It seems to take a calamity such as the foot and mouth outbreak
before policy makers focus attention on rural issues. The needs of
deprived members of the rural community are rarely mentioned. But
social services in these areas face the challenge of working across
large areas, with thinly spread resources. Natalie Valios
Downsizing from city life to self-sufficient smallholding,
taking early retirement to move to a stone cottage with roses
around the door, boating holidays on the Norfolk Broads….
living in a rural area often conjures up idyllic scenarios in city
dwellers. But for most people who actually live in rural areas,
life is far from idyllic, with as many as one in four living near
or on the margins of poverty.1
The myth of the rural idyll can be traced back to social work’s
origin in the deprived urban slums of the 19th century, when a
holiday in the countryside was often held up as a solution to
people’s problems, says Jill Manthorpe, senior lecturer in social
work at the University of Hull. Periodically these illusions are
dispelled, as has happened with the foot and mouth outbreak, only
to return when the crisis has died down. So it is perhaps
unsurprising that the social care needs of rural children and
families have been, and still are, neglected.
Manthorpe, co-author of a book on rural social care, emphasises
that deprivation and social exclusion are widespread in the
countryside, and argues that for social care services to be
effective they must be tailored to the specific geography of an
Difficulties getting access to services, low levels of service
provision, isolation, higher costs and lack of choice or quality,
contribute to health and social care problems in rural areas, says
“It’s a challenge for services to meet the needs of groups where
there are few children with special needs spread over a remote
area. Services are centralised from towns and even outreach
services still outreach from the centre,” Manthorpe adds.
Political interest in the countryside tends to come and go. The
recent parliamentary debate on banning fox-hunting, and the foot
and mouth crisis have made the countryside the talk of the town.
But the needs of other groups in rural communities, such as
children, remain largely unacknowledged by political parties.
“Policy development in many areas does not incorporate an
explicit rural dimension,” says Manthorpe. “Little is known of what
training and support effectively equips social care providers in
A key issue for rural social care is funding – it is always more
expensive to provide the same level of service in a rural area than
in a town. Despite this, there is still no firm agreement about the
fair allocation of resources to meet the distinctive needs of rural
communities. The cost implications of meeting the needs of a
dispersed population (sparsity factors), are often considered in
relation to home care but are not high on the agenda for children’s
services, says Manthorpe.
For 1999-2000, an element for sparsity was included for the
first time in calculating the elderly domiciliary social services
standard spending assessment. If this can be done for older people,
then why not for children, asks Geoff Gildersleeve, service
development manager children and families, Norfolk social services
“We would argue that the way money comes to local authorities by
and large ignores the rural deprivation problems and the size of
the county,” says Gildersleeve.
At 70 miles wide and 65 miles deep, Norfolk is one of the
largest shire counties, catering for about 700 looked-after
children. Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Norwich taken as a whole
have the deprivation levels and population of an inner London
borough, but Norfolk gets a similar grant to a London borough to
cover the entire county.
Norfolk receives significantly less than urban areas for
children’s services under the government’s Quality Protects
programme, says Gildersleeve. Quality Protects money was used to
develop two family support teams in rural areas. Gildersleeve
believes that the social exclusion unit has begun to draw the
government’s attention to rural social care issues, illustrated by
Norfolk’s selection as one of the first local authorities to
receive cash from the children’s fund. “This has been based on the
level of rural poverty in the area,” he says.
In large swathes of Norfolk, one in five families are on income
support. A car is a luxury that few can afford. Families that have
a car generally include a wage earner – who then drives it to work.
The past few years have seen a rapid decline in public transport in
rural areas. There may only be one bus a day that probably does not
go to the local village’s playgroup, and has a less-than-helpful
timetable. In a bid to improve this, the council has developed a
rural transport strategy to increase and improve bus services.
Some of the problems involved in providing for children in rural
areas are self-evident. Other out-of-proportion expenses to
maintain an ordinary service are less obvious. If the social
services department places a rural child with a foster carer, a
placement is unlikely to be readily available within a five-mile
radius of their school.
Maintaining continuity of education can be a major headache, and
expense, says Gildersleeve. About £2 million of Norfolk’s
£30 million children and families budget is spent on a variety
of transport costs such as taxiing looked-after children to school
or contact meetings with their parents.
Family centres in urban areas can be within pram-pushing
distance, or at least reachable by a frequent bus service. In a
rural area with small villages, a council cannot get away with one
family centre, so services have to be replicated to make them
accessible, says Gildersleeve.
Other measures to improve services for rural children include
finding local voluntary organisations to fill the gaps and
outposting social services offices so they are not just in large
But despite local attempts to meet the needs of country
children, a recent report by NCH on behalf of the Countryside
Agency found that people living in rural areas feel that the harsh
reality of their lives is not understood or acknowledged by policy
makers.3 Rural families caring for disabled children in
particular are under enormous strain especially as there is often
an absence of social contact with other children as well as
discriminatory attitudes, it says.
Transport to take children with special needs to services
operate within a restricted radius and many parents have to provide
transport themselves that takes up a large proportion of their
Kennet is the most rural area of Wiltshire, made up of small
market towns and villages. Sustaining services such as summer play
schemes in individual villages is impossible because there are too
few children in each village. Consequently, the Kennet children and
families team finds itself spending a lot of time ferrying children
to out-of-area services. With no family centre in Kennet because of
the dispersed pattern of need, the team has now received a lottery
grant to research setting up family support services similar to
those a family centre would provide, but on an outreach basis.
Eleanor Ward, the team’s field work manager, is concerned that
rural children don’t get the services they need because of their
location. “We aren’t attracting government money or interest from
the big voluntary groups because our needs aren’t considered high
enough. Isolation and poor transport don’t count.”
Ward fears that this might mean children cannot be supported in
this rural community to the same extent that they could be in a
town because resources for daily monitoring just aren’t there.
Consequently, it is more time consuming for social workers to
support clients and, although there will eventually be the same
outcome, it takes longer and is more complicated, she adds.
The NCH report says: “Lack of access to services in rural areas,
when combined with poor transport, low income, inadequate housing
and recreational facilities, results in social exclusion”. The
countryside lobby may yet secure the future of fox-hunting. But
perhaps it is time someone sounded the horn for the countryside’s
impoverished and isolated children.
1 J Williams, Meeting the Needs of Country
Children, NCVCCO, 2000
2 J Manthorpe, G Craig, Fresh Fields: Rural
Social Care, York Publishing Services, 2000
3 A Mullins, J McCluskey, J Taylor-Browne,
Challenging the Rural Idyll, The Countryside Agency,
Key recommendations to improve services for rural
- Adopt ways of measuring need which take account of the sparsity
of deprivation in rural areas.
- Include bottom-up approaches which involve the local
communities in assessing their own needs to ensure accuracy and
promote ownership of services.
- Adopt a corporate approach to service planning to improve
collaboration in providing services and reduce the cost of meeting
the needs of a scattered population.
- Promote investment in primary intervention as the most
effective way to prevent problems developing for rural
- Local and health authorities should accept that the unit cost
of rural services will always be greater than for urban areas, but
recognise that the impact will be high.
- Children’s services plans should include an explicit statement
of approach to planning and target setting for rural services.
- Local authorities should commission rural services and explore
funding opportunities through joint finance, single regeneration
budgets and other initiatives.
- Adopt child-centred approaches to consultation.
- Planning and delivery of all services for children should
recognise the particular needs of rural areas.
Source: Meeting the Needs of Country