Rural Living, Advice and Support Networks
In sparsely populated areas, service providers face relatively high unit costs, which are not always fully reflected in government funding formulae. This has an impact across all services, leading to a substantial reliance upon financially vulnerable voluntary and community-based provision and neighbourly goodwill.
Agencies and organisations are having to seek ways of being more efficient and effective with fewer resources. Genuine partnership, collaboration and resource-pooling makes sense not only in organisational terms, but also for those for whom services are provided.
As the Somerset Advice Network's strategy document All Together Now reports, "under such conditions the importance of accessible and confidential, quality advice about legal, citizenship, and employment rights and responsibilities cannot be overestimated as a vital means towards accessing just entitlements."
Somerset Advice Network
The Somerset Advice Network (SAN) is a project led by Taunton Citizens Advice Bureau to help local advice agencies respond to the growing needs of people in Somerset. Its website provides free information on a range of issues affecting people living in Somerset - including welfare benefits, debt, housing and employment - and a searchable directory to help people find local agencies to meet their need for advice services.
Its partner organisations are the Citizens Advice Bureaux representing Taunton and District, Mendip, Sedgemoor and South Somerset, and the West Somerset Advice Bureau.
In late 2014, the SAN published a strategy for planning rural advice services for the 21stcentury in West Somerset, one of the most sparsely populated districts in England. A survey of key stakeholders identified seven key obstacles to accessing advice services, and gaps in provision:
- Transport – scarcity and cost;
- Lack of IT connectivity, access and skills;
- Lack of reliable information and outlets in smaller/most rural areas
- Lack of social hubs and services;
- The complexities of multiple local government, health and voluntary sector agencies;
- Individuals’ fears about confidentiality;
- Incomplete coverage of the village agent scheme.
The strategy features a series of conclusions and recommendations which, while pertaining to West Somerset specifically, could also be relevant to many other rural parts of the county.
The Network has also published a new Somerset Advice Strategy 2015-18, entitled 'Advice Fit for the Future'. The document demonstrates the demand for, and provision of social welfare advice and how it has proved to be effective. The Strategy also includes recommendations for improving the service and how the advice bureaux intend to implement those improvements.
Community Council for Somerset (CCS)
The Community Council for Somerset (CCS), originally established in 1926, is a non-profit organisation which works to support community groups, organisations and individuals in Somerset. It is part of the Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) Network of 38 county-based Rural Community Councils. The CCS is funded through a variety of means including central and local government, trusts, grants, sponsorships and subscribing members. The 2013/14 annual review contains details of its projects and services.
The Somerset Village Agent project is a project of CCS and uses paid, part time, highly trained individuals living in the parish ‘clusters’ they support. They help to bridge the gap between isolated, excluded, vulnerable and lonely individuals and statutory and/or voluntary organisations which offer specific solutions to identified needs. At February 2015 there are eighteen Village Agents covering a third of the county's parishes. It is hoped to attract funding to expand the network across the rest of rural Somerset.
Map of Parishes covered by the Village Agent Project at June 2015: Click map to enlarge
As part of the Somerset Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, various organisations supplied examples of the issues faced or raised by clients. While many occur across a range of communities in towns and villages alike, some issues are specific to rural populations, or are exacerbated by rurality.
They can affect people of all ages, income and lifestages, including some of the most vulnerable members of society.
- Access to, and cost of public transport
- Fuel poverty
- Social isolation
- Car access to homes
- Access to medical equipment
The following case studies are genuine examples of challenges facing rural residents and how organisations are solving the problems. These and other case studies are included in a document at the foot of this page.
Client R is a single woman in her mid-50s. She has health problems and lives in a mobile home with calor gas as her principle mode of heating. She is on Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Rebate. She purchases gas bottles, which she is struggling to afford. However, she is not eligible for help with her fuel costs because the social tariffs are all located within the major suppliers of gas and electricity and there is no assistance for rural households dependant on bottled gas or oil. She is too young for a winter fuel payment and not eligible for help targeted at families with children and people with disabilities. This results in her living in an uncomfortably cold environment over the winter, and at high risk of self-disconnection through inability to find the money for a new cylinder.
Fuel costs for those without a mains gas supply are a common problem for people living in rural areas, where fuel deliveries often require large upfront payments; a delivery of heating oil can easily cost £500. (From Taunton and District Citizen's Advice Bureau)
Client B claimed Employment Support Allowance in mid-2014 and had been awaiting a medical assessment for some time. On a Friday morning this client received a text message requiring attendance for an appointment in a neighbouring county at 9 am on the Monday.
Client B lives in a village 42 miles from the appointed venue on an income of £72.40 per week basic rate Employment Support Allowance. A heart condition affects his/her mobility and ATOS (the firm which assesses whether benefit claimants in Britain are fit to work) was advised that this person was unable to travel to the assessment centre at such short notice by public transport. Whilst there is a train, the client did not have the £15 to pay for a ticket up front and would need to leave home at about 6 a.m. in order to arrive on time for this 9 a.m. appointment.
Having spoken to an ATOS adviser the client was told that ATOS could pay for a taxi to the appointment but the client would need to pay the return fare. Arguably, if a client was unable to find £15 for a train ticket, they would be unlikely to be able to fund a 42 mile taxi ride. (from Somerset Advice Network)
|83 year-old lady's husband died and has had to cope on her own. Village agent (VA) initially saw her as she required some help in understanding her finances. VA talked through her pension entitlement, disability allowance and council tax and utilities which she now understands. She doesn’t drive and there is no bus service that operates past her house but she does have a friend who takes her to the monthly Meet and Eat in Brent Knoll and to church on Sundays.
VA is also arranging for her to be registered with the Slinky Bus Service. (From Community Council for Somerset)
|Mr and Mrs T live in a rural area, just under three miles from the nearest bus stop. They have two children in post-16 education at Somerset College. The cost of a bus pass for each child amounts to a total of £1,300. In addition, the parents would have to provide transport to the bus stop. They decided that it would be significantly cheaper to take their children all the way to college than to try and find an additional £1300 from their tight budget for a partial bus journey.
Now that post-16 education is becoming compulsory, the cost of student bus passes is likely to become an increasing issue for young people and their families, following the withdrawal of Education Maintenance Allowances, and the difficulties of young people in rural areas getting jobs to support themselves because of public transport issues. (From Taunton & District Citizen's Advice Bureau)
|A Village Agent has been successful in having NHS hearing aid batteries made available from a local GP surgery instead of patients having to go to a hospital or rely on the postal service. This is especially relevant to people who live in villages where there is no post office. (From Community Council for Somerset)
A village agent (VA) met with three parishioners who wished to set up a car scheme. They spoke about the viability of the scheme. The VA directed them to the Chair of a nearby scheme which had been in operation for five years. During the meeting, Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks for the drivers were discussed and the VA advised them to contact Taunton Voluntary Action who check DBS forms and process them at a small cost. VA also suggested that they approach a relevant local charity for funding.
The group decided on a plan of action and set about canvassing volunteer drivers and phone holders. They met the Chair of the nearby scheme who gave them advice. VA kept in touch with the group, offering help and advice and met them about six months later when they had appointed 10 drivers and three people who would receive phone requests for help with lifts. The group had also received funding from a local Charity. The scheme, called Village Spirit, is now operational and some of the VA’s clients and other rurally isolated people have benefitted.
Another VA is also in the process of organising a Car Scheme. (From Community Council for Somerset)
|We are used to flooding in Muchelney but before 2012 it didn’t go into peoples’ houses and it didn’t cut us off for prolonged periods of time. A group of villagers decided a Flood Plan was required so they visited houses, and collected email addresses. The plan had information on where to park cars outside village, what to do in a medical emergency, what to do in a fire emergency, how to get prescriptions if you couldn’t go yourself. Access and transport in and out of the village, what to do with livestock, how to get food if you didn’t want to use the transport available and somewhere to go if your house was flooded and you didn’t want to stay in it. All this was based on being cut off for two weeks and the usual ‘old’ tractor taxi.
On New Year’s Day 2014, following extensive rainfall, the flood plan was put into action via email, advising people that now would be a good time to get their car out. Transport was arranged for vulnerable people who wanted to leave by the GP surgery. Groups of volunteers were mobilised to go to the houses that had flooded before to move furniture onto blocks or upstairs. All these actions were put into place by villagers before any warnings of flooding had been received by the Environment Agency or other official body. The water continued to rise and went into 25 houses. Accommodation was found for those that needed it. The larger tractors helped people get out of their houses and take belongings they needed. The village agents worked alongside checking on everyone to make sure they were OK.
The established communication network was invaluable for everyone. Those that had left the village could pick up their emails and get news about their village, it was used by the services such as the Fire Brigade to give information about safety in wading and smoke alarms, the Red Cross who were bringing in wood, coal and heating oil, the Ambulance service, the district and county council used it to give out information and most importantly it could be accessed by villagers in need. They had an easy way to contact someone that had the contacts to help them.
A ‘flood group’ of volunteers has been formed; we have someone who looks after the interests of school children, commuters, rubbish, vulnerable people; someone who will look after and sort out donations of food that are received and someone from each of the islands of Muchelney Central, Muchelney Ham, Muchelney South and Thorney.
Following lessons learned from the 2014 flood a new plan was developed including:-
• Phone numbers of defibrillator trained villagers (a defibrillator was donated during the flooding).
• First aid trained villagers
• Useful phone numbers such as power, water and village agent
• A better plan for getting sandbags to properties
• How to get fuel
• Where donated food will be, there is no village hall so it was put in different places for the different islands, the church being one and community minded individual houses for the others.
• How to leave the village before ‘official’ transport has arrived
Importantly the new plan can be shared with district and county councils, the fire brigade and the police to support further events. (From Community Council for Somerset)