Coronavirus pandemic has exposed 'long-standing inequalities' in rural Wales, report finds

  • Video report by West Wales correspondent Jess Main

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed inequalities in Wales' rural communities and they will need targeted support to recover, according to a new report.

Researchers at Aberystwyth University found that an above-average number of workers on furlough, a jump in unemployment, and reduced revenue for small businesses - especially in the tourism sector - were among the direct impacts.

The pandemic has also highlighted inequalities in access to broadband, healthcare and housing, and the over-dependence of some rural areas on tourism and small businesses.

More than 80 per cent of the country is considered rural.

Professor Michael Woods, from the department of geography and earth sciences at Aberystwyth University, led the research.

He explained: “Rural communities, like urban communities, have been scarred by Covid-19, but the pandemic has also exposed long-standing vulnerabilities in the rural economy and new inequalities for rural residents with poor broadband and mobile signals as life and work has moved online.

"Remote working holds a promise of attracting families to rural communities and retaining young people, but without better infrastructure it will not reach the most in-need places, and could have a damaging impact by fuelling house-price inflation.”

Wales' tourism industry has been badly affected by the pandemic. Credit: PA Images

Some of the tourist towns in rural Wales saw a 70 per cent drop in footfall and business in 2020.

Ben Robbins, who owns a surf shop in Cardigan, said the pandemic has been "painful".

He told ITV News: "I'm from a village down the road and it seems like eight in ten houses are holiday homes.

"So there just isn't that stimulation - that footfall - in the off-peak season, really, to keep the business going."

But the report said although the pandemic has "intensified existing challenges" for rural Wales, they could also be seen as opportunities for change.

The rise of remote working and renewed interest in local food present opportunities for revitalising rural communities, it added.

Researchers identified seven priorities to ensure that the recovery in rural Wales is fair and sustainable.

They are:

  • Diversifying the rural economy

  • Developing the skills and opportunities of the rural workforce

  • Investing in digital infrastructure and preparing for post-carbon transport

  • Encouraging more widely-spread and sustainable tourism

  • Providing affordable housing that meets the needs of rural communities

  • Supporting small towns with a Smart Towns Initiative

  • Empowering communities and keeping wealth within local economies

Working from home has been a challenge in rural areas due to poor broadband and mobile signal. Credit: PA Images

One of the projects listed in the report as an example of the way forward for the post-Covid recovery is 4CG, a community-owned social enterprise in Cardigan established to promote the development of the town.

Its projects have included installing a public pay-as-you-go wifi network through the town, based on a superfast broadband connection, and the development of a town app for tablets and smartphones.

Clive Davies, one of its founders, said: “It’s great to see the work of 4CG acknowledged in the report - hopefully it can be a model for other rural areas.

"We set it up because we felt strongly that there were many opportunities within Cardigan to increase community cohesion, enhance our surroundings and to take small steps to help improve the local economy.

"The wifi network is an important part of these efforts, and we hope that other similar projects will inspire other rural areas as we look to rebuild after the pandemic.”

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