The cost of living: Impact on rural communities in Scotland
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, in conjunction with the Young Academy of Scotland (YAS), welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s consultation on the impact of the cost of living in rural communities in Scotland. As a national organisation with extensive coverage across Scotland, this response draws on our varied expertise, especially across the economy, social studies and the public sector. A working group was formed to contribute to this consultation response, which included fellows and members of the RSE Economy and Enterprise Committee who draw both on their professional expertise and their experience as rural residents. The comments from the working group have informed this response.
While the remarks presented below could easily be attributed to the entire rural Scotland, in line with the Scottish Government’s differentiation between rural areas as ‘accessible rural’ and ‘remote rural’, the recommendations and observations included here are particularly relevant for the remote areas of Scotland, which face the greatest challenges, as emphasised in our submission.
- The cost of living crisis, Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war have had a more significant impact on remote rural areas than on urban areas. The prices in remote rural communities for some essential goods were already higher than those in urban centres. And the recent increases in inflation have further exacerbated living costs pressures for remote rural Scotland.
- There is a general scarcity of quality data regarding rural communities. The RSE recommends that policymakers regularly commission and monitor high-quality, robust statistical evidence. Research is essential to fully comprehend the complex picture of the challenges remote rural areas in Scotland are grappling with.
- The key challenges for remote rural communities are related to the ‘rural premium’ whereby communities face higher costs for food, clothes and other household goods, energy bills and transport.
- Access to social services was also identified as one of the acute challenges rural communities face. This includes access to childcare, health services and care for older people. In sparsely populated areas, delivering such services can prove challenging and small changes can threaten the sustainability of local provision.
- The current UK and Scottish government cost of living support schemes have lessened the impact of increased living costs on individuals, businesses and communities. However, these schemes have not generally accounted for geographic disparities in the prices faced by consumers. In real terms, people in rural areas will not receive the same level of financial support.
- Many of Scotland’s rural areas are not connected to the gas network and rely on other types of heating, which are more expensive. Rural Scotland also wrestles with higher levels of energy consumption in local authorities than the rest of Scotland, England or Great Britain as a whole. The disadvantage in energy prices for rural communities is not reflected in any discount schemes.
- The RSE commends the ongoing work on the Energy Bill under scrutiny in Parliament at the moment, which could potentially allow energy sourced locally, to be delivered locally, thus removing the limits of accessing locally-generated energy due to the existence of the grid infrastructure.
- The RSE recommends further measures to provide support for both domestic settings and businesses in relation to the cost of living crisis considering the geographical disparities. Any piece of legislation or policy measure related to the cost of living should be ‘rural-proofed.’
- The RSE working group agreed that the collaboration between the Scottish and UK governments would be key to effective rural-proofed policy development. The RSE recommends the implementation of a more formal approach to collaboration between the government and indeed, local authorities.