THAT poverty exists in rural areas is “not at all surprising”, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, says in a Church of England podcast on rural poverty. Remote housing, sparse and therefore expensive public transport, and higher supply costs all contribute to poorer families, stretched relationships, and, for the elderly in particular, isolation and loneliness.
It is a daily concern in Cornwall. A report by the charity End Child Poverty last month suggested that more than a quarter of children in the [local authority of] Cornwall were living below the breadline (News, 11 November). In terms of parliamentary constituencies, north Cornwall, south-east Cornwall, and Truro and Falmouth are at the top end of child-poverty rankings in south-west England, at 27.3, 26.3, and 23.4 per cent respectively. The child-poverty rate in Penzance is 41 per cent — on a par with London, Birmingham, and Manchester.
”In fact,” Bishop Thornton says, “it surprises me that I have to remind people that poverty in rural areas can hit more deeply, and be more affective in all sorts of ways.”
Farmers are among the hardest hit. The convener for a Christian initiative, the Cornwall Farming Community Network, Chris Batt, said that an ageing population of farmers had resulted in less efficient farms. The next generation was reluctant to inherit the business.
”It is common for farmers to work into their eighties in the West Country,” he said. “You cannot do so much in a set day, and the farm goes into a period of decline. It gets to a point where three generations are trying to earn a living from one farm. The minimum acreage to sustain this kind of income is more than 100 acres; so small farms, of which there are many in Cornwall, are running at a loss.”
Moving away, however, is not always an option. Second- and third-homeowners were pushing up house prices, making it difficult to buy elsewhere, Mr Batt said. “Older farmers are trapped, and the question how to get out of this spiral is a huge burden. I have heard of farmers who go without food just so that their children, or their cattle, can be fed.”
Foodbanks had appeared in countryside as well as in towns, but they possessed a particular stigma for the community, he said. “Farmers are very proud people, and believe that, if they are feeding the nation, they ought to be able to feed themselves and their family.”
The Farming Community Network offers a helpline, as well as personal visits, to discuss some of these issues. The group has formed partnerships with Truro Foodbank, which now delivers food parcels to the remotest parts of the county, and with the Agricultural Chaplains’ Association (ACA). It also works with Churches Together in Cornwall to encourage communities to consider how they shop, and where possible to support farmers by buying produce at the farm gate.
A retired Methodist minister, the Revd Roger Greene, is on the committee of the ACA, and an agricultural chaplain in Cornwall. Rural ministry can offer “moral support as well as practical help” to farmhands who rely on farmers for work, and to farmers who are struggling to afford the extra help, he says. It can also be more difficult for farmers to make benefit claims in the absence of paperwork.
”The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution can offer some financial help with household bills, and is also an excellent source of advice for farmers about benefit rights and how to make claims,” he said. “Agricultural chaplains are also able to give long-term help and encouragement, as well as crisis support when it’s needed, often alongside the Farming Community Network.”
THERE are currently about ten million people living in rural areas in the UK. In Cornwall, data from the 2011 Census put this figure at about 440,000: that is, 80 per cent of its population. It also suggested that 17.3 per cent do not have access to a car.
One of the most pressing concerns is “isolation and individualism” within society, Bishop Thornton has warned. “We live in a more atomised and individualistic society. The glue has disappeared. As Christians, our understanding is that God is the Trinity — the community of Persons. Therefore, relationships are key to our existence and our mutual flourishing.”
Churches, charities, and communities continue to respond to this social poverty in “extraordinarily” varied ways, he says. Community kitchens, clubs, and shops, often hosted in churches at the geographical heart of the community, are offering advice and sociability, “bringing people together so that they can try and heal some of those relationships and isolation issues”.
St John’s, Penzance, part of the Penlee Cluster of Churches, has installed a ten-metre-high soft-play area to support young families and address a “social need” in the area. It was proposed by a young mother, Molly, in 2014, and supported by Penlee churches (St John’s, St Mary’s, St Peter’s, Newlyn, and St Pol de Leon, Paul), and the Penwith Community Development Trust.
”Poverty is more than a lack of money caused by the usual lack of jobs, low wages, transport issues, poor health,” the Team Rector, the Revd Sîan Yates, said.
The play zone is open for two sessions a day, seven days a week, run by church volunteers. It hosts community events, parties, holiday clubs, and weekly “Who let the dads out” sessions, to encourage better relationships between fathers and children, particularly for fathers who do not have full custody.
”As children play safely, there are lots of opportunities for people to talk and share stories,” Ms Yates said. “There is a growing sense of community, and of belonging.”
Free vouchers are given to schools that lack outside space, to the local foodbank, and to the domestic-abuse charity Women’s Refuge. Last year, the play zone held a “Christmas Eve extravaganza”, including a nativity, carols, and a play session for children with additional needs, all of which is to be repeated this month. Toys are also to be collected, and donated to families, besides gifts for the Alcoholics Anonymous group, which meets in the church.
”But,” Ms Yates said, “in an area of high deprivation, both money and volunteers are an issue and headache. Grant applications to fund the play zone are very time-consuming.”
Penlee churches are also involved in other poverty initiatives, including hospital transport, street pastors, and breakfast for homeless people.
THE Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum (CIPF) is working to raise the profile of this work. Established in 1996 in partnership with the diocese of Truro, the group lobbies MPs on issues surrounding debt, benefits, housing and homelessness, employment, and ill-health in the community.
It also produces the Cornish Christmas Giving Catalogue, which encourages families and friends to give a donation to a local charity as an “alternative” Christmas gift. The fourth annual magazine, published on Monday, lists 20 initiatives that support impoverished communities in Cornwall.
They include the Penlee play zone, and CIPF’s own scheme, Backpack Beds, for those facing a night on the streets. Over the past three years, more than 100 portable waterproof-shelter backpacks have been bought, at £70 each, through the catalogue.
Government figures from May last year suggest that about 40 people a night sleep rough on the streets of Cornwall — the highest in England outside London. St Petroc’s Society, a homelessness charity listed in the catalogue, is working to reduce this number. It offers accommodation, support, and advice to single homeless people in Cornwall who fall outside the responsibilities of the Council.
”Mental ill-health, relationship breakdown, drug or alcohol dependency, or an offending lifestyle are common contributions to homelessness and social exclusion,” the charity says. In Truro and Penzance, St Petroc’s resettlement centres offer showers, lavatories, food, clothing, bedding, laundry facilities, and GP surgeries, while its outreach team works to reduce rough sleeping on the streets. It also offers 72 longer-term bed spaces across the county.
St Petroc’s is supported by donations, goods, and cash, and through its annual Christmas appeal. This year’s appeal was due to be launched at its carol service at Truro Methodist Church today.
”Poverty in Cornwall is not a new issue,” the community relations manager for St Petroc’s, Corinna Langford, said. “Seasonal fluctuation in employment is an issue which often goes hand in hand
with availability of accommodation. Many properties are summer holiday lets, and are unavailable to those working in the area. In the winter months, the reverse is true: empty accommodation, and fewer employment opportunities.”
The Social Responsibility Officer for the diocese of Truro, the Revd Andrew Yates, who chairs CIPF, said that poverty in rural Cornwall, which includes towns, is caused in part by a “low-wage economy” in which house prices are disproportionate to income.
Government figures suggest that the average house price in Cornwall rose by 136 per cent from an average of £77,000 in 2000 to £184,000 in 2014 — from six per cent below to more than six per cent above the national average.
The average income in Cornwall rose from about £12,000 to £17,000 in this time, but remained 28 per cent less than the national average.
Unemployment is another key issue. Many of the large factories and companies in the area moved out to the cities, Mr Yates said. The mining and engineering industries finished 20 years ago. “Some people also have memories of holidaying in Cornwall, and so return there to work, as a place of happiness. But since the only work is often seasonal, when the summer ends it is difficult to return.”
Flexible work, for farmhands and others, resulted in gaps between out-of-work benefit-claims. Poor transport links had a knock-on effect, Mr Yates said. “People are sanctioned for lateness, or missed appointments at the job centre, when the bus from their remote village to the town does not turn up.”
Out-of-work benefit-claimant rates are particularly high in Cornwall, data from the Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2015 suggest. They show that 17 of its neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in England.
The Cornwall Befriending Service (CBS), listed in the catalogue for the first time this year, offers free debt and financial advice and support. The founder and director, Rowena Koning, said that more than 55 per cent of clients suffer from mental incapacity brought on or exacerbated by debt. Counselling can help rebuild self-esteem, she said.
To view the Cornish Christmas Giving Catalogue, and find out more, visit www.trurodiocese.org.uk.