Rural conversations on empowerment, cohesion and equalities

The IDeA asked Irene Evison from ‘Resources for Change' to explore approaches to community empowerment and community cohesion. She was also asked to consider the extent to which these approaches in policy and practice differ from those adopted in urban environments.

The starting point for this short piece of work was a conversation which led to other conversations. And, I hope, with this short paper as food for thought, it will lead to even more conversations. This paper incorporates the thoughts and ideas of just a few people whose everyday work is with and for rural communities.

The people ‘in conversation' with me were Bron Kerrigan, Parish Plans Development Officer for Cheshire Community Action, Paul Shevlin, Chief Executive of Craven District Council and David Wood, Regional Manager of Rural Action East.

The main questions which formed the basis for our conversations were:

  • In the rural context, what does community cohesion mean? Is this different to what it means in urban areas?
  • In your experience of community empowerment practice, is there anything that is unique to rural areas?
  • What is, or should be, the role of parish and town councils in relation to cohesion and equalities policy and practice?

Community cohesion in rural areas does not look or feel like community cohesion in urban areas. There are two key dimensions to this.

Firstly, the feeling during the conversations was that in urban areas cohesion is most often about bringing together people of different ethnicities or faiths. In rural areas, there tends to be relatively little ethnic or faith diversity. The most significant differences within a rural community are more likely to be socio-economic and age-related.

Secondly, the ‘urban' interpretation of cohesion seems to imply bringing together different communities within a single locality or neighbourhood. Whereas in rural areas, the situation is different. Rural villages especially, but also the smaller rural towns, are disconnected from one another. This sense of separation translates into a different interpretation of cohesion: that is, the bonding of a single, geographically-distinct community.

"If you want cohesion, you need the basic infrastructure to make it happen."

While this is as true for rural communities as it is for urban communities, the physical infrastructure of rural communities has some particular characteristics that are significant. There are a relatively small number of potential ‘hubs' for community interaction. In particular, the school, the pub, the shop and post office, and the village hall.

These are really important informal and formal meeting places, which form the backbone for people to get together and take action together. However, many rural villages are finding these kinds of facilities under threat, or have already lost them. This is likely to impact negatively on how people within the community can interact.

The amount of community effort put into saving, reviving and maintaining village halls or community centres is surely a testament to their perceived value to the community as a whole. The ‘silver lining' in this particular cloud must be the level of empowerment developed and or demonstrated in the process.

"If empowerment is about communities having confidence, skills and drive to do things for themselves, then in rural communities potentially there are high levels from the word ‘go'".

Overwhelmingly, the feeling was that people in rural areas can be very good at getting things done in their own communities. In part, this stems from a tradition of self-help, as well as a feeling that "if they don't do it, no-one else will". This comes back to the physical distance and isolation, as well as the defining characteristic of rural areas generally - the issue of access to services and facilities.

If empowerment is thought about in terms of connection to public services and ability to influence their delivery, the key issue for rural areas is access to the decision makers, with a different scale to urban areas. As one interviewee put it: "How able and willing are they [the service providers] to listen to communities further away from the seats of power?"

"Parish councils should be in the vanguard, leading and making it all possible."

In reality, we know that parish - and town - councils can be very strong or really quite weak, and everything in between. With some potentially significant powers in the community, but largely reliant on voluntary effort, parish and town councils play a really important role in how their community works. The vital thing is that they provide strong leadership, based on a real understanding of their community and being prepared to make the case for their community.

Community-led planning approaches, including parish plans and market town healthchecks, have been used as mechanisms for making changes within communities for many years now. The role of parish councils in community-led planning processes varies hugely. At one end of the spectrum, the parish council may be driving the process, or at the other end, the process may be a way for a community to get around the problem of a moribund parish council.

What is clear though, is that community-led plans have the potential for community empowerment and cohesion in many ways. For example:

  • helping residents to build the skills and confidence to find out about the needs of their community and to pull these together into a coherent plan
  • providing a vehicle to influence decision makers
  • bringing different people in a community together around a common interest, and then guiding what they can do together and for themselves.

The plans that emerge do not talk about cohesion, empowerment or equalities: this is explored in the section immediately below.

"Because they're ordinary people, they don't use the jargon."

Part of the impetus for having this Rural Conversation in the first place was that the terms ‘empowerment', ‘cohesion' and ‘equalities' didn't seem to strike a chord when talking to rural practitioners. This is borne out by the conversations.

It isn't that the meaning behind the terms is not seen as valid or relevant to rural areas; it's just that the terms themselves are not seen as useful and therefore do not tend to be used. To be clear, it is not that people in rural areas do not understand the terms, but they choose not to use them. In relation to rural areas and communities, people use other words, such as ‘community spirit', ‘self-help', ‘self-reliance', ‘bonding', ‘sense of belonging'.

A parish plan, for example, will contain a plethora of activities relating to tackling inequalities and community cohesion. For example, a community transport scheme so that young and old people can travel, or refurbishing the village hall so that there is a central meeting place in the village. However, it won't use the actual words ‘equality', ‘empowerment' or ‘cohesion', with the result perhaps that a rural community's aspirations and achievements in this sphere are not noticed by policy makers.

In conclusion....

The thoughts and ideas here come from three experienced rural practitioners; the interpretation is my own. I hope to have done them justice!

It is clear that this could be just the start of a much longer and more in-depth debate. There is potential for much more work to be done on the topic, and as one interviewee said, "a clearer focus shone onto rural issues and the rural perspective".

For me - and this is a personal view - it is striking how the national cohesion and empowerment debate seems to have missed out the rural dimension. For all of us involved in this rural conversation, it was different and refreshing to take time out to think about what cohesion, empowerment and equalities mean to rural communities. But should it be like this? Should we have to make a special effort to show how things work in rural areas?


Irene Evison

Resources for Change

Page published March 2010.