When you conjure up images of rural Wales, you no doubt think of mountains and coast line, sheep, tractors, farmers and Ifor Williams trailers (“Britain’s leading trailer manufacturer”) which always seem to be in front of you when driving the A470.
In reality, roughly 20% of our population lives in rural Wales and their needs are no different to their urban counterparts. We all depend on being able to access key services in our area like banks and post offices; having good infrastructure – highways, broadband and public transport – to be able to get out and about locally but also be linked to others across the globe. In addition, we all rely on being able to access the key council services that we need – for example the local swimming pool or library.
Our report on how rural communities are faring and how councils provide services in rural Wales, published on 13 November 2018, highlights that reductions in public funding, shifting demographics and socio-economic change is contributing to rural communities feeling that they are being left behind.
A strong focus our work was to speak directly to people who live and work in rural Wales to ensure we really understood what rural Wales is and means to them. Through our engagement events at the Royal Welsh show, the Vale of Glamorgan and Isle of Anglesey county shows, surveys and visits to rural communities and attractions like the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Visitors Centre and Hedd Wynn’s cottage we got a real sense of the value and importance of rural Wales and the challenges communities face.
Citizens told us directly of their experiences and the decline in council services in the last five years. Some services had stopped, others were less available, whilst some had become unaffordable. And with councils having to manage with increasingly constrained budgets, citizens are less positive about the future.
Against this backdrop, we also found reason to be optimistic that things can improve. Drawing on examples of how communities, councils and their partners are responding to managing with less money from across the UK and Canada we believe that there are opportunities for councils and their partners to think and act differently and redefine their relationship with and support for rural communities.
To succeed, councils need to develop a more ambitious and optimistic vision for the future focusing on place and developing system wide solutions. For example, creating multi-service hubs as the ‘one-stop shop’ to public services which can become a community focal point. With less money and less ability to provide the full range of services traditionally made available, we think councils and their partners should also encourage communities and citizens to do more for themselves. There are also opportunities to address infrastructure gaps – for instance by supporting an integrated public transport network aligning bus and cycling networks with rail services and helping people and businesses make the most of digital connectivity by investing in digital skills.
While the path ahead requires tremendous effort, significant skill, and some luck, we believe there is reason to be optimistic and if councils and their partners begin to think and act differently, then they can do their bit to help rural Wales survive and thrive.
People living in rural communities are after all very resilient and flourish when faced with challenges. They have overcome past problems and will do so again with the help and support of their councils. After all, to quote Vince Lombardi “winners never quit, and quitters never win” …and we know people in Wales are not quitters!
About the author
Nick Selwyn is a Local Government Manager at the Wales Audit Office, with responsibilities for our programme of all-Wales studies.