Rural Life: A place of escape or a struggle with isolation?

Many people think of the countryside as a place of escape, a quieter life, a haven from the rushing nature of daily life.  For other people living and working in a countryside to which they are attached by birth and cultural upbringing, can bring strains and stresses.  The countryside can sometimes be a place of isolation, poverty and disadvantage.

Later in the autumn we, as a Diocese, will be thinking about what poverty means within a rural context (at the Biennial Rural Forum 2017). A prevailing view of countryside residents as rich and living in a rural idyll can mask the fact that there are pockets of deprivation and poor health beyond urban areas. Earlier this year a Local Government Association and Public Health England report drew attention to this, concluding that rural communities are largely neglected (Health and Wellbeing in Rural Areas, March 2017).

Bishop North’s recent speech at New Wine drew attention to the church’s failure to provide adequate ministry to the poor of this country but suggested that money spent on ministry in rural areas was money spent ministering to the wealthy. This ignores the reality that exists for some people in rural communities and the churches response to that disadvantage.

Responding well to the challenges of rural life is a key issue for our Diocese. Oxfordshire Community Foundation’s ‘Oxfordshire Uncovered’ report notes that 39% of the population of Oxfordshire live in a rural location with 4% living in isolated hamlets, a third higher than the average in England. The report also showed that 30% of rural households would need to travel for an hour to access a local hospital. Given that older people are even more likely to live in rural areas (41.5%) this can pose a significant problem. Overall, IMD analysis shows that the majority of Oxfordshire’s rural areas are among the 20% most deprived in England in terms of geographical barriers to services. Our own report on poverty (‘For Richer For Poorer’) suggests a similar picture across the Diocese.

Rural deprivation often centres around social isolation and the inability to access support services. Elderly people can be particularly vulnerable to this, and many others living in the countryside experience “real hardship”.

Isolation can be due to a range of issues including basic geography; the effect of less well-off people living cheek by jowl with wealthy people; the failure of incomers to appreciate the needs of those whose lives are changed by shifting community foci; little or no access to broadband or mobile phone signals; the lack of a local peer group, particularly for the young; and poor transport connections.

The Diocese of Oxford and the Faith in Action team (through Glyn Evans, the Diocesan Rural Officer) is participating in the 2nd Rural Oxfordshire Network to explore some of these issues and think about potential solutions. We’ll be teaming up with Community First Oxfordshire, the Oxfordshire Association of Local Councils, Volunteer Link Up West Oxfordshire and Oxfordshire Community & Voluntary Action for this event.

Come and join us on Wednesday 20th September, 9.30am to 12.30pm at Beckley Village Hall. Book here.

Glyn Evans – Diocesan Rural Officer