Highlands and Islands Enterprise [HIE] has recently published a thought provoking report: A Minimum Income Standard for Remote Rural Scotland.
This has been based on research with ’24 groups of residents in different parts of remote rural Scotland deliberating in detail over what items households in their communities need as a minimum’.
While no one will be surprised that the report demonstrates that the cost of living in remote rural Scotland is much higher than elsewhere in the UK, virtually everyone will be surprised at how great that difference is.
The 24 evidence-giving groups were distributed between the Highlands, remote Southern Scotland and the islands.
This means that, between them, they covered the range of causes of higher living costs in differently remote places. Those living on islands, for example, have the additional cost of ferry fares; although where Road Equivalent Tariff [RET] fares are in place, this ought not to make an island location any more expensive in fuel costs for journeys than for those resident at an equivalent distance on the mainland.
The report notes that: ‘Lower costs for a few items only do a small amount to offset the above additional expenses. Rents, council tax and water bills tend to be lower than elsewhere in the UK and as in other parts of Scotland, but not England, prescriptions and eye tests are free.’
However, the majority of key elements in living at a reasonable standard irrefutably incur higher costs than elsewhere in the UK. These elements of a basic acceptable standard of living include:
- keeping warm enough;
- eating properly;
- shopping cost-efficiently;
- travelling to meet medical appointments and for leisure and holidaying.
Fuel costs are the major differential driving the much higher living costs in remote rural Scotland. This includes heating fuel; fuel for vehicles; fuel costs added to haulage and delivery charges; delivery costs added to the price of foodstuffs and other consumables.
Those living in privately rented, older homes heated by oil – who can face fuel costs 25-50% higher again than those in modern well insulated social housing.
Pensioners suffer least from the imposition of higher fuel costs for travel – because, the report notes, they are less mobile and because they get free travel on public transport, including ferries.
Single people are seen as suffering most from fuel costs for transport in long daily commutes to work; where those like the elderly or a family of one parent and one child, both often confined to using local shops, may see their food bills as much as 50% higher than would be the case in a less remote place.
Just getting hold of necessary consumables – like clothes, shoes and household items – is much more expensive through delivery charges and can take longer.
The report quotes costs in rural remote Scotland as being:
- 10% higher overall for supermarket foodstuffs – with additional costs rising to 50% where access is only to local shops;
- 20-30% higher overall budget costs for clothing and householdgoods;
- £30-40 per week more in fuel costs for the average commute to work;
- 100%+ more for heating fuel costs for households without children in remote settlements;
- 10-40% higher living costs overall than in urban Britain;
- <90% of requirements of pensioners in remote rural Scotland met by social security benefits;
- 50% of requirements of families with children in remote rural Scotland met by social security benefits;
- 33% of requirements of working age people without children in remote rural Scotland met by social security benefits;
- 66% of a minimum income produced by the minimum wage for a single person living in remote rural Scotland.
On this last item, the report says that: ‘For an adequate income, a single person needs to earn about 90% of the median, whereas in urban parts of the country, someone on two thirds average earnings has enough.’
The report finds that ‘… high living costs threaten the sustainability of local communities by making it harder for people from a range of backgrounds and ages to live there at an acceptable standard’.
The issue here is ‘at an acceptable standard. In previous times, poor communications meant that people living in such areas had a limited awareness of lifestyles available elsewhere.
This is far from the case today where many living in remote rural places in Scotland have immediate access to such comparisons through internet and mobile hone based services.
This knowledge will inevitably be a driver of emigration from remote rural areas.
This comes down to two issues:
- personal choice and personal priorities;
- political policy.
If an individual or family, whose circumstances allow alternatives, choose to live in a remote rural place – which, by its nature, will be less resourced and more expensive, they cannot reasonably expect other taxpayers to pay to support lifestyles available in more centralised heavily populated areas where economies of scale obtain.
Without change, the drift will inevitably be, as it has been, towards progressive emigration from remote ruralities.
Where would this leave Scotland, where so much of its population is already concentrated in the central Belt?
This is where political policy comes into it.
What is the pay-off to the country of having small and widely dispersed populations across the majority of its mainland and island territory?
How much is this pay-off worth in percentage of annual GDP?
How much might it be worth if major investment in infrastructure made remote rural places more accessible?
These are issues we would expect to see developed in an overall prospectus leading to a strategic economic development plan for this country, independent or not.
For the moment, the HIE report concludes that: ‘Tackling particular sources of higher costs could make a big difference to certain households. For example, enabling a single person in a Highland town to work closer to where they live could wipe out two thirds of the difference in their costs compared to living in an English rural town. Helping pensioners living on islands to get online could widen shopping choices and reduce the additional cost of buying clothes and household goods, which are their most significant additional expense.’
The report acknowledges that the problem is endemic in remote rural living, which of course it is, that: ‘Making services more accessible to people in remote areas would add to their quality of life, but would do relatively little to reduce the minimum cost of living. High prices are overall a more significant factor than remote amenities in driving additional costs.’
The drift to a centre is irresistible for almost all of those – as individuals and as businesses – in search of opportunity and prosperity.
The question is now does a small country like Scotland simultaneously develop its centre and develop a viable and distinctive periphery?
The answer has to lie in the specific relationships between periphery and centre that might be constructive for both, with a defensible cost-benefit ratio. In an integrated national economic development plan, each has to be – and to be seen to be – of real, describable and measureable value to the other.
The HIE report has been a very worthwhile and responsibly executed exercise in highlighting the realities; and is worth reading for its serious provocation to thought and understanding.
Below are links to downloadable versions of first the summary and then the full report.