Downside of rural life: poverty, racism and mental illness

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The Independent Online

A huge gap is opening up between the affluent inhabitants of the countryside and the hidden, growing band of families living below the poverty line in rural areas.

Far from idyllic, small villages are frequently a place of poverty, inequality, bigotry and isolation.

According to research due to be published on Wednesday, greater patterns of inequality are developing in rural areas, where one in five households live below the poverty line. In many cases, troubles such as racism, homelessness, mental health problems, low take-up of higher education and access to key services go unreported.

Racially-motivated incidents are increasing faster in rural areas with some of the country's prettiest counties - Northumberland, Devon and Cornwall - experiencing the ugliest rises in hate crimes. North Wales has seen a 400 per cent jump in such crimes in six years.

More than a fifth of Britain's population are countryside dwellers with a net annual movement of 100,000 from urban to rural locations. Most people perceive - often justifiably - that the country provides a healthier, safer alternative with one recent report highlighting that 42 per cent of rural homeowners felt they were "extremely happy" compared with 30 per cent of those in urban areas. Yet, the Young Foundation report painted a different picture for those without money in more remote areas of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.

While many beauty spots have seen a boom in affluent city dwellers moving in and bringing with them a raft of fine restaurants, their less wealthy neighbours have to contend with a lack of accessible services with shops closing.

Increasing house prices has also left many with no hope of affording their own homes. The highest proportion of low-wage employees in England live in rural areas - yet in places such as north Cornwall the average house price is almost 14 times the equivalent local earnings. The share of homeless families in remote districts rose by almost 30 per cent in two years yet much of it is hidden by "sofa-surfing".

Many growing inequalities, the report said, are due to geographical factors, which make access to health services, banks and schools difficult.

In Somerset and Dorset recent studies found that more than 40 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds said that transport issues influenced their decisions about whether or not to stay on in education after 16.

In spite of the healthy image of country life, the authors found that many have less access to health care. Most disturbingly, there is evidence that health outcomes for rural patients are poor compared with those from urban areas. In Scotland, distance to services was found to be the most significant factor in the low take-up of breast screening services.

Deeply entrenched cultural patterns and a tradition of self-reliance has meant that serious mental health problems often go unrecognised with much lower consultation rates.

Migrant workers suffer most with little access to services. Accidents and deaths among such workers, the report said, largely go under-reported.

One of the authors of the report, Alessandra Buonfino, said: "There has been a boom in the rural economy and a lot of the community has become wealthier. But, where it is doing better than before, many groups are losing out and the gap is increasing.

"People talk about cities and poverty and they get a lot of attention from that perspective. But things are also happening in the countryside - young people also have nothing to do, homelessness is a problem, fatal accidents are higher. They may be tackled locally but nationwide people don't really know what is happening, she said.

"In some ways, the country is becoming posher and poorer which eventually could become a real problem because an area perceived as wealthier will not get the funding for other key groups."

The country poverty trap

* Areas covered by the top 10 police forces for racist incidents have an ethnic minority population of just 5 per cent.

* 23 per cent of rural children - 700,000 - live in poverty.

* The Rural Communities commission says in five years, 45 per cent of new households will be unable to buy or rent.

* Consultation rates for mental illness were 30 per cent lower in males and 16 per cent lower in females in rural areas.

* The Shetlands have the highest male suicide rate - double the national average.