Lucy Hannah discusses the urban-rural gap in the UK, and what can be done to close it.
In recent decades, the fading salience of the debate about the ‘Urban-Rural Divide’ has hindered the potential development of rural communities, leaving behind the individuals who are deeply rooted within them. Despite the shift to remote working increasing relocation possibilities, there are still many barriers to making the urban to rural switch, uprooting family and community commitments to name just one. Moreover, the relative weight of economic activity and income level growth within cities, creates not only economic disparities, but also strong social differences between the two environments. 14 of the 23 Scottish regions are below the average income and productivity levels for the UK, the majority of these being rural areas. This figure highlights the lack of support and opportunities for many rural communities. In the education sector, residents aged 16 or over are more likely to have an apprenticeship as their highest qualification, in comparison to urban residents having a higher average proportion of level 3 or above qualifications. There continue to be disparities of living standard outcomes between those in less densely populated areas and urban populations, but what are the factors that are affecting this gap? And is there anything that can be done to stop it?
Rural living does provide potential upsides that can help to reduce the impact of regionally induced disparity. Communities within these areas provide a sense of belonging; a significant factor in constructing the identities of individuals. The trust levels in rural communities are also generally higher, due to decreased asymmetries of information, as opposed to urban communities who may not know their neighbours as intimately. The social benefits communities provide can tackle many of the biggest issues faced today; safety, stability, relationships and social networks that neighbourhoods provide are crucial in tackling disconnections from society. Having these social benefits can also induce greater economic benefits. For example, local authorities have claimed that networking between communities and small businesses is beneficial for long-term financial sustainability.
Unfortunately, the benefits experienced by those in rural communities rarely outweigh the economic burdens they face. Look at the diminished share of high-skilled job opportunities. This is further emphasised by declining rural populations and the rapid ageing of the community. Over the last decade, 94% of data zones, which represents 34 small areas within Scotland, reported having become older in terms of median age. As a consequence, tackling the challenge of rural poverty is becoming more difficult.
There is no doubt that the construction of metropolitan economies creates positive externalities that benefit the progression of society. After all, cities have been constructed to maximise efficiency. Densely concentrated urban areas yield increased energy savings through decreased heating costs resulting from designing efficient apartment blocks and through the optimisation of transport. Not only are there savings in heating and energy to, say, a detached rural house, but natural habitats are also less affected than if the population of the building all lived in detached rural houses. Furthermore, economic productivity is higher in cities due to the channels of sharing information, markets and the infrastructure of areas. Therefore, some may argue that cities create developed markets. Having many jobs in one location is beneficial in terms of economies of scale, perhaps providing some justification for social disparities between areas. Cities help to develop the economy not only on a national scale, but often as global hubs of trade and commerce. Perhaps the perks of urban areas could encourage people living rurally to relocate where greater opportunities await, while preserving rural areas for those less economically motivated.
Economic development is difficult without urbanisation; countries with a higher per capita gross domestic product (GDP) are generally more urbanised. Looking at the future of communities, in order to most efficiently reduce inequality, deprived communities should be prioritised for support. If not, we may experience even deeper social divides, with the potential to bring about greater political polarisation and inferior health care provision. As opposed to looking at the issues with urban areas, there should be a focus on developing support and services for people isolated from such opportunities. Creating pathways into different environments can help reduce issues such as disconnections from society and the overall affordability of living safely and securely. Evidently, there are issues within the UK of economic developments, but recognising and overcoming these barriers will ultimately help diminish such a discrepancy.