Devolution in England was first proposed in 1912 by Winston Churchill (then MP for Dundee) as part of a debate on Home Rule for Ireland. The Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1969 advised devolving power from central government to eight provinces. This was followed by the Royal Commission on the Constitution (1969-1973) which recommended eight regional assemblies be set up – to have an advisory rather than legislative role. Between 1994 and 2011, nine regions had devolved functions within Government (e.g. Government Offices, Regional Development Agencies). Since 2010 much of this infrastructure and any references to the ‘R’ word have been dismantled. At the same time, ‘city regions’ have emerged and are lobbying Government for more powers in the form of ‘combined authorities’. The Chancellor appears to support this call, endorsing the northern powerhouse, City Deals and metro mayors. If density matters more than ever before and a new model of ‘city government’ is emerging, what does this mean for rural communities?   

According to the Office for National Statistics, 18.5% of the usually-resident population of England and Wales lives in rural areas (some 10.3 million people). There is a tendency among policy and decision makers to treat urban and rural places the same economically because they have a similar sectoral distribution of businesses. But the context is very different: rural areas have lower wages; lower skills requirements and higher rates of home working; and agriculture, food and manufacturing are more prevalent.

Back in 2004 the Government published a Rural Definition which includes a ‘spectrum’ or six-fold categorisation of settlements – from  (1) ‘major urban’ to (6) ‘rural 80’ (districts with at least 80% of their population in rural settlements and larger market towns). This was updated in 2014 with the identification of ‘hub towns’: settlements of 10,000-30,000 people which act as service and business centres for their rural hinterland. Defra has even mapped the density of residential dwellings down to a 100 metre by 100 metre square.   

This economic and spatial context is important because it is a means for reporting statistical information and used for targeting policies, funding and resources. However, much of this work is advisory, without statutory or regulatory force. It does not take into account differences within a locality or what people think of as rural and urban. It does not consider how clusters of rural settlements work together (i.e. one village may have a shop/post office, a neighbouring village a GP surgery, another village a primary school). And it does not consider how ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ are not standalone categories but linked – not least through the flows of people and things between places.

Financially, it costs more to deliver services in rural areas. Analysis by the Rural Services Network shows for 2015-2016 urban areas will receive some 45% (£130.99 per head) in Settlement Funding Assessment grant more than their rural counterparts; and that rural residents will pay, on average, £81.00 per head more in Council Tax than their urban counterparts due to receiving less government grant. This means rural households are paying higher council tax bills while receiving fewer services than their urban counterparts. In 2014, Defra and DCLG commissioned research to look at whether rural authorities faced additional and unavoidable costs in delivering services compared to urban authorities. This identified fifteen services most affected by rurality leading to higher unit costs – including non-universal children and family services, public transport, libraries and community safety. While there have been instances where Government has recognised this ‘rural premium’ (e.g. Fairer Schools Funding 2015-2016); the provisional Local Government Finance Settlement for 2016-2017 allocates just £20 million extra for the most rural authorities.

It also costs more to live in rural areas. The Minimum Income Standard (MIS) for rural households, prepared by Loughborough University and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found people in rural areas typically need to spend 10–20% more on everyday requirements than those in urban areas. The more remote the area, the greater these additional costs. For example, couples with two children need to earn £33,000-£42,000 depending on whether one or both parents work and the remoteness of the community.

So how can we make sure rural places are not overlooked in the city agenda? Will devolution be ‘rural proofed’ to ensure a fair solution for rural areas? Will devolution be backed up by the money to pay for it? Or will devolution happen without money from the national pot but from councils raising their own investment – and how will this work for rural areas with fewer people and more small businesses? 

The ongoing requirement to balance public need with available funds has seen a shift from ‘Government’ to ‘Citizen Focused Service Delivery’. This has opened up dialogues around what we mean by services and what should or shouldn’t be funded at a local level: what services do councils and rural residents deem ‘critical’, ‘targeted’, ‘regulatory’ or ‘frontline’ and how should they be funded? As Outlook readers will be all too aware, many councils are scaling back or reconfiguring the services they provide to children, young people and families : with  some ending ‘open and universal access’ to provide ‘targeted interventions’ for the ‘most vulnerable’; and others stopping ‘discretionary’ and often preventative services to maintain ‘statutory’ provision.

So if Government is offering cities greater control of functions such as transport, housing and healthcare in return for accepting a directly elected mayor – how could this work for rural areas?  An elected mayor for county/counties? What exactly is being devolved here and what might it mean for services provided to children, young people and families?

Will devolution pick up at all one of the most pressing concerns around the future sustainability of rural communities: the exodus of young people? Where will children go to school? What facilities and activities are there for children and young people? How can young people be supported in plotting their route from education to employment? How can young people access training? How can we make living in the countryside a viable option for young people and families?

Outside of England it is interesting to see how devolution has led rural residents to think about the places where they live in new ways beyond the agenda being set in Westminster. Scotland, for example, has a ‘rural parliament’. This is not a formal part of the Scottish Government or a parliament in the sense of having legislative powers, but it has been developed by the people of Scotland to provide policy makers with improved understanding, awareness and evidence of rural issues. It holds regular hour-long discussions on rural issues using Twitter. This #ruralhour looks at the issues young people face and how they can get better involved in the Parliament.  It also informs the European Rural Parliament, which provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and experience between national rural movements and networks. 

Going forward, we need to ensure rural does not become a white space in current dialogues about devolution for England.