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The cost of remoteness north of the border

July 4, 2013

Report: A Minimum Income Standard for Remote Rural Scotland

Where is the most expensive place to live in Britain? Probably Mayfair or Knightsbridge, if you include buying or renting a private home. But leaving aside big variations in housing costs (say you pay a social rent, or are a pensioner who already owns your home outright), it’s the other end of the country where the basic cost of living can be the most gobsmackingly high. In the remoter parts of Scotland, households are typically paying anything from 10% to 40% more than those in urban Britain for the everyday essentials of life.

Our latest foray exploring what people need for a minimum socially acceptable standard of living (the Minimum Income Standard, or MIS) took my colleagues to far-flung islands, tiny Highland settlements and isolated parts of southwest Scotland. Some of these places are astonishingly remote, and not just those cut off by water. There are still settlements in the Scottish Highlands where you can be almost two hours’ drive from even a small town with a supermarket.

This was a challenging study which required all the impressive skills of Abigail Davis, Noel Smith and Matt Padley in applying the MIS method in different situations, combined with the amazing local knowledge of Amanda Bryan and Jo Ellen, based in the Highlands, in researching what things cost and how people shop.

So what is it that makes life in remote rural Scotland so expensive? Quite a wide variety of things, some unsurprising. In the “land of horizontal rain”, where amenities such as mains gas are the rare exception, heating bills can sometimes be nearly twice as high as in urban England, even in a well-insulated flat in a small town; much more in a draughty old house in a remote settlement. And the cost of travelling into those towns to buy essentials is exacerbated by higher-than-average petrol prices.

But if I’d been asked before doing this study what would be the top factors causing additional costs, I don’t think I would have included “commuting” – a cost you’d more readily associate with living near a big city. In fact, the limited job opportunities in remote rural Scotland led the participants in this reseaerch to estimate that you need to count on travelling about 30 miles each way (300 miles a week) to have reasonable employment opportunities. Possibly the biggest single action that could make life more affordable in these parts would be to help create jobs closer to where people live.

The other striking finding was the higher prices people pay for goods, whether in local shops or in additional delivery charges when ordered remotely. People who can travel regularly to a rural town may shop at small branches of national supermarkets, but these typically charge around 10% more for food. Shopping in local settlements costs far more – often with markups above 50%. This problem may be hard to solve, although some form of collective buying by communities could help reduce it. But the biggest shopping gain could be helping pensioners in remote areas to shop on-line, giving wider choices and making them less reliant on buying through generally expensive catalogues.

The MIS studies have taught us a lot about how relatively homogeneous the UK is as a country – including in the ways we define a minimum living standard, and in most respects in the cost of reaching it. People in the most remote parts of our isles still do have a very similar concept to other Brits of what comprises a minimum acceptable living standard. But the way you reach this standard, and the cost of doing so, if you live on a remote Hebridean island or in a village 50 miles out of Thurso, is certainly very different from living in Loughborough.

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