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Rural Poverty Spells Isolation

Austerity is on the agenda. Over the next five weeks, expect to hear plenty of promises about spending on public services and how austerity has hollowed out city councils and deepened inequalities within urban communities. This is true – cities have been hardest hit by funding cuts. Worse still, poorer councils have lost more because they have lost the premiums which once subsidised service provision to deprived communities.

What you probably won’t hear so much about is how austerity has impacted poorer communities living in rural areas. I spent my summer in Fenland District, a rural area with the highest level of deprivation of all the local authorities in Cambridgeshire. I spoke to public-service users in the market town Chatteris, about how their lives had changed since the Coalition government began its roll-out of austerity in 2010.

A common theme was how “left behind” and “forgotten” many people feel. The town tells the typical austerity story –cuts to policing, youth services, sheltered housing and reductions to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and District Council Customer Service Centre. High-street closures have seen the disappearance of important local shops and every bank branch. This means vulnerable people, in particular, are isolated. One elderly resident told me that although Chatteris is a friendly place she no longer goes into town because all the shops she relied on have closed down. Instead, she does her shopping from a catalogue.

Worst of all is the bus service. Chatteris is about seven miles away from March, a major town which acts as a centre for employment, shopping and leisure services. However, the connecting bus has been reduced to a two-hourly service running from 07:20 am and with the last bus back leaving March at 17:07 pm. This is useless for many people who travel to and from March for work.

I heard the story of a young couple who because they cannot drive are unable to secure employment. There are no suitable employers in Chatteris itself and they are ineligible for any suitable jobs in March and other nearby towns because the bus service means that they cannot get there on time. Consequently, they receive Jobseekers’ Allowance, but because of the infrequency of the bus service, a trip to March to the Job Centre Plus for a short 10 am appointment means leaving on 0720 bus and arriving in March two hours before their appointment. The quality of the bus service means that for this couple Chatteris felt “like a prison” and that “you’re allowed outside, but … you’ve got to be back … like you’ve got a curfew”.

Chatteris, like so many rural towns and villages, has been stripped of all the services and amenities which made it a thriving, self-sufficient community. Now, people living there are reliant on access to services in nearby towns such as March, meanwhile, access to these places has been restricted by cuts to the bus service. This demonstrates painfully the fundamental failures of austerity and the neoliberal doctrine of privatisation and deregulation which leaves the most disadvantaged members of rural communities isolated and alone.

The immediate problem is access to services and amenities. Labour’s promise of £1.3 billion to protect, restore and create 3,000 bus services, and its commitment to protecting rural routes, is welcome. Incentives to bring services under local-authority control are also important, as fares are currently prohibitively high for poorer passengers. In the long term, places like Chatteris need fundamental economic and social transformation so that they can become thriving centres in their own right, with services run by the community for the community. Labour under Corbyn has its sights set on this vision. What is needed now is more detail in the upcoming manifesto about what could be done to make this a reality.

My encounters in Chatteris reminded me that rural communities are strong, resilient and full of amazing, friendly, welcoming people with a fierce loyalty to their local area. Many have lived here for generations and have a deep knowledge of the place and what it needs to thrive. These people need to be trusted and empowered through resources, training and support to create high streets which fulfil the needs of the elderly and the aspirations of the young. This election presents a huge opportunity to invest in these communities and transform our society to deal with the economic, social, educational and environmental needs of people in places like Chatteris.

By Jamie Goodland