Rural residents are more concerned about declining healthcare services than any other issue, according to the preliminary results of a wide-ranging survey.
Health topped the list of the topics of most concern to rural residents – ahead of public transport, rural housing and rural crime.
The survey of 1901 people was conducted on behalf of Rural England Community Interest Company  by researchers from the Countryside and Community Research Institute, based at the University of Gloucestershire , and in partnership with the Rural Services Network .
The survey – believed to be the largest of its kind for many years – highlighted a range of issues with health services of most concern to respondents.
Full findings are due to be published later this autumn.
However, the preliminary ‘headline’ – summary results are being published at this year’s annual Rural Services Network Rural Conference – held at the University of Gloucestershire’s Cheltenham campus on Wednesday, 6 September .
RSN chair Cecilia Motley said: “The theme of this year’s Conference is ‘The Infrastructure of Success – New Routes to Economic Growth’.
“What we mean by ‘Infrastructure’ is all those things essential to economic and community well-being.
“So we include health services and care, reliable, affordable fast speed broadband and mobile connectivity; affordable homes to meet the needs of local people; reasonable public transport; accessible training and development opportunities; good quality schools and the accessibility and affordability of all of the essential services provided by local government.
“These preliminary results are very timely to aid discussions at the Conference.
“Confirmation that health – together I suspect with Social Care – is the main preoccupation for rural communities will surprise many people who might think other issues are more pressing, as past surveys (by others) have shown.”
“This early evidence of concern about healthcare provision comes at a time when many countryside communities face the withdrawal of vital GP services, NHS Service re-configurations and general recruitment difficulties. NHS Providers are already expressing grave concerns about what they are describing as the worse winter in recent history .
“Although rural residents have other concerns – such as lack of affordable housing, poor public transport, often non-existent mobile and broadband connectivity and fears over the future of rural schools – health provision, social care and accessibility has risen sharply up the rural agenda.”
The aim of the survey was to canvass rural opinion with a view to creating, for the first time it is believed, a statistically valid representative panel of people to highlight the need for the adequate provision of rural public services and other policy issues affecting rural areas.
Largely rural shire areas score badly on some Public Health Outcomes Framework (PHOF) indicators, according to a recent report by the Rural England Community Interest Company .
This includes the provision of health checks, mental health services, access to health screening and late HIV diagnosis.
In terms of rural public transport, the survey findings come as little surprise with significant reductions in public transport services across rural areas as a result of government cuts in financial support for local government services .
And when it comes to rural housing, campaigners have long warned that high prices mean people are often unable to afford to buy their own home in the communities where they were born .
Meanwhile, a National Rural Crime Network report in 2015 warned that crime in the countryside was costing as much as £800m annually – putting further pressure on already stretched police forces .
Councillor Motley said: “There is a lot of concern among rural communities about the impact of public service cuts on services generally.
“Rural areas have always had thinner services than in other areas and funding cuts are hitting those services very hard – rural people, businesses and communities are still having a very difficult time.”
 Rural England is a Community Interest Company which brings together rural networks and stakeholders to improve the rural evidence base. It commissions, undertakes and disseminates rural research and encourages debate about its findings. For further details, visit http://ruralengland.org.
 The survey was undertaken by researchers at the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI), a partnership between the University of Gloucestershire, the Royal Agricultural University and Hartpury College. It is the largest specialist rural research centre in the UK. For details, visit http://www.ccri.ac.uk.
 The Rural Services Network seeks to provide a voice for rural communities by representing rural services, networking between rural service organisations and establishing and broadcasting best practice in rural service provision. It comprises SPARSE Rural, the Rural Assembly, the wider Rural Services Partnership and the RSN Community Group. The organisation works with Rural England, a stand-alone CIC research group. For details, visitwww.rsnonline.org.uk.
 For more details about the Rural Conference, visit http://www.rsnonline.
 See “The worst is yet to come for the NHS – hospital chiefs” (BBC Online, 3 September 2017) http://www.bbc.co.uk/
 See “The State of Rural Services 2016” (Rural England, January 2017) https://ruralengland.
 See “Council cuts ‘threat’ to rural bus services” (BBC Online, 4 February 2016) http://www.bbc.co.uk/
 See “New research lifts the lid on the ‘hidden crisis’ of rural homelessness” (Hastoe Group, 10 July 2017) http://www.hastoe.com/
 See “Largest ever survey of crime in rural areas reveals an unprecedented £800m crime bill” (National Rural Crime Network, 15 September 2015) http://www.