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  • Author or Editor: Mark Shucksmith x
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This chapter examines the developments of rural policy in Great Britain in the context of international economic, social, and political trends. It evaluates the achievements of New Labour’s rural policy against the internationalist aspirations of the party’s Commission on Social Justice in 1994. The findings indicate that while its macroeconomic policies have fostered continuous growth, New Labour’s economic policies for rural areas remain stubbornly agricultural and outdated.

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Experiences of Social Exclusion in Rural Britain

Poverty is perceived as an urban problem, yet many in rural Britain also experience hardship. This book explores how and why people in rural areas experience and negotiate poverty and social exclusion. It examines the role of societal processes, individual circumstances, sources of support (markets; state; voluntary organisations; family and friends) and the role of place.

It concludes that the UK’s welfare system is poorly adapted to rural areas, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit and cutbacks exacerbating pressures. Voluntary organisations increasingly fill gaps in support left by the state. Invaluable to those in policy and practice, the book recommends a combination of person-based and place-based approaches to tackle rural poverty.

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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.

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This chapter reviews previous studies of rural poverty and social exclusion in Britain, Europe and North America as an essential underpinning for this research. The review starts by defining some of the key terms from this literature and then it moves on to review existing evidence on the extent of poverty and financial hardship in rural Britain and how these challenges have affected different demographic groups. It then reviews some of the specific factors contributing to rural poverty and discusses the reasons why poverty and hardship often remain ‘under the radar’ in rural areas. The review concludes by setting out the analytical framework for the approach taken in the research, which focuses on the interconnections between individuals’ experiences of hardship/wellbeing and the structural and external processes bringing changes.

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East Perthshire is an accessible rural area, mostly within commuting distance of Perth, Dundee and the central belt. It includes expensive middle-class housing as well as some of the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland. In-work poverty was rising, with the growth of insecure employment or self-employment making it hard to budget or save. This precarity in labour markets was exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, by increasing precarity in state welfare systems. The complexity and high risks of the benefit system were major factors in financial vulnerability and hardship, and this chapter details these deficiencies and their relation to rurality. Support came instead from numerous voluntary and community organisations. From foodbanks to advice services, from women’s refuges to care providers, these provided a ‘first port of call’ and a crucial signposting role towards other sources of help. They all face challenges of trying to provide services across a large rural area in the context of funding pressures and rising demand and need. Support also came for some from family and friends networks, especially in substituting for the state’s social care, childcare and eldercare services.

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Harris lies in the Outer Hebrides and is very sparsely populated, with one small town and others scattered around the island’s perimeter. The population has halved since 1951. Tourism, fishing and crofting remain but most employment today is in the service sector, with good jobs in the public sector health and education. In recent years, the development of the ‘Harris brand’ has generated a dramatic increase in economic activity and employment, beyond the capacity of the available workforce. Housing pressure, especially, has inflated house prices and caused difficulty in retaining or attracting key workers. Residents who did not benefit from this boom face difficulties accessing support and risk social stigma in small communities. While the community and voluntary sectors are strong, reliance on family and friends is often more socially acceptable. Over 70 per cent of the Western Isles is now in community ownership, but despite this and the localisation of local government in 1975, there is still a sense of distance from centres of power in Edinburgh, London and multinational boardrooms around the globe.

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Responses from Civil Society and Civic Universities

Neoliberal-driven austerity has changed the role of the state, public service provision and citizenship. Thriving in today’s society is a challenge for communities around the world as governments increasingly promote privatisation, centralised control, individual responsibility and battle with the impacts of Covid19.

Co-authored by practitioners and academics and based on case studies of collaborations between civil society and the civic university, this book uses the North East of England as a lens to explore how different communities have responded to changing circumstances. The case studies present examples of actions aiming to create hope and inspiration for communities in challenging times.

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Charles Dickens opens his most political novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with these words. Nearly two centuries later, we cannot but agree with his suggestion that, ‘In short, the period was … like the present period’ (Dickens, 1859: 1). Such entangling of hope and despair not only defines our everyday life experiences; it is also echoed in the intellectual dilemma that is at the heart of this book. From the outset, we were searching for ‘hope in the dark’ (Solnit, 2004), with the ‘dark’ being austerity policies and their implications for people and places, and ‘hope’ being civil society’s responses to them. By the time the manuscript was ready for submission (in spring 2020), the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was in full swing. While a full analysis of its effects is premature and beyond the scope of this chapter, we cannot but reflect on it where appropriate, especially in the conclusion. The juxtaposing of hope and despair does not suggest that hope is an unqualified positive attribute. On the contrary, as Ernst Block (1986 [1954–59]: 56) suggests, ‘fraudulent hope is one of the malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor’, defining the latter as ‘informed discontent’ with the status quo and a call for action. So, for us, hope is that which allows us to imagine an alternative future and strive to achieve it. This is particularly apt in relation to the COVID-19 crisis and the limited preparedness for tackling it.

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There is no definitive, universally agreed definition of what social welfare is (Lowe, 1993), and in the UK, ‘social welfare’, ‘social security’ and the ‘welfare state’ are terms that are often used interchangeably to refer to the provision of a lifeline, a safety net, to help people cope during periods of disruption or crisis. While welfare provision is often associated with the post-war social-democratic states and, in Britain, the introduction of the NHS in 1945, Alcock’s (2016) historical account demonstrates that charitable forms of welfare provision existed before, for example, the Poor Law of 1601 in England, where parishes administered relief to the destitute, and measures introduced in the 19th century that applied to large sections of the population regarding access to education, hospitals and sanitation. However, social infrastructures such as schools and hospitals were typically owned by churches and voluntary organisations, or funded by private individuals, rather than the state (Alcock, 2016). This tradition of charitable and voluntary welfare provision has continued to date, leading to the involvement of multiple actors and creating diversity in terms of the manner of service delivery, staff ethos and the purpose and accountability of the organisations.

Across the public, voluntary, community and private sectors, increased prominence is given to collectively produced welfare services through co-production and collaboration. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2011) simply defines co-production in terms of a model incorporating diverse organisations operating in distinct ways and with differing levels of engagement from and involvement of civil society organisations, service users and citizens.

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The relationship between the city and the university has ebbed and flowed since the early medieval universities became integrated into the cities. In the UK, the 13th-century ‘town and gown’ adversarial relationships, exemplified in the establishment of the University of Cambridge, are now often replaced by attempts on both sides to create fruitful collaborations (Madanipour and Davoudi, 2017). It has become clear that their fortunes are often tightly entwined, especially in smaller cities with large universities (Benneworth et al, 2010) such as Newcastle. Here, the city’s 19th-century industrial origin of shipbuilding, mining, heavy engineering and agriculture provided the foundation for the disciplinary strengths of Newcastle University and its advances in the development of professional training in these fields, as well as newly emerging professional fields such as architecture, planning, teaching and arts. These earlier connections became less tangible and direct from the mid 20th-century for a number of reasons, notably, the globalisation of the higher education sector, the growing neoliberal emphasis on competitiveness in both student recruitment and research funding, and the encroachment of ‘new public management’ approaches to academic performance and university rankings. International academic publications trumped local civic engagement in the universities’ order of priorities. It was not until the last decade or so that the latter began to be foregrounded, partly due to a change in the way universities’ research excellence was nationally assessed, giving weight to its non-academic impacts as well as its academic excellence (Davoudi, 2015; Laing et al, 2017).

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