SCOTLAND'S rural communities feel increasingly let down and isolated, according to researchers who claim minimum service standards should be put in place to ensure they remain viable places to live.

The claim comes in the midst of controversy over Royal Bank of Scotland's decision to close 62 branches, many of them in remote areas. Campaigners say the plans are discriminatory to those living rurally – it is argued that though banks is rural areas have lower footfall, locals depend on them much more than people in urban areas.

RBS chief executive Ross McEwan has staunchly defended the closures claiming branch use is dropping dramatically in favour of online services. He insists communities will be served with mobile vans.

However others say the closures are only part of an increasing reduction in services for Scotland's remote locations with a lack of bus services, post offices, local shops, pubs, community and health centres, combined with and poor digital connectivity, leaving people cut off.

Emma Cooper, chief executive of campaigning organisation Scottish Rural Action, which will host the next Scottish Rural Parliament in November, said rural living was increasing challenging.

Along with Disability Equality Scotland (DES), the organisation has written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to question whether the decision to close branches could breach the Equality Act 2010.

The letter has received the backing of Jeanne Freeman MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and Minister for Social Security, who told the Sunday Herald several of her disabled constituents were forced to do their banking outside the van in public because they were not wheelchair accessible. She said it was “unacceptable” in 2018. RBS has said it takes its obligations under the act “very seriously”.

Yet Cooper claimed that for many the bank closures were a symptom of the lack of consideration given to rural concerns. She said: "Communities feel really let down and betrayed by this series of closures. There's a real sense of increasing isolation, of being left out and left behind.

“It's [also] things like being left out of internet connectivity, it's reduced bus services, it's less local shops. We've seen the centralisation of things like health services which means people have to travel for dialysis or ultra sound if they are pregnant. There is a sense of being abandoned and neglected.”

In rural areas, she says, people on low incomes are forced into car ownership to get to work but this leaves them facing debt that those in cities who can use public transport do not face.

Research shows that those in rural communities are less likely to access the benefits they are due, as a result of factors such as lack of advice services and job centres that are found in cities. Others struggle with issues like poor mental health but find it difficult to access the help they need.

Some argue unemployment rates are low because younger people move away due to lack of jobs, while those that move in are often retired - skewing the generation gap.

In March research commissioned by the Scottish Government and conducted by the James Hutton Institute estimated that Scotland’s sparsely populated areas are at risk of losing a third of their population by 2046.

Dr Andrew Copus, study author, agreed it was a “chicken and egg” issue with the problems faced by rural life causing depopulation, which then made rural life less viable. He said: “I think we should be trying to deal with services for rural people in an integrated way. At present it's a very fragmented picture with many providers with different obligations [serving] sparsely populated areas. Should we not be thinking about some kind of integrated minimum standard which every community should have a right to?”

Professor Sarah Skerratt, director of the Rural Policy Centre, Scotland’s Rural College, agreed it was a human rights issue. About one million people live in rural Scotland – roughly the same as the population of Greater Glasgow. Yet she claimed there would be “uproar” if the urban population lost services at the same rate. “If you look at this in equality terms I think these decisions [to close services] would just not be acceptable,” she added. “It's a layering effect." Once the back closes in a place with no public transport and you can't afford a car people become totally cut off. "There's also a psychological effect,” Skerratt said.

However positive steps were being taken, she added, such as the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which will impose a duty on public authorities to provide an agreed level of service.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing claims that the Scottish Government has done much to address rural concerns including a £600million investment to deliver superfast broadband coverage by 2021 and investments in roads connecting Perth, Inverness and Aberdeen.

He claimed that support for food and drink, farming and fishing and forestry industries and for economic and community development through the Highlands and Islands Enterprise had all been effective.

“The rural economy is doing well, thanks largely to successful partnership working, and a real spirit of collaboration across many key sectors,” he added. “Every day, the Scottish Government works with businesses, agencies and communities on a “Team Scotland” basis to grow sustainably the rural economy.”


Many rural communities are taking matters into their own hands. Community buy-outs in communities such as Eigg and Gihga are one are some other innovative schemes.

Internet connectivity: Villagers in Balquidder in Stirlingshire, fed up of being deprived of decent internet connectivity, decided to sort out the issue for themselves. In 2015 they formed Balquhidder Community Broadband (BCB), and set about digging the necessary holes and laying fibre cables to allow residents to reach speeds of 1gbps. All 197 premises in the area are on track for completion by the end of the year.

Employment for young people: Ten years ago the remote island of Uist had a dwindling population. In response islanders set about creating jobs in marine, transport, energy and other sectors. Recently research suggests the tide has now turned with 469 young people – many of them returners – now living on the islands and 13 babies born in December 2017 alone. Report authors are arguing it's time to bring in the services to match.