There’s no doubt that life costs more in rural Scotland than in the central belt, and essential services like energy, broadband, food, transport and parcel delivery can be poorer quality as well as more expensive. These additional costs affect businesses as well as consumers. At Citizens Advice Scotland we know that power cuts, mobile deadspots and poor or non-existent broadband are all challenges for people in rural and remote areas.
So it’s easy to feel that the modern world is leaving these communities behind – but in fact the picture is more complex. A number of recent innovations and trends may be finding their most important application in rural Scotland.
Renewable energy sources for example, such as wind turbines, can combine with emerging energy storage technologies to provide clean, cheap energy to local communities. And perhaps most importantly, broadband has the potential to allow people and businesses in remote areas to work with or for organisations based elsewhere. The internet also opens up a range of retail markets to those who otherwise would have few options.
However businesses – and so communities – face a number of infrastructural barriers that prevent them benefiting from this potential. Someone in a rural area can watch turbines from their window producing power for the grid at the same time as knowing that they pay more for the distribution of that energy. And the potential of broadband to open up labour and retail markets to those in remote communities is hampered by the poor quality – or indeed absence – of connections. Higher parcel delivery charges don’t help either.
Meanwhile other essential community resources, like banks and local shops, are closing as pressure increases from online retail and supermarket home deliveries. Unfortunately not all consumers are able to reliably use these alternatives.
You could argue that the answer is not to live or do business in remote areas. In other words, if you choose to live in a place where services are more expensive or difficult to deliver you should expect pricier, poorer services.
But this is short sighted. Rural communities support vital industries like tourism, and contribute to the richness of our national experience. What would Scotland be if reduced to a two-tone juxtaposition of urban sprawl and abandoned wilderness? Apart from the fact we all enjoy rural Scotland whether we live there or not, we rely on it for our timber, and for farm and fisheries produce etc., so it’s in everyone’s interests to ensure it is sustainable.
Evidence suggests that most Scots recognise this. Our own research finds that 73% believe everyone should pay the same portion of their energy bill towards maintaining the energy network; currently those in the north of Scotland pay more. And 62% think everyone should pay the same for parcel delivery services, even if that means most people would pay slightly more than they do now.
Markets often struggle in rural and remote areas. So in order to deliver inclusive growth for Scotland as a whole, the vital role of rural communities in sustaining the productivity, richness and diversity of Scotland must be recognised and supported by providing the reliable and affordable infrastructure businesses and consumers need.