Hinterland - 19 October 2020

In Hinterland this week - Brexit is dawning, rural poverty, BT’s charging policy under the spotlight, the care sector and businesses under covid pressure and finally a sad story about the increasing plight facing our much loved hedgehogs…

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UK food standards: why No 10's lack of commitment is making farmers furious

Coronavirus can seem all consuming, however as we approach the groundrush of Brexit I fear stories like this will begin coming to our attention with increasing regularity. It tells us:

Farmers facing one of their toughest years in recent memory have received little comfort this week from a usually reliable ally: the Conservative party.

Their pleas to the government to enshrine in law a commitment to the UK’s high standards of food safety and animal welfare were ignored. In a long and impassioned debate in the House of Commons on Monday, amendments to the agriculture bill that had almost universal backing from farming leaders were defeated, steamrollered under the government’s 80-strong majority.

The stakes could scarcely be higher: British farmers are worried that post-Brexit trade bills with the US and other countries will allow the import of food and agricultural products that are currently banned under EU regulations. Produced to a lower standard than the UK mandates, these foods would undercut British produce – yet if the UK were to lower its own standards, the export route for British food to its biggest market, Europe, would be blocked.

They have been arguing, alongside food and environmental campaigners, for legal status to be given to UK standards, which would prevent any future deals that undercut them.


City dwellers idealise Britain's countryside, but there's no escaping rural poverty

Any one who thinks urban places have a monopoly on disadvantage should read this article. It tells us:

A paper by the Cardiff University geographer Andrew Williams and colleagues offers a reality check, pointing out that austerity did not bypass rural England and Wales. It too has seen big cuts to public infrastructure and services. Rural housing has its own affordability crisis. Poverty, so often imagined solely as an urban affliction, thrives, though often hidden, amid the pretty market towns and rolling green fields.

The disconnectedness of rural living may be part of its charm but it is also a driver of inequality, the paper points out. Almost no one in urban areas lives more than 4km (2.5 miles) from a GP – one in five households in rural areas do. It is the same for supermarkets: 44% of country dwellers have to travel more than 4km to get to one, while 59% are not within 4km of a bank. Public transport has been decimated – if you don’t have a car, good luck.

The closure of Sure Start children centres, jobcentres and youth clubs has exacerbated the access problem. Of 605 libraries closed in England since 2010, 150 were in rural areas. They were more likely to be rescued by volunteers in urban areas, Williams points out, “suggesting that the ‘rural’ is not quite the ‘ideal laboratory’ for community-run public services that it is made out to be by proponents of the big society.”

One way rural local authorities have sought to mitigate the cuts enforced on them by central government is by “switching” services such as public toilets and parks to the care of parish and town councils, who raise local taxes to pay for them. Not a problem for wealthy villagers but hardly fair to those who are less well off, who are in effect taxed twice at a time when their incomes have been shrinking as a result of welfare cuts.

Many rural economies are weak, even in the prettiest, chocolate boxy parts. Low wages and casual labour are rife, and the rural premium on fuel and food is eye-watering. Households in rural hamlets with a car spend an average £139 a week on transport, compared with £79 in urban areas. More than 40% of households in rural Wales live in fuel poverty, says Williams, compared with 22% in urban areas. Similarly, people in isolated rural areas spend an average £71 a week on food, compared with £61 in cities.


Ofcom Probes BT Charges For Rural Broadband Connections

I think this sort of scrutiny is long overdue!

The British communications regulator Ofcom has confirmed it has begun an investigation of BT and its charges to install or upgrade rural broadband connections.

According to the Guardian newspaper, the investigation over whether BT is overcharging for connections comes after reports of people receiving quotes as high as £100,000.

At the moment, Openreach (which runs most of the UK’s broadband network), has a legal obligation (the universal service obligation’ or USO) to ensure that homes in the UK receive a minimum speed of 10Mbps.

MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) have previously warned the government is not doing enough to tackle the digital divide between rural and urban areas,

The 10Mbps goal is deemed to be the minimum for modern internet requirements such as watching Netflix or playing Fortnite and other online games.

BT must bear the cost, up to a maximum of £3,400 of meeting this USO.

But in extremely rural areas, the cost of getting a viable broadband connection can be higher….much much higher.

In such cases BT will still connect a property with broadband if the consumer is willing to pay the excess amount assessed by the carrier.

The Guardian newspaper highlighted a number of cases where BT reportedly demanded huge connection charges.

In one case, a customer in High Peak, Cheshire, was quoted £100,000 to upgrade. Another, in Woodbridge, Suffolk, was quoted £70,000 to connect to 10Mbps broadband.


England's 'fragile' care sector needs immediate reform, says regulator

We’ve known for a long time that social care is a badly dysfunctional area of policy, one which impacts disproportionately in rural areas with a higher proportion of rural dwellers. This article charts the corrosive impact on coronavirus on it, telling us:

The government must immediately deliver a new deal for social care with major investment and better terms for workers, the Care Quality Commission has said, as it warned that the sector is “fragile” heading into a second wave of coronavirus infections.

In a challenge to ministers, the regulator’s chief executive, Ian Trenholm, said overdue reform of the care sector “needs to happen now – not at some point in the future”.

Boris Johnson said in his first speech as prime minister, in July 2019: “We will fix the crisis in social care once and for all.” But no reform has yet been proposed, and more than 15,000 people have died from Covid-19 in England’s care homes.

Trenholm said Covid risked turning inequalities in England’s health services from “faultlines into chasms” as the CQC published its annual State of Care report on hospitals, GPs and care services.

The report reveals serious problems with mental health, maternity services and emergency care before the pandemic, and says these areas must not be allowed to fall further behind.

In routine inspections carried out before March, 41% of maternity services were found to require improvement for safety – for example, because a baby’s heart rate was being monitored in labour by staff who lacked training.

More than half of urgent and emergency care services were also rated as requiring improvement or inadequate. Thirteen per cent of wards for people with learning disabilities and/or autism were rated inadequate, a sharp increase from 4% the previous year.


Covid-19: Firms warn of 'catastrophic' impact of new coronavirus rules

Rural firms often with a high proportion of hospitality businesses are very susceptible to the impacts of the more acute lockdown approaches associated with our current covid regime. This article points out more widely the lobby in favour of adequate support for businesses forced to close or operate in a defacto closed environment. This article tells us:

Firms are calling for more financial support to avoid "catastrophic consequences" from tougher coronavirus restrictions.

Without more help there could be mass redundancies and business failures, the British Chambers of Commerce warns.

Its call for a new approach comes as tougher restrictions are imposed on large parts of the UK.

The government said it had already put in place support worth more than £200bn to help firms cope.

"We know this continues to be a very difficult period for businesses," a spokesman said. "That's why we have put in place a substantial package of support."

The government has already announced extra support for firms affected by new measures to control the virus, including providing two thirds of workers' wages where firms have been told to close. Firms will also receive grants of up to £3,000 per month.

There is additional funding for local authorities and devolved administrations.

The director general of the BCC, which represents 75,000 firms of varying sizes across the UK, has written to the prime minister calling for a new set of criteria to be applied before imposing tougher restrictions.

"The situation for business grows graver by the day," Adam Marshall wrote.

"Enhanced support must be given to those facing the indirect impacts of restrictions and closures - in supply chains, tourist destinations and town and city centres."


And Finally

And we end with a sad story about our rural friend the hedgehog…

Hedgehog road deaths in UK 'as high as 335,000'

Up to 335,000 hedgehogs are dying each year on UK roads, a study suggests.

The figure represents a three-fold mortality rate on 2016 data, described as "alarming" by a team at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) researchers.

A study in 2016 put the UK road death figure at 100,000 but experts suggested that was a "mid-line estimate".

Researchers said measures such as tunnels and speed bumps "could" protect the animals but ultimately relied on drivers' behaviour to change.

PhD student Lauren Moore led the review, which has been jointly funded by wildlife charity People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and NTU.

Recent estimates put the hedgehog population in England, Wales and Scotland at about one million, compared with 30 million in the 1950s.

"Hedgehog roadkill is sadly a very familiar sight both in the UK and in Europe," Ms Moore said.

The research considered a number of measures to protect the creatures, including speed bumps, road signs and tunnels, but concluded none would be effective without help from drivers.

"Although we know some hedgehogs use road-crossing structures, we don't yet know how effective these solutions are," Ms Moore continued.

"Changing drivers' behaviour has been shown to be difficult to achieve and sustain, reducing the potential for meaningful reductions in roadkill."


About the author:
Hinterland is written for the Rural Services Network by Ivan Annibal, of rural economic practitioners Rose Regeneration.


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