Ensuring the grass remains green for rural communities

With winter fast approaching, our long and busy summer spent engaging with rural communities all over Wales feels like an increasingly distant memory.

As auditors it’s not often we get the chance to get out there and hear from citizens about the things that matter to them. But this year we’ve done just that, by attending a number of agricultural and county shows – including the Royal Welsh Show with our Inspection Wales [opens in new window] colleagues – to listen to people’s experience of living and working in rural Wales.

It’s all part of our local government study which looks at how effective Welsh public bodies are at delivering and maintaining services in rural communities. Back in August my colleague Gareth blogged about engagement and the use of public surveys in contributing to the work of the Wales Audit Office [opens in new window].

And, although we’ve had a positive online response to our ‘My Rural Services’ survey, going out to listen and capture people’s daily-lived experiences of rural services has helped us enormously to focus our study on the issues that really matter to people. We had close to 700 conversations with citizens of rural communities over the summer and now, as we enter the second phase of our study, the emerging themes of what matter to people are becoming clearer.So what are they?

Well, whilst some might view public services as a nicely defined and distinct sector, the reality is quite different. Public services play a part in rural life, but intertwined with challenges such as local businesses closing and the outward migration of skilled, younger generations – all of which form barriers to the sustained vitality of rural communities.

The loss of a service in a rural community can be felt more sharply than in urban settings and services and facilities that we can all take for granted are often the deciding factor in a community being sustainable or not. Public services must work for people and, against the backdrop of sustained budget pressures, local government needs to find a way to involve people in service design and delivery.

There is a long-established recognition of the challenges of delivering fair and equitable public services in rural areas. The sparsity of the population and the associated cost, distance and access challenges means that rural services can’t be configured in the same way as they might be in more urban centres.

The emerging themes from ‘My Rural Services’ survey and engagement events reflect these challenges. Whilst we received comments about all kinds of services and issues – from recycling and rubbish collection to potholes and public transport – almost all of the 700 comments fall into one of the following five categories:

  • the way services are configured
  • accessibility (including affordability) of services
  • transport issues
  • engagement with service providers
  • the adverse impact when services don’t work for people

The next phase of our study involves fieldwork at a number of local government organisations including Wales’ national park authorities, a police force, fire and rescue authority, and a number of unitary, town and community councils. Using our conversations with citizens as the baseline for this work gives us assurance that we’re focusing on the right issues.

As for how local government bodies are responding to these challenges… we’ll get back to you on that one. Do these themes reflect the issues in your rural community? Our initial public survey has now closed, but if you’d still like to tell us what you think, you can email the study team on council.studies@audit.wales.

Euros LakeAbout the author

Euros Lake is a Performance Auditor working in the Local Government National Studies Team. He has worked for the Wales Audit Office for four years in a variety of roles, including Welsh language policy and communications. Outside of work, Euros enjoys cycling and following the ups and downs of Cardiff Blues rugby.

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