Far from idyll

Government initiatives to help poor families are failing to
reach those living in rural areas, but there are signs that this
could be changing. Mark Hunter investigates.

The idyllic notion of the countryside as the perfect place to
bring up children may persist for those with the resources to
bypass public services, but for those whose circumstances place
them at risk of social exclusion, the reality is different.

There are around 700,000 children living in rural households
below the poverty line, according to the New Policy Institute.
These often isolated families face many of the problems encountered
by their urban counterparts. However, their access to the kind of
services taken for granted in towns and cities remains lamentably

Fewer than one in 10 of England’s rural parishes has a
public nursery and only 14 per cent have a private nursery. Only 40
per cent have a parent toddler group and just 41 per cent have a
pre-school playgroup.1 The services that do exist for
families with young children often prove inaccessible to those who
need them most. Three-quarters of rural parishes have no daily bus

The government’s determination to put social exclusion at
the centre of its public service reforms also seems to have passed
the countryside by. None of the New Deal for Communities schemes
are rural, there are no rural employment zones and the 44 areas
included in the Social Exclusion Unit’s neighbourhood renewal
white paper are all in cities or towns.

The urban bias of centralised initiatives to combat social
exclusion was vividly illustrated during the early days of Sure
Start. Over 250 Sure Start schemes were set up during the first two
waves of the programme. Only three – Fenland, East Cleveland and
Bolsover – took place in the countryside. The main reason for this
disparity was the government’s use of Index of Local
Deprivation criteria to identify suitable areas. This list of
indicators was able to pick out large clusters of disadvantage in
cities but ignored the small pockets of deprivation that occur in
rural areas.

According to Jacqui McCluskey, policy officer at
children’s charity NCH, this is a common failing of
area-based initiatives such as Sure Start.

“These initiatives don’t work in rural areas they way they
do in urban areas,” she says. “The poverty doesn’t really
occur in specific areas, it is located in pockets surrounded by
people who can be really quite affluent. The general picture might
suggest that the area is pretty well off, but that masks individual
people’s experience.”

Some indicators of deprivation, such as take-up of benefits or
the level of unemployment, are also less accurate in rural areas
than in the city, claims McCluskey.

“The government’s anti-poverty initiatives are focused on
reducing people’s dependence on benefits, getting them into
employment,” she says. “But there are cultural reasons why people
might not want to admit to having money problems. There’s a
resistance to seeking help that still persists in rural areas – so
there’s a much lower uptake of benefits. Also, unemployment
is less of a problem in rural communities. The problem is that the
jobs are so poorly paid.”

As one of the authors of Challenging the Rural Idyll, a
report commissioned in 2001 by the Countryside Agency, McCluskey
conducted a number of interviews with people aged between eight and
63 contacted through NCH rural projects across England. The
findings show that poor access to services, and in particular
affordable child care facilities, remain a major cause of rural
social exclusion.

“There’s a huge proportion of people who don’t have
access to a nursery or who can’t afford to use one because
they are very expensive. It’s a major cause of exclusion. It
mitigates against getting a job and it’s a real obstacle in
reaching other essential services.”

Reaching those child care services that do exist often requires
travelling great distances. This either leaves people at the mercy
of infrequent and unreliable public transport or forces them to buy
a car that they cannot afford to maintain.

“A lot of the services have migrated to the big market towns, so
you need a car to get to them,” says McCluskey. “Most of the people
we spoke to did have a car, because without it they would just be
too isolated. But a huge proportion of their income was spent on
maintaining the car, or they drove it untaxed and uninsured. So
people are taking a huge risk just to be able to access essential

And even when attempts are made to provide services more
locally, village politics can often get in the way, says

“There may be limited communal space and everybody might be
fighting for it. If there’s only the village hall then people
might not want it overrun with kids. It’s all about who knows
who on the parish council. Who’s got the power locally is a
huge issue and more needs to be done about empowering people.”

Clearly people living in the rural areas need greater access to
essential services. However, simply extending the reach of
primarily urban-based initiatives into the countryside is not
necessarily the answer. Social care consultant Janet Williams says
rural programmes have to adopt a specifically rural approach.
Williams was commissioned to carry out research for the Countryside
Agency, on behalf of the National Council of Voluntary Child Care
Organisations, on the progress made by the first three rural Sure
Start programmes. Her findings emphasise the need for rural
initiatives to adopt sensitive approaches to rural problems.

These include not only the issue of transport, but also local
rivalries, parish politics and the strict class divisions that are
often evident within rural communities.

“The distances involved and the problems of transport make
everything, including community involvement, much more difficult,”
says Williams.

Setting up a programme such as Sure Start within a small rural
community can create its own social impact that needs to be handled
sensitively, she says. It is important to avoid stigmatising those
who use the service “because everyone knows about each
other’s business”. At the same time, those areas not included
in the programme can end up feeling “second-best” and this can
accentuate the sense of exclusion of families living there.

The programme might bring a small number of well-paid jobs into
the area. Competition for these posts may be intense and, if
handled badly, the disappointment felt by those who lose out can
hamper the programme’s future.

“The performance of local people appointed to these posts is
closely observed,” says Williams. “Possible evidence of lack of
experience or skill can be quite sharply judged, increasing the
importance of transparent selection procedures, and of supervision
and support.”

It was partly due to Williams’ research that Sure Start
recently changed its targeting criteria to allow greater
flexibility in rural areas. The new conditions have resulted in the
establishment of a further 10 rural Sure Start projects. Williams
will publish a report on progress made by these schemes later this

In addition, a pilot of 45 small-scale Sure Start programmes has
been launched in rural areas which would not normally be covered by
the larger, traditional Sure Start model. These “mini-Sure Starts”
will deliver services such as toy libraries, health advice,
parenting classes, day care and crèche facilities to 150-170
children under four in each catchment area.

This belated advance of Sure Start into the countryside is a
welcome sign that the government is at last taking the problem of
rural child poverty seriously. However, until other services follow
suit, rural areas will remain the poor relations of initiatives to
combat social exclusion.

Rural Childcare: Briefing Paper One:
New Opportunities – Establishing New Childcare Places in the
, Kids’ Clubs Network, 2001

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