ARCHIVE: Report chapter 5: Strong rural communities
The Government is working to create thriving, vibrant, sustainable communities which will improve everyone's quality of life. A strong rural community is created by the people who live in it and is reinforced by its diversity and the extent to which all members share a sense of place.
Disabled people live, work and learn in both rural and urban places, and the Government is committed to making progress towards disability equality across all communities. Among the challenges faced by those providing accessible services are the places where disabled people live and work. It is therefore important that all parts of government, the private and the third sector are aware of, and able to meet these challenges.
The role of government is to ensure that all communities, including rural ones, have:
decent homes at prices people can afford
- good education opportunities
- good health outcomes
- access to employment and business opportunities
- a safe environment
- the ability to have a say on the way their community is run
- support to address the impacts of macroeconomic change that no individual community can be expected to address in isolation
Progress in each of these areas is mostly the responsibility of other government departments. Defra's role in delivering these outcomes is mainly one of making recommendations and giving advice on behalf of rural communities and helping lead departments recognise and understand the rural context.
Defra seeks to work with those departments to make sure that rural factors are actively taken into account when developing policies and delivering services. This rural dimension includes the needs and interests of disabled people in rural communities.
As part of its rural role, Defra has committed itself to delivering "Strong Rural Communities". Progress is measured by a number of indicators designed to provide a consistently comparable picture of how rural areas are faring against the national average over a period of time. These measures and indicators are:
- economic growth is supported in rural areas with the lowest levels of performance
- the needs of rural people and communities are addressed through mainstream public policy and delivery - this assesses the performance of government policies in rural areas by comparing outcomes and trends in rural areas to the national picture. The measures are:
- educational attainment
- social capital/quality of life
- health & social care
- employment and economy
- housing affordability
- crime and antisocial behaviour
Against most of these measures, overall, rural areas are currently doing as well as or better than their urban counterparts, although they are lagging behind on housing affordability and economic productivity.
However, such high-level measures can hide as much as they reveal. Even where rural areas are doing well overall, individuals and particular groups, including disabled people, may be disadvantaged. Defra's work over the next three years will involve exploring where those disadvantages exist and working with others to see what can be done to address them.
Information can be drawn from a range of sources to provide a snapshot of what is currently going on to address the needs of disabled people in rural areas at a national, regional and local level; and proposals are made for how we might go about gathering a more detailed picture in the future.
The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) is sponsored by Defra to provide independent expert advice to government, advocate for the needs of rural people and act as a watchdog for rural communities. Its 2008 State of the Countryside report included a map based on households receiving a Council Tax discount because they are disabled. This shows the proportion of disabled people living in local authority areas across the country.
The report noted that:
"levels of people with a disability are found to be higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Much of this will be due to the older population in rural areas. This poses particular issues for those providing services in rural areas"
The needs of disabled people and older people will differ, but the fact that higher proportions of both tend to live in rural areas and that in many cases they are one and the same, provides opportunities as well as challenges for service deliverers. The approaches needed to ensure successful delivery are often similar.
Government departments are addressing disability issues in rural areas as part of their work. For example, housing in rural areas brings particular challenges for disabled people such as access to health, social services and transport.
The Homes and Communities Agency has a target to provide 10,300 affordable homes in rural communities of less than 3,000 people from 2008-2011. The Housing Corporation's current programme made a commitment to include housing built to their 'Design and Quality Standards' Code Level 3. From its launch on 1 December, the Homes and Communities Agency will adhere to the targets previously set for the Housing Corporation which means that Lifetime Homes Standards (Code Level 4) will be mandatory from the beginning of their programme in 2011. This higher standard provides for the needs of disabled people.
In respect of transport, local and central government provide 2.5 billion a year to support bus services. It is for local authorities to decide what bus services to support in their area according to local needs and priorities. The Department for Transport is aware of the importance of continuing provision of rural bus services while seeking to improve value for money, energy efficiency and emissions from buses.
In addition to supporting services for disabled people through the main subsidy arrangements, it provides 57 million a year to local authorities in the form of Rural Bus Subsidy Grant to help them support rural services that are not provided commercially; it is now supporting nearly 2000 services and more than 38 million passengers a year. These services provide a vital lifeline for disadvantaged people in rural areas, including disabled people.
The Department for Transport also awarded over 100m for more than 300 innovative projects between 1998 and 2003 through the Rural Bus Challenge. These included community transport demand responsive services (dial-a-rides) and other flexible routed services. Many of these projects are now being continued - funded by local authorities and other sources. A further 11 rural schemes were awarded 3.7m in 2005 by the Kickstart competition. The entry criteria for the competition stipulate that schemes must be accessible for disabled people and as a result this led to passenger benefits such as improved frequency and more accessible vehicles.
An example of a local authority initiative which has benefited rural disabled people can be drawn from Defra's Rural Delivery Pathfinders Programme. This was launched in March 2005 to look at new ideas for rural services and to test opportunities for more joined up delivery.
One project, the Humber Rural Pathfinder, involved local transport service providers introducing 12 new and 10 enhanced demand-led rural community transport routes which were reasonably-priced and accessible to disabled passengers.
The initiative also provided advice services to small villages by sending advice workers out to local communities in a converted, accessible bus.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport recognises that making heritage buildings accessible presents particular challenges for properties in rural areas; and the Department for Work and Pensions Opportunity Age programme takes particular account of the needs of disabled older people while focussing on the issues affecting and opportunities arising for all older people.
As stated, it is government policy to ensure that all national, regional and local government policy-making and delivery activity should take appropriate account of the needs and interests of disabled people in rural communities.
Government departments are already required to "rural proof" their policies alongside equality impact assessments, and the Commission for Rural Communities monitors departments' compliance with this requirement. This is a powerful tool to ensure that the interests of rural communities are properly addressed.
This requirement to 'rural proof' policy applies as much to Defra as to any other government department. The rural dimension of policies and programmes identified throughout this report as important to disabled people are therefore considered. Examples of this include access to the natural environment in Chapter 2, where the vast majority of locations are in the countryside; and the fuel poverty work identified in Chapter 1, where there are particular issues arising from the types of housing in rural areas (a greater proportion of solid walled properties) and the supply of fuel (a greater dependence on heating oil).
Action to bring about improvements in disability equality
The Commission for Rural Communities has initiated a Rural Fuel Poverty working Group to address issues associated with rural housing.
Defra have been engaged with this group, which also involves Help the Aged and Age Concern who can provide some perspective on the needs and interests of disabled people. However, they propose to involve a wider range of disability groups to ensure that the interests of disabled people are taken more effectively into account in the work of the group.
Local Authorities have done considerable work across the country to produce Disability Equality Schemes to meet the Disability Equality Duty. There are some good examples of stakeholder engagement and consultation by rural councils highlighted in the Disability Rights Commission's 'Beyond Good Intentions' publication.
The requirement to make services to the public accessible has led to improvements to public buildings, such as village halls. This has benefited older people as well as disabled people in the community. Also outreach services designed for older people when a key service has been withdrawn, such as the village post office, have benefited younger disabled people as well as older people.
Voluntary sector organisations also play an important role, often working with partners such as local authorities, voluntary groups and Parish Councils, in helping to improve conditions for disabled people in rural communities.
Defra currently contributes 3.4 million per year to the Rural Community Councils (RCC).
- support local communities to develop Parish Plans, which assess the current and future needs of whole communities in terms of housing, transport and other service provision, including those of disabled members of the community
- provide advice, training and information on how to improve village halls and community buildings to meet the needs of local people and the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act
- provide other support for disabled people in the community, such as the scheme in one county to provide advice and networking opportunities for disabled women who want to set up or develop their own businesses in rural areas
An excellent example of the RCCs' efforts on behalf of disabled rural people is the "Access and Awareness" programme by the Community Council for Devon . With funding of 150,000 from the Big Lottery Fund, the project focused on the accessibility of the 530 or so rural community buildings in Devon , and the development of services and activities for older people and disabled people.
The project lasted for 3 years (from September 2005 to August 2008) and centred on 4 main activities:
- 23 access workshops to advise village halls representatives on their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act, and ways of meeting them
- access audits for village halls by experts to advise on detailed work needed (50% of the halls represented at the workshops took up the offer of a bespoke audit);
- small grants of up to 250 for village halls to improve accessibility or provide improved services
- a website and e-learning portal for the Devon Association of Community Buildings which builds on the experience gained in the project and shares information around a network of village hall representatives within the county.
The external assessment of the project concluded that it:
- improved the quality of existing services
- established new services
- removed barriers to participation for existing and new users
- improved understanding of the needs and requirements of older and disabled people amongst those responsible for delivering services and activities, and for managing and maintaining the premises.
The work by the Community Council of Devon has been mirrored elsewhere within the national RCC network, such as in the Humber and the Wolds where funding to the RCC from Capacity Builders 'Improving Reach' programme will enable accessibility audits for community buildings to be carried out.
Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) is the national umbrella body for the network of RCCs across the country. It plays an invaluable role in leading and advising the RCCs and representing them to Government and has produced several publications designed to improve the accessibility of community buildings.
These include the 'Making Village Halls Accessible' information sheet, and the comprehensive 'Plan, Design and Building, Part 2' publication, which provides detailed advice and contains case studies of halls that have taken steps to address the needs of disabled visitors. ACRE was also closely involved with Defra in establishing the 'Community Halls for Rural People' website. This was set up as a one stop shop to raise awareness about sources of funding and advice for village halls and other community buildings, and to provide useful contacts for other village halls issues.
ACRE also carries out national surveys of village halls every ten years to gain an overall picture of how they are managed, used and funded; and of the type of buildings that exist, their age and condition. The third such survey is taking place this year, and its results will provide a valuable baseline against which future progress towards disability equality in this area can be measured.
A number of national funding schemes have provided money to improve opportunities or experiences for rural disabled people. These include the Rural Social and Community Programme which ran from April 2006 to March 2008. This Defra funding programme provided money for improved access to services, such as provision within the community, or supporting transport to services.
Another Defra funding scheme is the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. Since 2002 this scheme has taken account of disability issues in its application process. It has provided money for more than 60 projects to improve disabled access to community buildings, playgrounds and outdoor recreation centres.
Examples include the Thurlaston Brook nature trail in south west Leicestershire, which provided access gates and boardwalk suitable for wheelchair users, and the 'Taste for Adventure' centre in Herefordshire, which provides outdoor activities for disabled people.
Support has also been available through European funding schemes. The Rural Enterprise Scheme provided financial help for social projects, many of which benefitted disabled people. This included improving access for disabled people to community buildings, often as part of a wider development of those premises that offered improved facilities to all.
This scheme was succeeded by the Rural Development Programme for England . It offers similar help through Local Action Groups (LAGs). LAGs are partnerships of local people and organisations that identify and make plans to meet development needs in their rural communities. European funding then helps these LAGs to encourage and support the development of small-scale projects that meet local needs in a sustainable way.
Overall it is clear that there is no shortage of commitment or activity in local authorities and the voluntary sector to address the needs of, and provide opportunities for disabled people in rural areas. National schemes exist that can provide funding for these projects and programmes.
However, there is currently no mechanism to gather a coordinated, nationwide picture of the experience of disabled people in rural areas. It is therefore difficult to get a good understanding of the progress being made towards disability equality, or of the areas in which extra effort is needed.
Therefore, Defra proposes the following actions which together should provide a more comprehensive and systematic picture of progress in future years.
Action to bring about improvements in disability equality
- Defra will explore with the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) whether it can include work on the rural experience of disabled people in its future work programme.
A CRC led project to establish the full current position of disabled people in rural areas and identify priorities for attention to which Defra, other government departments and the relevant delivery bodies can respond. This focus to achieve genuine disability equality would fit in well with the CRC's aspiration that rural England "should be diverse, thriving and sustainable, where everyone is able to play a full part in society and where no-one is disadvantaged". Such a project could also involve any specific rural groups within the main disability interest and lobby groups.
- Defra will engage with the main policy departments across government, to explore what can be done to build their current understanding of progress towards disability equality in rural areas within their policy sectors. It will also ensure that responsibility for reporting on policy development and service delivery sits in the right place, in line with the Government's policy of mainstreaming, but will allow Defra to pull together a coordinated picture based on these individual departmental statements.
- Defra will consider specific research into the disability dimension of some or all of the measures in the Strong Rural Communities objective. By working with the CRC and the relevant government departments, it may be possible to produce quantitative and/or qualitative material on the experience of disabled people in relation to the wider rural experience in areas such as educational attainment, health and social care, employment and housing.
Page last modified: 1 December 2008
Page published: 1 December 2008