Rural economic profiling - towns in Suffolk

The challenge

In 2008, a study of the levels of data holding and use and the 'assessment readiness' of five local authorities in rural England was undertaken. This was done in the context of the build up to the new duty for local authorities to undertake an LEA. In Suffolk, we examined the rural settlement hierarchy and its relationship to household deprivation from the viewpoint of low incomes. Suffolk is a 'polycentric' area without one dominant settlement. The relative affluence of many communities in its market towns masks pockets of significant deprivation. Small area statistics were used to tease out the nature of 'hidden' deprivation in the county's towns.

What we did

First, we segmented the settlements in Suffolk according the Office for National Statistics (ONS) rural definition. This enabled us to see how Suffolk compared with other areas in England from a settlement perspective, and to identify its towns' key characteristics. We identified that the settlement structure was very evenly distributed across the classes within the definition. This gave the county a very balanced and strongly rural profile in terms of: urban settlements, large and small towns, villages and dispersed settlements.

Pursuing the notion of a hierarchy a little further, the Housing Corporation's 'Rural Settlement Gazetteer' (RSG) permits a more detailed perspective on Suffolk's rural settlement hierarchy. Based upon the locality names of addresses in the Postcode Address file, this source lists 506 rural settlements in Suffolk, ranging in population from just over 8,200 - for example, Brandon - to just seven - for example, Wangford, Forest Heath. This further reinforced the area's credentials as a 'classic' rural geography.

To start developing a sense of how these settlements can be profiled, we applied an eight-fold typology of settlements. This is based on a number of socio-economic variables developed by Birkbeck College at the University of London. There are a number of these typologies and we used this one because:

a) it has been designed specifically to apply to rural settlements and

b) because Birkbeck were part of the research team.

This approach enabled us to map the distribution of settlements based on their economic profiles across the county. Geographical information system (GIS) mapping is a real aid to understanding not just the distribution of settlements but also their physical relationship with each other. It also helps us to begin to interpret the data on linkages and flows from the 2001 Census about how settlements connect together.

The Birkbeck typology helped us move quickly to a sense of the relative nature of the towns in the area according to their socio-economic characteristics. However, we decided we needed to 'drill down' more deeply to identify areas of deprivation. While Index of Multiple Deprivation data can be used at LSOA level, we wanted statistics for settlements based on publicly-recognised areas, in this case towns. We were able to use CACI paycheck data, which is available at postcode level, to develop town figures for household income. We aggregated the figures to represent specific neighbourhoods people recognise within the towns in the county. This was used as a means of homing in on specific settlements to illuminate the nature of deprivation in those towns.

This approach enabled us to demonstrate the number and percentage of households in Suffolk's rural towns with poverty incomes, based on national norms. This demonstrated a total of just under 30,000 households with poverty incomes, which is a little under 40 percent of the total of such households in Suffolk as a whole.

This significant and surprising finding has enabled key partners in the county to begin to reappraise their policy interventions in the context of rural poverty.

What we learnt

This example of rural analysis shows that it is possible to present policy-related data in a general way while capturing at least something of the subtle differences between smaller rural places. Of course, this is not a substitute for deep knowledge of conditions ‘on the ground'. However, it does represent a refinement and, hopefully, more ‘natural' representation of locality than standard Census units. The approach should, however, offer an accessible and transparent means of communicating rural social conditions within a county to a wide range of stakeholders.

This approach demonstrates:

  • the importance of economic geography as a means of understanding and interpreting real places
  • how using a range of data sources can enable us to build settlement patterns to describe real places, within a national comparable context
  • how relatively straightforward it is to use published data sources to achieve this.

This can be done in a way that people recognise on the ground.

3 May 2012

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