Costly fuel and poor telecoms doubly disadvantage rural areas

Our rural areas are in large measure our future, but are more and more disadvantaged.

Within 10 years, Britain’s reliance on home-grown food and timber will be at least as great as in the Second World War, I believe. Production will have to be achieved with declining quantities of increasingly costly oil.

Fuel oil in the UK is very heavily taxed, we know. I cannot see government easing the tax screw, given the overhang of public debt. Increasingly those of us living in rural areas are asking “Is this journey really necessary”?

This morning I did a few sums, based on the small village of Llansawel in Carmarthenshire, Wales. The nearest filling station, which is also a small shop, is 3.5 miles. The nearest town, Llandeilo, is 10 – 11 miles, depending on which part you need to visit.

It costs me £2.64 in fuel to drive from Llansawel to Llandeilo and back. My car is diesel and averages 50 mpg. Diesel currently costs £6.59 a gallon. Yes, I could drive a car with greater fuel efficiency, and used to do so, but it could not cope with our road conditions in winter.

Even driving to the garage to buy a newspaper, or to put diesel in the tank, costs over 92p in fuel. A return trip to Swansea, the nearest city, is £9.49 just in fuel.

These are not trivial amounts, and they add to the other costs and problems of living in the country.

You can catch a bus, but not to go to work. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings there is a service to the county town of Carmarthen, but the only return trip is in the early afternoon. On Fridays you can go to Llandeilo and spend just under two hours there before the journey back. Four days a week, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, a bus travels north to Lampeter in the next county. This service is popular because there are two buses back, and if you catch the later one, you have almost three-and-a-half hours in the town.  Fine for shopping, but not for work unless you have a very short shift.

There is no railway nearby, so for most people the only way to get to work, and back again, is to go by car. Someone, let’s call him Joe, earns the minimum wage of £6.08 a hour for a 40-hour week and commutes a total of 200 miles a week by car.

When you add all the costs of running a car, the price of commuting 200 miles a week is very high indeed. The AA calculated that in 2011 a small diesel car travelling 10,000 miles a year would cost a total of 41.05p a mile, including fuel, and a small petrol car would be more, 45.53p a mile.

http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/running_costs/diesel2011.pdf

http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/running_costs/petrol2011.pdf

Since the calculations were done, the price of road fuels has increased, by about 4.3% for  petrol and 11.6% for diesel. Joe’s diesel car is costing him over 42p a mile in all, £84 for his weekly commuting, leaving him £126.81, amounting to £3.17 for each hour worked, from his take-home pay of about £210.81.

Jobs in deeply rural areas are scarce, and well-paid jobs are rarer still. For most people, commuting to a minimum-wage job is not a way out of poverty.

Why doesn’t Joe work from home, to cut out commuting time and costs? Even if his occupation makes this a possibility, telecoms provision may be too poor. These days virtually all businesses – including farms – need an office with modern communications, including broadband. Yet there are still areas in Carmarthenshire lacking any broadband access at all. Try to upload a long document at 28 kilobits per second, 183 times slower than a typical broadband speed of 5 megabits per second.  The modern internet does not cater for users with slow, unreliable dial-up connections. If your work requires you to be online, a dial-up connection is not an option. Broadband providers are talking about speeds of 100 megabits per second (for easy-to-serve customers). That is 3,660 times faster than 28 kilobits per second dial-up.

Here in Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government has a welcome scheme to bring wireless broadband to communities left behind by the internet revolution, but it’s probable that rural areas will always be the last to benefit from communications improvements. Llansawel is relatively well-served with broadband, as it is less than three miles from a telephone exchange, but Carmarthenshire contains areas that are five or more miles from an exchange and thus have not benefited from faster telecoms because of the rate at which signal quality declines with distance.

With high fuel prices deterring travel, and telecommunications that are stuck in the past, country dwellers often enjoy lovely views but cannot get to work, or cannot get there at an affordable cost, and cannot work efficiently from home either. It’s a double disadvantage.

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