SHRINKING healthcare services are the issue most concerning residents in rural areas, a report reveals today.
The research group Rural England says a survey of nearly 2,000 people, the largest of its kind for several years, found health to be of more pressing importance than public transport, rural housing or crime.
The first findings were being unveiled at today’s annual conference of the Rural Services Network in Cheltenham.
The organisation’s chairman, Cecilia Motley, said the results would surprise some observers.
She said: “This early evidence of concern about healthcare provision comes at a time when many countryside communities face the withdrawal of vital GP services, NHS service reconfigurations and general recruitment difficulties.
“Although rural residents have other concerns, such as lack of affordable housing, poor public transport, often non-existent mobile and broadband connectivity and fears over the future of rural schools – health provision, social care and accessibility has risen sharply up the rural agenda.”
Some 9.2m people live in rural areas, accounting for 17 per cent of the population. But among over-65s, the proportion is as high as 23 per cent.
A report last year by the same organisation found that rural communities were less well served than those in towns and cities on the provision of health checks, access to health screening and HIV diagnosis. It added that largely rural shire areas also scored badly on development in pre-school children and self harm by older children.
Ms Motley said: “Confirmation that health, together I suspect with social care, is the main preoccupation for rural communities will surprise many people who might think other issues are more pressing, as past surveys by others have shown.”
Today’s survey says significant concerns remain over the provision of public transport and housing in rural areas.
And a 2015 report warned that crime in the countryside was costing £800m a year.
Ms Motley said: “There is a lot of concern among rural communities about the impact of public service cuts on services generally.
“Rural areas have always had thinner services than in other areas and funding cuts are hitting those services very hard – rural people, businesses and communities are still having a very difficult time.”