Rural communities are being "neglected" in the face increasing digital exclusion and a breakdown in social networks and transport links, a report has warned.
The view that people who live in the countryside are rich and enjoy a rural idyll masks pockets of deprivation and poor health — both of which have been exacerbated by lack of access the Internet — according to the study by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Public Health England (PHE).
A lack of official statistics on the health of all people living in rural areas has meant the pervading view tends to be that people are wealthy, it said, masking the fact there is “real hardship” in some regions, with the elderly hardest hit by by social isolation and inability to access support services.
Almost 10 million people in the UK live in areas of England defined as rural. They are - on average - 5.3 years older than their counterparts in urban areas, with settlements in sparse areas tending to have the highest proportion of their populations amongst the older age groups, the report said.
The outward migration of young people and inward migration of older people, who tend to have greater health and social care needs, as well as poorer public transport links, are having a “significant impact” on people's daily lives and access to services, it concluded.
Eighty per cent of rural residents live within four kilometres of a GP surgery, compared with 98 per cent of the urban population, while only 55 per cent of rural households compared to 97 per cent of urban households are within eight kilometres of a hospital, the study found.
Crucially, a combination of the older demographic and the unavailability of high-speed broadband has led to a growing digital gap between urban and rural areas, which is enhancing loneliness among the elderly and preventing people from benefiting from important developments and innovations in access to health-related services, the report went on.
There is a growing social and economic gap between those who are connected and those who are not – the ‘digitally excluded’ — with 13 per cent of the adult UK population (6.4 million) never having used the Internet, and 18 per cent saying that they do not have Internet access at home.
"Rural social networks are breaking down with a consequent increase in social isolation and loneliness, especially among older people," the report states.
"The fact that social isolation influences health outcomes in its own right suggests that this and the emotional and mental wellbeing of people in rural areas is an important and hitherto neglected area in the promotion of public health."
Izzi Seccombe, chair of the LGA Community Wellbeing Board, told The Independent the issues affecting particularly elderly people in the countryside have arisen largely due to cuts to local government, which often hit community areas hardest, adding that digital access was a “priority” in resolving problems of isolation and loneliness.
“Just short of a quarter of the people who live in rural areas — about 23.5 per cent — are over 65. In urban areas it’s about 16 per cent. So the main issues we’ve got are around the ageing population and the social isolation they face,” said Ms Seccombe.
“Over the last few years as we’ve seen the central government grants to local government grants reducing greatly, protecting social care in rural areas has often been cut.
“Digital access is really important. Where people can be housebound, one of those lifelines can be their ability to communicate, and they can do this through things like Skype. It's wrong to assume that the older population cannot do this.
“A lot of the innovations that we’ve seen in local authorities in health have involved that online connectivity, such using Skype to discuss people’s health when they are three quarters of an hour away from a hospital, or simply checking on them.
“But for this you need to have connectivity. We’ve poured money into super fast broadband, and we’ve gone a long way towards it, but there are still about five per cent that we haven’t reached — and those are the rural areas. Connecting them is a priority.”
Ms Seccombe added that in order to resolve the largely overlooked problems, central and local government must start to "think differently" in the face of a "changing shift" in the way life in rural communities plays out, and to focus on connecting people, particularly the elderly, in those areas.
“As we’ve driven a growing economy and required more people to go out and earn, with double income families and women who expect to have a career just as much as any man, we have not got the self-help community resource that we had 20 or 30 years ago, so we need to think differently," Ms Seccombe said.
“And yet, we now have a population that retires that can probably expect to have certainly a good 20 years of fit life. It’s a changing shift. We need to capture what we can do to help those people who are fit and well.
“We need to be more observant of how dependent that older population in rural areas is, and the pockets of isolation and deprivation that you get are there, and they’re very often hidden because it all looks like a nice rural ideal."
The report also states that the level of poverty in certain rural areas was also a serious problem that was frequently overlooked, with almost one in seven (15 per cent) rural households living in relative poverty after housing costs are taken into account.
A lack of affordable housing in some areas is now extending to those on average incomes, not just people on lower incomes, leading to people — generally of the younger generation — moving out to urban areas and increasing concerns about the sustainability of rural communities.