform, neoliberalisation and the lack of an explicit, coherent rural strategy.

Methodology

The methods used in this study were subject to the normal ethical review procedures at Newcastle University, as well as critical review by the funders, SLF. The study began with a review of previous work on this subject, reported in Chapter 2, and an analysis of various secondary data sources to reveal national and local trends and to help contextualise our study areas in relation to national and regional data. These results are woven into subsequent chapters.

Fieldwork was carried out in three case study areas, chosen to reflect different types of rural area and circumstances, and our own familiarity with the areas from previous work. Two are in Scotland: an accessible rural area, East Perthshire, and a remote island area, Harris; and one in a remote mainland area in England, the North Tyne valley. Budgetary constraints prevented the addition of further study areas, but we were able to compare our results with recent work in Cornwall (Willett, 2021) and in Wales (Public Policy Institute for Wales, 2016), and to test the wider validity of our findings with stakeholders from across England and Scotland at two webinars. Members of England’s Rural Coalition and other national and local stakeholders confirmed the relevance and validity of our findings to their locales. The locations of our three study areas are shown in Figure 1.4.

A stacked bar chart plots types of districts versus percentages.

The study area in East Perthshire includes the wards of Blairgowrie and the Glens and part of Strathmore. It has a population of about 19,000 and covers an area of 468 km2. Half its residents live in Blairgowrie and Rattray, the principal town, while fertile lowlands including smaller towns stretch to the south, and a series of remote glens stretch north up into the Grampian mountains. The area is renowned for the growing of soft fruit and its rich past in textile weaving. Its landscape attracts tourists, commuters and retirement migrants, alongside communities that are in the 20 per cent most deprived within Scotland. Inequality and economic and social change are apparent, and the population is ageing with 25 per cent of residents over 65 in 2011.

Harris lies in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Connection to the mainland is by plane (around two hours’ travel), or ferry (around three hours’ travel). Harris is sparsely populated, other than in the main town of Tarbert, and crofting townships are distributed around the perimeter of the island. Approximately 2,000 people reside in 911 homes, with 41 per cent being in one-person households. The population of Harris has steadily declined, falling by almost 50 per cent since 1951. In 2018 32 per cent of residents of Harris were aged 65 and over. One of the key features of Harris today, in common with many of Scotland’s rural areas, is the level of community land ownership: 70 per cent of people in the Western Isles live on community-owned land. The primary industries are tourism, with some fishing and crofting, and a heavy reliance on the public sector.

The North Tyne valley in Northumberland includes the four civil parishes of Bellingham, Kielder, Falstone and Tarset and Greystead in the north-west of the county, bordering Scotland. Combined, the four parishes cover an area of about 530 km2 and had an estimated population of 2,019 people in 2017, one of the lowest population densities in England. Part of the area is within the boundaries of Northumberland National Park. The travel time by car to Newcastle is 80 minutes from Kielder, or around 50 minutes from Bellingham: it is largely viewed as beyond commuting distance from Newcastle. There is a wealth of history in the area, with many scheduled monuments, listed buildings and archaeological sites. Key industries include agriculture (hill farming) and forestry, with tourism and associated activities having become much more important in the last decade, particularly due to its International Dark Sky Park designation.

There were three stages to the fieldwork in each area. We firstly spoke with a range of ‘gatekeepers’, such as advice agencies, foodbanks, public bodies and third-sector organisations, who were likely to come across people experiencing financial hardship. We discussed similar topics with the gatekeepers in each of the areas, using pre-prepared topic guides based on our overall research approach and the issues arising out of our review of the literature. As a result of the flexible, semi-structured interview method, respondents could introduce unexpected topics and contribute important new insights to the conversations. All the interviews were recorded with the consent of the participants and subsequently transcribed for analysis.

The second stage of fieldwork consisted of interviews with individuals who had experienced financial hardship, or who were at risk of doing so. Sometimes these respondents were found with the help of gatekeepers, sometimes through ‘snowballing’ and on other occasions through placing requests in local newsletters or on community Facebook pages. These interviews explored people’s life histories and experiences of living in their local area. We particularly sought to gather information on life events, work, housing, sources of support and other key issues pertinent to the study. Most of these interviews took place in people’s own homes, although two respondents experiencing mental health challenges were interviewed in the premises of voluntary support organisations. Again, the semi-structured interview method empowered respondents to talk about their lives in ways which made sense to them, and which allowed them to introduce issues and insights which might otherwise have been overlooked. All these interviews similarly were recorded with the consent of the participants, on condition of confidentiality and anonymity, and subsequently transcribed for analysis.

Table 1.1 presents some descriptive information about the respondents in each of the three study areas. In each case there was a good gender balance among the individuals and among the gatekeepers interviewed, with ages ranging from people in their 20s to some in their 80s. There was some difference between the study areas in the employment status and housing tenure of the individual respondents: in Harris respondents were mainly retired, employed or self-employed; in Perthshire they were more likely to be unemployed, ill or in casual employment, and more often in social housing; while in Northumberland respondents included unemployed, self-employed and retired individuals.

Table 1.1:

Descriptive information about respondents in the three study areas

A map highlights the Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands, Outer Hebrides, East Perthshire, Edinburgh, North Tyne Valley, Isle of Man, and the Irish Sea from the top to the bottom. The study areas are shaded.
Isle of Harris East Perthshire North Tyne valley
Gatekeepers VCSEs 6 5 7
Public 4 3 3
Private 1 1 2
Gender of individuals (gatekeepers) Male 2 (12) 2 (3) 2 (7)
Female 3 (12) 3 (10) 2 (7)
Focus group themes Tourism economy

Community trusts

Poverty/services

Social stigma

COVID-19’s impact
Welfare support

Health and care

Housing

Social isolation

COVID-19’s impact
Poverty/welfare

Community trusts

Health and wellbeing

COVID-19’s impact

The largest number of gatekeepers interviewed were voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises, ranging from those engaged in community development, housing and healthcare to those focused on providing advice, support and food to individuals and families in times of need. We also spoke to public sector organisations operating at a local level, and often to representatives from various departments. We spoke to few private businesses. Many of the gatekeepers kindly provided us with supplementary information after the interviews, and several helped us in finding individual respondents.

All the interviews with gatekeepers and individuals in Perthshire and in Harris were conducted face to face between September 2019 and February 2020, but face-to-face interviews were not possible for most of the interviews in Northumberland following the spread of COVID-19 to the UK and the announcement of the first national lockdown in March 2020. Instead, these interviews took place online (using video meeting software or occasionally by phone). Despite our worries these worked surprisingly well with high levels of rapport and trust evident and similarly full and frank conversations recorded. The only noticeable difference was the greater difficulty and delay in finding willing respondents.

The final stage of the fieldwork involved themed focus groups in each area, which were used both to test the validity of the findings from the earlier interviews and to explore how rural financial hardship and vulnerability had been experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and first lockdown. Additional topics for the focus groups varied across the areas, based on the pertinent themes emerging from the interviews, as shown in Table 1.1. The focus groups in all three areas were conducted during the pandemic and so were carried out online. To make these effective in such circumstances, we followed the emerging advice for conducting fieldwork in a pandemic (Lupton, 2020) and restricted the number of participants in each focus group to a maximum of six. As a result, the focus groups were highly successful with rich material emerging. As before, all of these were audio recorded with the consent of participants and transcribed for analysis. The data were analysed thematically, drawing on the conceptual framework, following usual methods for qualitative analysis.

The validity of the findings was further tested, and endorsed, in spring 2021 through several presentations to national and local stakeholders. Quotes from the interviews and focus groups are included in subsequent chapters with codes where needed to identify the study area and whether this was an individual, gatekeeper or focus group, but no further details of the respondent are revealed to ensure anonymity in these small communities.

Structure of the book

This chapter has established that poverty and financial vulnerability affect people living in rural areas of Britain, as well as those in urban areas, but that this is much less recognised or addressed by policy or research. This book addresses this gap in our understanding of the processes underlying, and the experiences and impact of, low income and financial vulnerability in rural Britain in the period post-banking crisis, post-Brexit referendum and before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To this end, this chapter has also reviewed trends in poverty in Britain over recent decades and how these relate to changes in the policy context. The abandonment of Keynesian welfarism and its supplanting by neoliberalism, as well as the different priorities of Conservative and Labour governments, have been reflected in a sharp growth of poverty in Britain in the 1980s, a fall in poverty due to a combination of Labour’s social policy reforms and economic growth after 1997 and further increases in poverty and precarity since 2010 under policies of austerity and welfare reform. Notable changes in the experience of poverty across these phases include a decline in poverty in old age, an increase in poverty in work and a transfer of social risk to individuals. These trends and policy changes have affected not only welfare benefits but also labour markets, housing costs, public services and the ability of local councils to ensure the wellbeing of their citizens.

In the next chapter we review existing knowledge from previous studies of rural poverty and social exclusion in Britain, Europe and North America. This enables us to develop a conceptual framework which focuses on the interconnections between individuals’ and households’ experiences and the structural and external processes bringing changes, for example, in local economies, employment, housing markets, welfare support and services, and how these are modified and intensified by place. It will also introduce many of the themes which recur throughout this volume, relating to work, welfare, governance, civil society, inequality, power and the potential challenges in extending the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda to rural citizens.

Chapters 3 to 5 draw on this conceptual framework to investigate these issues in three contrasting rural places – our study areas of East Perthshire, Harris and the North Tyne valley. Chapter 6 then examines in greater depth the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns on individuals in these three areas, and the responses to these impacts, while also drawing on other emerging studies of COVID-19’s impacts in rural communities. These chapters form the empirical core of this book, presenting new and fresh evidence of the experiences of, and processes underlying, poverty and social exclusion in rural Britain.

The empirical findings from the three case studies, and the emerging themes of the book, are drawn together in Chapter 7. It begins by considering the four sources of support in our analytical framework (markets, state, voluntary and community sector, and family and friends) and how they act cumulatively to offset or reinforce social exclusion and financial vulnerability. This chapter also considers the role of place and its significance in understanding and addressing rural poverty.

Finally, the concluding chapter offers some reflections on the findings from this research and broader issues of social change in rural Britain. It also highlights some of the policy challenges emerging from the results and suggests some opportunities for policy development. More fundamentally, it reflects upon the power of the central state relative to the constraints facing local councils, raising issues of governance and democracy; upon rural–urban relations and the extent to which flows of wealth and capital shape rural poverty, prosperity and wellbeing; and upon the importance of voluntary and community effort, on the one hand in providing support for those in need and on the other in enabling and legitimising the abdication of the state’s responsibility to its citizens in rural areas.

  • Figure 1.1:

    Percentage of the British population in relative low income (1961–2018)

  • Figure 1.2:

    UK poverty rates for children, working-age adults and pensioners (1994–2020)

  • Figure 1.3:

    Share of UK working-age adults living in households with less than 60 per cent of median income 2005–08 (after housing costs)

    Note: In the more rural districts around two thirds of working-age people with low incomes live in households where someone works. Only a third live in workless familes.

  • Figure 1.4:

    Map of the study areas

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