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In the United States, the federal Government has several ways of defining ‘rural’. The Census Bureau, for example, defines rural as everything that is not urban; with urban areas categorised as having at least 50,000 people. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) uses county classifications to distinguish between ‘metropolitan urban counties’ and ‘non-metropolitan counties rural’. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS); the total population in non-metropolitan counties stood at 46.1 million in July 2017—equivalent to 14% of all U.S. residents spread across 72% of the land area.
The Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS) provides an integrated set of standard areas and is split into two parts. The first part, ABS Structures, leads areas to be classified for outputting statistics. The second part, non ABS Structures, is where areas are grouped into administrative areas (e.g. Local Government Areas as defined by State and Territory governments). This framework enables the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and other organisations to publish data that are comparable and spatially integrated. The ASGC defines ‘remoteness’ by Census Collection Districts on the basis of the average district score within the Accessibility and Remoteness Index (ARIA). ARIA sorts settlements into one of the following categories: major cities, inner regional, outer regional, remote and very remote. Modified Monash Model Areas (MMM) is a customised remoteness classification developed by the Australian Department of Health for its programmes and initiatives. MMM factors in both geographical remoteness and town size into a single classification. It was designed to address disparity in the uptake of incentives between towns where there may be a significant difference in population size but which shared the same ASGC-RA remoteness classification.
In China, areas are arranged into Administrative Divisions. This process involves five steps: 1) the whole country is divided into provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. 2) These provinces and autonomous regions are then organised into autonomous prefectures, counties, autonomous counties and cities. 3) Autonomous prefectures are further divided into counties and autonomous counties. 4) Counties and autonomous counties are then separated into townships, nationality townships and towns. 5) Municipalities and large cities are then split into districts and counties. Under this division, ‘urban’ population refers to the total population under the jurisdiction of cities, and the population of towns under the jurisdiction of counties.
In 2013, Finland published a new urban-rural classification. This contains 7 different regional classes: (1) inner urban area, (2) outer urban area, (3) peri-urban area, (4) local centres in rural areas, (5) rural areas close to urban areas, (6) rural heartland areas, and (7) sparsely populated rural areas. One municipality may consist of several different area types. The classification uses a grid of 250 x 250 metres, and overlays this with population, labour, commuting, building, road network and land use data. Under this classification rural areas cover 95% of Finland and are home to some 1.66 million residents (31% of the population).
The European Union (EU) has no binding or legal definition of rural areas. For example, Member States use different definitions in the LEADER Programme (with some countries managing programmes covering up to 20,000 population and other countries between 30,000 and150,000 people). In order to harmonise definitions across Member States, and to cross-reference EU acts and programmes, Eurostat has launched a legislative initiative called ‘Tercet’ to integrate different Member’s typologies into NUTS Regulation.
In Northern Ireland the Urban-Rural Definition Group was established to make recommendations to the Statistical Coordination Group (SCG) – part of Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) – on the terms ‘urban’ and ‘rural’. This led to the publication of the Statistical Classification and Delineation of Settlements in February 2005. Three criteria were applied in ascribing urban characteristics to settlements: (i) population size, (ii) population density, and (iii) service provision. In contrast, rural areas were characterised by a dispersed population, agricultural or other extensive land use and distance from major urban centres [accessibility]. The Group looked at the provision of a post office, ascertaining that no settlement with a population of 2,250 or more lacked a post office – which was viewed as a significant indicator of service function. Settlements were then classified into one of eight bands: Band A (metropolitan urban area c580,000 population); band B (urban area c90,000 population); band C (large town 18,000-75,000 population); band D (medium town 10,000-18,000 population); band E (small town 4,500-10,000 population); band F (intermediate settlement 2,250-4,500 population); band G (village 1,000-2,250 population); and band H (small village, hamlet and open countryside less than 1,000 population). Bands A-E are regarded as urban and bands F-H as rural. Under this definition, approximately 65% of Northern Ireland’s population lives in urban areas and 35% in rural areas.
The sub-group of the SCG undertook a review of the Classification in March 2015 as a result of the 2011 Census and an action in the Rural White Paper Action Plan which stated ‘we will undertake a review of the current classification of settlements to ensure that appropriate definitions of ‘rural’ are available to policy makers where circumstances require.’ The 2015 review proposed establishing a new settlement classification using similar population bands to those in the 2005 classification, with slightly altered boundaries between Bands E and F (where 4,500 is increased to 5,000 in Band E) and between Bands F and G (where 2,250 increases to 2,500 in Band F). The review also proposed expanding the classification to include a service provision element; determined through a 20 minute and 30 minute drive-time to the town centre of a settlement containing a population of at least 10,000.
What all of these rural definitions and classifications share in common is that they all use some measure of ‘population’– and have graduations of settlements from urban [metropolitan areas in America or inner and outer urban areas in Finland] to rural [from band F in Northern Ireland or RA5 in Australia]. Some of the definitions are accompanied by a threshold or cut off point where settlements are deemed rural: 5,000 and below in Northern Ireland or less than 50,000 in the United States. Some of the classifications take into account ‘density’; from a 250 x 250 metre grid system in Finland to a 1km square grid in Australia. However, what all of these definitions grapple with is urban-rural linkages. Finland, for example, developed its new classification as part of attempts to recognise inter-regional relationships. Northern Ireland has considered how to define rural and urban areas in ways which suggest some ‘urban’ settlements may be eligible for certain ‘rural’ programmes because they provide services for their hinterlands and used drive time information to think about the interconnectivity between rural and urban settlements. In May 2019 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State Council – China’s Cabinet – announced new guidelines on the promotion of integrated urban-rural development.
Many RSN members are familiar with the Rural Urban Classification in England which defines areas as rural if they are outside settlements with more than 10,000 resident population; as well as the University of Sheffield’s work in 2013-2014 on ‘hub towns’, settlements with populations of between 10,000 and 30,000 that provide services, employment and businesses to the rural areas around them. For me, all of these classifications open up four areas for further consideration.
Firstly, and notwithstanding that rural and urban areas are intertwined; the starting point for many of these classifications is urban focused i.e., policy makers, statisticians and cartographers seek to understand how rural is different from urban by concentrating on built-up areas – often defined according to their population size, density, access to services or type of land use. Indeed, data sometimes suggests that rural and urban areas are very similar (sectorally) yet this does not always take account of rural context or how a cluster of (rural) places work together.
Secondly, some of the classifications can lead readers to assume that rural areas are homogenous rather than heterogeneous. Indeed, some residents classified as living in a built-up area consider themselves rural (‘the rural of the mind’).
Thirdly, the data used to develop classifications does not always recognise the strong relationships between residents, businesses, the voluntary and community sector and local groups which often form the basis for action. With fewer people than their urban counterparts, rural communities can be more likely to set up and/or run a service on their own account and to be innovative and imaginative in getting local projects started.
Fourthly, the classifications do not reveal what life is like in many rural communities. The ‘life in rural America’ report found that while rural residents were positive about the national attention that had been paid to rural areas, they had negative views about the state of their local economy and were divided in their views about future job opportunities. An academic at the University of Minnesota described how “until rural towns start emphasising their positives…people won’t stay…When you’ve got this dominant negative narrative, it is very difficult on both fronts both locally and nationally, to perceive that you can actually succeed in a small town…Some are doing it. In Minnesota itself, a local rural development agency is helping towns to rebrand themselves — push the positive aspects which attract people in the first place, but also make it plain that people can make viable careers in the small town.” In China, Joe Zhang describes the state of the roads, community buildings as well as the distance, emotional stress and financial pressures separating some rural families as people of working age move to urban areas for work.
Notwithstanding these four points, the classifications contain nuances that we may want to consider in the content of rural England. For example, the Finnish classification is divided into different levels according to an ‘urban rural typology’: this moves us away from a dichotomy to a gradient. While the Finish classification looks at spatial variables (i.e., population density, land use intensity and the Herfindahl’s Index); the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) also uses datasets to model the amount, density, efficiency, accessibility, intensity, versatility and orientation of areas on 250 x 250 metre grids. And in Northern Ireland the SCG took into account a number of variables in its drive time [service provision element]. For example: what is the drive time between two locations, 20 miles apart, on an A-class road? How do you implement, in a practical way, information that two points are linked by public transport with a journey time of 20 minutes, but the public transport service runs only twice per day compared to two other locations where the journey takes 50 minutes but perhaps operates on an hourly basis?
All of the classifications involve spatial units and mapped boundaries, and it is interesting to note how some Government departments customise them further (e.g. the MMM in Australia).
How can we move away from administrative definitions to more functional definitions that capture the realities, complexities and interconnectivity of rural places? And where rural is taken as a starting point not as an add-on or separate from built-up areas?
How rural areas are defined and categorised has important policy implications.
In the United States, the USDA has been the lead federal agency for rural policy since 1980. The USDA defines rural policy as being concerned with “…the improvement in overall rural community conditions, including economic and other quality of life considerations such as the environment, health, infrastructure, and housing.” There are three divisions at the USDA that concentrate on rural development: (1) affordable and safe housing – which includes the Housing and Community Facilities Program. (2) Economic development and business support – which includes a range of initiatives supporting small rural business, assisting rural entrepreneurs and creating jobs (e.g. Business and Cooperative Program, Rural Energy for America Program). (3) Infrastructure development – including the provision of water, broadband, telecommunications and electrification (e.g. Rural Utilities Service). The USDA also leads three other rural development initiatives: American Indian & Alaska Native Program, Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships and Substantially Underserved Trust Area. The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Act) came into law on 20 December 2018 and will remain in force until 2023. The Act contains additional assistance to rural communities in respective of improving health outcomes; broadband [i.e., expanding the Rural Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program: providing broadband access to those who live in underserved areas without residential service of at least 10 Mbps/1 Mbps]; community and economic development programmes; water and waste; energy; and cybersecurity. While overall rural development accounts for less than 1% of the Farm Act’s outlays, rural America relies on this funding. Specific programmes in rural areas funded under the Act include Business and Industry Loan Guarantees (B&I), Intermediary Relending Program (IRP), Rural Business Development Grants (RBDG), Rural Business Investment Program (RBIP), and Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant (REDLG).
‘Rural’ accounts for approximately 9% of the USDA’s expenditure. Overall, and including all agencies, the federal Government spends 2-5 times more on a per-capita basis for community development in urban areas compared to rural areas. Across the federal Government, there are approximately 88 rural programmes administered by 16 different agencies. At a sub-national and regional level, several state legislatures have addressed rural economic concerns through the creation of initiatives, committees, councils, task forces and agencies. Some of these efforts have existed for some time, such as the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and New York’s Legislative Commission on Rural Resources. Other efforts, including the Georgia House Rural Development Council and the Rural Wisconsin Initiative, are more recent.
In Australia, the Department of Agriculture provides a range of support to farmers and rural communities. Programmes administered by the Department include: a Farm Household Allowance (FHA) for farmers experiencing financial hardship; a Rural Financial Counselling Service (RFCS) for farmers, fishers, foresters and small businesses suffering financial hardship; managing the effects of pest animals and weeds in drought-affected areas; and the Managing Farm Risk Programme (MFRP) which helps farmers find an insurance policy that covers drought and other production and market risks. The Department also facilitates a range of taxation measures to encourage investment in drought preparedness and to even out high and low income years. The Regional Investment Corporation (RIC) is tasked with delivering farm business loans and national water infrastructure loans.
Alongside this, the Australian Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (ITCRD) contributes to the prosperity of the economy and wellbeing of Australians through regional and community programmes [this includes $15 million towards the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal’s ‘Tackling Tough Times Together’ programme to support communities experiencing the devastating effects of drought]. Other funds cover infrastructure, economic diversification, jobs and growth]; and three Regional Deals – which are based on a City Deals model and take a ‘place based approach’ to supporting community led economic, social and cultural initiatives. The Australian Government also coordinates Regional Development Australia (RDA) – a network of committees covering the country that bring together all levels of Government. The ITCRD assists other departments and agencies in preparing a Regional Australia Impact Statement (RAIS). The RAIS guidelines include an implications checklist and mitigation measures that departments and agencies are required to consider during the policy development process. The checklist covers the economy, infrastructure, access to services, and compliance.
The Chinese Government has sought to introduce policy measures to address the imbalance between rural and urban China. In the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2011-2015), the Government committed to “speeding up the formation of a reasonable pattern of income distribution . . ., and reversing the widening income gap as soon as possible”. This commitment was reaffirmed in the Thirteenth five Year Plan (2016-2020). This latest Plan contains a goal to eradicate rural poverty by 2020. The Chinese Central Government is focusing on infrastructure construction and social development – and shifting its attention from urban to rural areas. This includes investing in rural roads, rural drinking water utilities, rural electric utilities [in terms of infrastructure]; and cultural development, education, health and social security [in terms of social development]. Policy reforms have included personal income tax reform [raising the minimum threshold for personal income tax]; labour market policies [annual increases in minimum wages]; the Dibao system [providing minimum income guarantee systems for some 4.97 million rural residents to relieve extreme poverty]; the abolition of agricultural tax and introduction of various direct subsidies [for grain seed, machinery and production materials]; near-universal coverage of medical care for rural residents through the New Rural Cooperative Medicare; making three-year preschool and senior high school education universal; and addressing financial exclusion by putting banking services in all villages. In the academic literature there are discussions around how this policy focus and investment in rural areas takes account of people moving from rural to urban areas.
In Finland, rural policy sits within the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The Ministry leads on national rural policy which is linked to regional policy and EU co-funded rural development. Policy measures separately target rural areas, the archipelago, and cities. Rural policy is characterised by a network approach and, at a national level, led by the Rural Policy Committee (YTR). The YTR is comprised of representatives of different ministries, regional government, Research & Development organisations and community associations. The YTR leads the national rural policy programme, which for the period 2014-2020 is titled ‘the countryside of possibilities.’ The programme takes a place-based approach, recognising the diversity of places and the different starting points and needs of rural communities. The programme covers five themes: (i) participation and local democracy, (ii) housing and services, (iii) infrastructure and land use, (iv) livelihoods and expertise, and (v) ecosystems and services. In addition to coordinating networks under each of these themes, the YTR also funds 50-70 other rural research and development projects each year (with an annual budget of about €2.5 million).
In Northern Ireland, rural development sits within the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). The Department’s rural work covers four principal areas: (i) rural development grants; (ii) managing the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme; (iii) tackling rural poverty and social isolation; and (iv) rural needs. DAERA also delivers a Network Support Unit which provides the structure needed for a Rural Network and its activities.
The Rural Needs Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 places a statutory duty on Northern Ireland departments, District Councils and other public authorities to have due regard to rural needs when developing, adopting, implementing or revising policies, strategies and plans; and when designing and delivering public services. The Act came into operation for Departments and Councils on 1 June 2017 and for other public bodies on 1 June 2018. DAERA produces guidance to assist public authorities in understanding their statutory duties; sample Rural Needs Impact Assessment (RNIA) templates; case studies and annual monitoring reports. The term ‘due regard’ means that in making decisions and in its other day-today activities a public authority must consciously consider the needs of people in rural areas. While undoubtedly the Act provides a significant opportunity to ensure that the needs of people in rural areas become embedded within public authorities; how this is monitored and what (if any) mitigation against adverse impacts (if/where these are identified) are put in place both affect the ability of public authorities to discharge their duty and for communities to see more tangible outcomes.
In each of these countries rural policies have evolved over time and this piece presents a current snapshot. For me, these different approaches raise seven overarching points for further consideration:
While there are of course drawbacks in looking at practice from elsewhere – not least examples are always context, place and community specific; how might we exchange experiences and good practices on issues related to funding, economic growth, service delivery and health in rural areas outside of England?
In 2007, the Chinese Government designated Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province) a ‘National Comprehensive Reform Pilot Region for Coordinated Urban-Rural Development’. This designation led to the setting of specific targets including: closing the gap between urban-rural income and public services; improving the rural built environment; increasing arable land; developing modern agriculture; maintaining forests, the natural environment and greenbelt; diversifying the economy; providing high-quality education and health care; and enhancing community autonomy and social services. The designation led to most of Chengdu’s revenue being devoted to improving peri-urban and rural areas. In 2011, for example, peri-urban areas of Chengdu received more than 70% of the city’s total fiscal expenditures, compared with the nearby suburbs (which received 20%) and the inner city (which received only 10%). Also in 2011, each village in Chengdu received approximately U.S. $47,500. A series of planning guides were published and a single regional plan created. The plan stated that all villages, including those in remote mountainous areas, should have access to 13 basic services [these services include a primary school, cultural centre, sports facilities, shops]. Since the publication of the plan 446 new schools in rural areas have been built which meet the same standards and have the same facilities as urban schools. Economically, Chengdu operates under the principal of ‘one zone, one leading industry’. Under the plan, large enterprises were regrouped into 13 municipal level and 49 country level strategic function zones (i.e., there are zones for technology, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals etc.) In addition, industrial parks were constructed in towns and villages throughout Chengdu – building on historic tradition of town and village enterprises (TVEs). Chengdu has established an employment and training information system. This system collects and updates recruitment information including job type and salary requirements and makes the information available digitally in real time in employment centres in villages.
Back in rural England, RSN analysis shows that that the way in which the Local Government Finance Settlement has been calculated has often resulted in the countryside being significantly underfunded when compared to their urban counterparts. In 2019-2020 urban areas will receive 66% (£119 per head) more in grant funding that their rural counterparts; and rural residents will pay, on average, 20.7% (£98 per head) more than their urban counterparts. This means rural communities are paying more but receiving fewer services than people living in urban areas. And this doesn’t take account of the ‘premium’ in delivering services in rural areas or the distance rural residents are already travelling to access some services. How can we overcome dampening and rethink funding formulae so that (as in Chengdu) rural areas have a fairer deal?
In the United States, the Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development at the USDA, Anne Hazlett, describes how “rural communities need forward-thinking strategies to build strong, resilient futures…USDA’s Rural Development Innovation Center (RDIC) is focused on identifying unique opportunities, pioneering new, creative solutions to tough challenges, and making Rural Development’s programs easier to understand, use and access.” The RDIC is exploring a number of issues facing rural communities including access to capital, opioid misuse, and rural workforce development. For example, the RDIC is building a Rural Workforce Innovation Network; and in June 2019, the USDA and its partners selected 47 rural communities and regions to receive free technical assistance for up to 2-years to create and implement economic development plans.
In Finland, the Smartest Village competition, run by the Finnish Rural Network has seen 32 settlements expressing an interest in wanting to become more vital, active and innovative. Participating villages are offered guidance, ideas, peer support and networking opportunities over an 18-month period, culminating in the selection of the winning village at the end of 2019. The competition includes supporting villages that would like to develop accessible and high-quality services in areas (e.g. healthcare, education, energy, transport, local food).
Back in England, and with no agreed upon list of public services from central Government, what (public) services are important to rural communities? How can central and local Governments support the aspirations of rural communities – as per Finland – rather than reverting to what is already provided? What economic growth and development do we want to see in rural areas – and how might we use the learning from the RDIC in the US? Importantly, the examples from the US and Finland are competitive – how can we ensure the application process gives all rural communities an equal chance of participating?
In Australia, the National Enterprise for Rural Community Wellbeing (NERCW) at the University of South Australia is undertaking a range of projects with rural communities in partnership with the Government. This work is set against a backdrop of rural and regional South Australians accessing community mental health services less, being admitted to hospital at higher rates and receiving less follow-up once discharged. Here, there is a recognition that specialist mental health services cannot be maintained at the same level in all rural communities and therefore a range of innovative responses are needed to address distance (e.g. tele-health, Lifeline, Kids Help Line, Mensline). At the same time rural communities have a desire for face to face services closer to home.
While evidence seems to suggest that in rural parts of Australia and England mental health is probably better than in urban areas, research also finds: (1) there are a number of factors specific to rural areas such as demography, access to services, social exclusion and deprivation that may contribute to levels of stress, anxiety and depression in rural residents; (2) some rural occupations have high suicide rates; and (3) those that develop mental illness in rural areas can be less likely to seek early treatment compared to their urban counterparts. What can we learn from the emerging models of care being developed in South Australia?
In Northern Ireland, The Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) Framework is a rural initiative led by DAERA working in partnership with community organisations to design and implement measures which target the needs of vulnerable people. The current TRPSI Framework is the third in a series of anti-poverty initiatives brought forward by DAERA. TRIPSI has an annual budget of approximately £4 million. DAERA works with other departments (e.g. Department for Infrastructure, Public Health Agency, Department for Communities), rural charities (e.g. Rural Community Network, Rural Support) and other organisations such as colleges, GPs and SMEs to develop and/or deliver the Framework. Some of the initiatives earmarked for funding include: grants of £500-£4,999 to support farmers to provide social farming activities; SmartPasses for rural residents to access concessionary travel on Rural Community Transport Partnership vehicles; a Farm Families Health Checks Programme; SPRING Social Prescribing project; Your School Your Club (which opens up educational sites for local community usage outside of normal school hours); the Libraries ‘Out of Hours Service’ which extends access to library facilities in 6 rural areas; and Prosper Employability Project which provides mentoring support to young people and vocational training leading to qualifications identified by local employers. With the Assembly currently in a period of suspension most policy functions are being carried out by local civil servants under the supervision of Westminster – this can make implementing some of these initiatives at the current time difficult.
Taken as a collective, for me these examples provide recognition of the contribution that rural areas can or could make to national policy objectives (e.g. economic growth, health and wellbeing, sustainability). In so doing they challenge an assumption that rural communities are synonymous with decline and are trying to ensure that ‘no one is left behind.’ These initiatives have often emerged where mainstream approaches have not worked and/or which market led approaches fail to address adequately. They also highlight how there is no ‘one size fits all’ – in some countries the focus has been on investing in infrastructure; while in others on service delivery or increasing the variety of services available. Crucially, these initiatives recognise the importance of taking a flexible and bottom-up approach in ways that fit the grain of different rural places and communities.
The RSN is calling on Government to produce a comprehensive long term funded Rural Strategy. While this is not about special pleading for rural, combined with the Conservative membership voting for a new party leader and a new prime minister, this is an opportune time to re-focus politicians and decision-makers on a distinctive rural agenda. With many rural areas facing similar opportunities and challenges; what policy solutions, ideas and examples of good practice can we take from other countries – and what ideas from rural England can we share?
Acknowledgement Sincere thanks to Aidan Campbell, Policy & Public Affairs Officer at Rural Community Network (Northern Ireland) for supporting the development and drafting of this piece: from drawing my attention to the work of The Urban-Rural Definition Group and TRPSI to commenting on an earlier draft and acting as a critical rural friend.
The term ‘reverse innovation’ describes innovations which may have started their development in emerging economies but have spread into developed economies. The concept was first used by Immelt, Govindarajan & Trimble back in 2009 and has been the focus of academic attention ever since then, with scholars more recently seeking to develop a clear concept of what reverse engineering entails, what its characteristics are and to review examples of where such innovation has happened. Reference: J. R. Immelt, V. Govindarajan, and C.Trimble, "How GE Is Disrupting Itself", Harvard Business Review, vol. 87 (10), pp. 56–65, 2009.
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