The decline of essential services in our rural areas is no longer just an issue – it’s a full-blown crisis. From communities across the Highlands, where my constituents are, to the Welsh countryside, all across the UK, our rural communities are losing the most needed services.
Banks are closing, post offices are offering fewer services, and in some instances, vanishing altogether. It’s not just about losing a place to send a letter or deposit a check. It’s about the erosion of the rural way of life, the stripping away of vital threads that hold these communities together.
I’ve seen the fallout in the communities I serve across Loch Ness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey and even in in parts of the City of Inverness. It’s a story we’ve heard time and again. One local bank closes, and we’re assured it’s okay—there’s another just down the road. But then that bank is next on a shutdown list. Sometimes a ‘mobile bank’ appears as a makeshift solution. Yet its arrival and departure times are as unpredictable, then they tell us it’s underused, but how can folk use a service they can’t depend on?
At the same time, our postmasters find themselves trapped in a relentless cycle of financial hardship. They struggle to make ends meet, let alone earn a decent living wage. The pay settlements in place from Post Office are laughably inadequate and are, quite frankly, an affront to their tireless dedication to our rural communities.
They receive little to no support, left to fight single-handedly against the ever-mounting tide of challenges to keep their doors open. Eventually, they give up and we can’t blame them. It’s no surprise that there isn’t a long line of hopeful successors ready to step into the business.
And with each post office that shuts down, we lose another vital access point for banking services. It’s a devastating double blow to our rural communities, further deepening the crisis and widening the chasm of inequality. This is the reality we’re grappling with, and the UK Government needs to recognise that market forces without minimum service obligations are failing rural communities.
As we transition into a more digital age, we need to ensure that we do it inclusively. This isn’t just about internet access or digital literacy. It’s about providing services in a way that includes everyone, no matter where they live.
For rural communities to survive and thrive, we need a multi-faceted approach. Protecting essential services, investing in infrastructure, and creating opportunities are all crucial.
If we don’t intervene, the digital divide will only grow, and our rural communities will face increasing marginalisation.
The UK Government’s inaction isn’t hard to miss; it cannot continue.
To this end, I recently presented the Banking and Postal Services (Rural Areas) Bill in the House of Commons, a crucial piece of legislation aimed at safeguarding the essential services that our rural communities depend on. I am grateful for the collective voices of our communities who have played a critical role in highlighting this issue and to colleagues across the house who have already committed their support to finding solutions to this issue.
This Bill isn’t just about preventing the last bank or post office in a rural community from closing its doors. It’s about making sure that every one of our communities, from the Scottish Highlands to the English Countryside, can access the essential services they need.
If adopted by the UK Government, this bill would ensure the preservation of essential services, enhancing the accessibility and inclusivity of banking and post offices. It presents a viable solution to the creeping isolation faced by rural residents and offers them a sense of continuity and stability.
Furthermore, it obliges financial institutions to recognise their responsibilities towards these communities, fostering a culture of care and obligation that goes beyond mere profit. This is an instrumental step in not only securing the immediate needs of our rural communities but also in safeguarding their future sustainability.
The UK Government has a duty to represent the welfare of all our communities, both rural and urban – it is failing in the former and needs to act.
Drew Hendry is the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey. In addition he is the SNP’s Westminster Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs. He previously served as SNP Westminster Spokesperson on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and before that, he was the Spokesperson on Transport.