Recognising and addressing rural poverty in Wales

When we think about poverty in Wales the uplands of Eryri, coastal villages in Pembrokeshire, or the rolling farmlands of Powys do not tend to be the first places that come to mind. Yet, there is growing evidence that poverty is a persistent and increasing problem for many people living in rural Wales.

Researchers have described rural Wales as suffering from ‘hidden poverty’ that lacks the visibility of concentrated deprivation in more urban areas. The units used to collate statistics, such as wards and census output areas, cover larger, more mixed, areas in rural districts, in which households of different income levels are mingled. Cultural stereotypes that perceive rural areas to be generally affluent also obscure the presence of poverty, or explain away hardship as a lifestyle choice, compensated by green space and tranquility. Rural residents themselves may hold back from seeking help, or even from thinking that they are experiencing poverty, due to the strength of the notion of rural self-reliance and fear about standing out in a small community.

Poverty can take different forms in rural areas compared with poverty in urban areas. Unemployment is not a good measure of rural poverty, in part because people without work often leave rural communities to find jobs and in part because low wages and precarious employment mean that in-work poverty is more prevalent. Transport poverty in rural communities cannot be measured by car ownership, as the decimation of bus services has made running a car a necessity for many households, even if they can barely afford to do so. Reliance on public transport has a time cost: in 2019, the average travel time to a food shop for residents of villages and open countryside was 9 minutes by car, but 1 hour 29 minutes by public transport. To a primary school it was 8 minutes by car, but 1 hour 21 minutes by bus.

Being able to afford housing is a challenge in both urban and rural areas, but typical house prices are more expensive relative to median local earnings in most of rural Wales than for Wales as a whole. Even in Carmarthenshire, where the gap is narrowest, typical prices for the lowest cost houses are still more than five times the annual earnings of the lowest paid workers, effectively putting property ownership out of reach. Yet, the private rental sector in rural communities is limited and getting smaller as properties are converted to more lucrative holiday lets. For example, the number of whole-property lets in Gwynedd listed on AirBnB increased by 915% between 2017 and 2019. Rental properties that remain available tend to be relatively more expensive than in many urban areas and often poorer quality.

Resulting problems of homelessness also have a different character in rural areas, manifested less in rough sleeping and more by individuals and families living with relatives or friends, in temporary or inadequate accommodation, or in towns and villages distant from their preferred place of residence.

The Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation was designed to recognise that different forms of poverty have different geographical expressions. Its domains of ‘Housing’ and ‘Access to Services’ show higher deprivation in rural areas, but when the figures are combined in a composite indicator, rural wards tend to come out in the middle of the distribution. Less than 2% of wards covering villages, small towns and countryside in rural counties are in the most deprived decile (10%) of wards in the index, compared with 15% of wards in towns and cities.

This misses the ‘rural poverty premium’, in which the interlocking effect of employment, housing and transport factors compounding each other, plus low population numbers, mean that basic costs of living are higher for low-income rural residents than for generally more affluent urban dwellers. The Bevan Foundation reported in 2022 that rural households face a “triple squeeze from high costs, low incomes and limited support for hard-pressed households.” It calculated that rural households in Wales typically spend £27 a week more on transport and £4 a week more on food than urban households. Already a decade ago, in 2013, a survey by the Wales Rural Observatory found that one in twenty respondents said that it would be impossible to find £100 to pay for an unexpected expense, and 18% said they were finding it difficult to cope on their present income. Today, these numbers would likely be higher, as fuel and food inflation has hit vulnerable rural households hard, including heating costs for properties dependent on heating oil not covered by energy price caps.

Living in a rural area can also make it more difficult for struggling households to access help. The spread of Food Banks into rural communities is evidence of expanding rural poverty, but Ceredigion Council recently heard that there are still four, largely rural, wards in the county without such resources. Contrary to ideas of close-knit rural communities, support networks have been fragmented by migration and transport challenges, with over a third of rural residents surveyed by the Wales Rural Observatory in 2013 having no family living within 10 miles.

Nevertheless, community action is important in tackling rural poverty. An earlier report for WCPP reviewing international evidence identified four principles for community-based interventions on rural poverty, including building on local capacities and assets; developing community alliances based on lived experiences; supporting communities with resources and knowledge exchange; and developing multi-stakeholder, multi-sector collaborations. In Wales, community action has been supported by the National Lottery Community Fund’s Rural Programme, as well as through a plethora of formal and informal initiatives from warm spaces to community transport to clothing exchanges. Yet, the dependence of such actions on volunteers and grant-funding or donations has made many precarious in the face of public funding cuts, the end of EU funding for rural community development, and increasing costs.

Paul Milbourne and Helen Coulson, in a paper for the Lottery-funded Rural Futures project, have accordingly argued that community-based interventions need to be accompanied by attention to the structural causes of rural poverty, including those extending beyond rural places, and to the impacts of the current political-economic context, as well as more examination of local and Welsh factors shaping experiences of rural poverty and the efficacy of responses.

In short, while growing recognition of rural poverty in Wales is an important step, addressing the problem requires an integrated and multi-sector policy response by Welsh Government and local authorities working with a resourced and empowered voluntary sector.