Social and Economic Overview of Rural Devon

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Devon Churches Rural Forum
Socio-economic overview by Annie Jefferies – Lay Chair of Tavistock Deanery

Devon is the third largest county in England, covering 2,534 square miles and with over 600 churches across the Diocese of Exeter. The county has a higher proportion of elderly people than the national average. It is also one of the most sparsely populated counties , with few large settlements and a dispersed rural population .The Devon population is diverse in its needs and much inequality presents in areas such as employment, social housing and general health well-being.

In the 2016 Annual Report from the Director of Public Health in Devon, Dr Virginia Pearson alluded to the fact that Religion and Beliefs are one of the factors that influence health and social care outcomes and service planning in Devon.(1)

The latest version of the Index of Multiple Deprivation for 2015 shows that just below 5% of the Devon population lived in the most deprived national quintile (one fifth). These areas include parts of Exeter, Ilfracombe, Barnstaple, Bideford, Northam, Teignmouth and Newton Abbot. While overall levels of deprivation are lower than the national average, there are aspects of rural and urban deprivation across Devon which require further exploration and understanding, especially as Devon is a largely rural county, with transport links poor and farming communities diminishing.

North and West Devon are areas of notable disadvantage due to the sparse geographical settings; this is illustrated by the fact that whilst urban areas are usually more deprived than rural areas, the rural areas surrounding many market towns are more deprived than the town itself. This applies notably around Crediton, Great Torrington, Holsworthy, Honiton, Okehampton, South Molton and Tavistock . (2)

What are the challenges for us as a Church of England in Devon?

To identify other joint agency partners who will strategically plan with us to improve the lives of all age groups across the County. For us this includes spiritual development but it can also be closely related to health, social care and police planning.
- An ageing population is growing faster than the national average. People are suffering more with obesity and immobility problems. There is a greater need for pastoral care teams who can visit people in their home environments, not just to deliver prayer and sacramental duties but to assist with increasing people’s mobility. A “walk and talk’ approach, “prayers in the park” or simply a coffee in a local café could help greatly in alleviating depression, social isolation and physical immobility.
- High levels of social isolation resulting in loneliness are also evident in younger age groups. This can particularly relate to farming communities, who do not have regular working hours and potentially are at risk of economic disaster. Homelessness and poverty are major contributing factors to despair and mental health problems.
- The growing numbers of people with people with long term conditions including physical and sensory disability, mental health problems, dementia, and childhood disabilities cause increasing concern. Safeguarding is high on the agenda for all organisations and with growing levels of severe frailty of all age groups in local communities, the Church has an important role to play.
- New towns, such as Cranbrook, and new housing developments in market towns and rural villages, offer the Church new challenges. The younger population infrastructure needs to include opportunities for young people to attend appropriate church services and more importantly to be offered the chance to assist on pastoral lay teams. Community development and team working across agencies may bring people to God, not only by making new disciples but by serving the people of Devon with joy. (3)
- Children of all ages need support and guidance. Evidence shows that rural areas with high socio economic issues, poverty, crime and homelessness are detrimental to children’s health and mental wellbeing. National statistics demonstrate that there is a gradual increase in the number of children who require special needs and statementing support in primary schools, reflected in the free school meals service and pupil premium costs. Church of England Schools have Foundation Governors appointed to provide the vital link between School and Church Community.

1. Director of Public Health Annual Report, County Hall, Devon. 2016
2. Indices of Deprivation, Joint Strategic Needs Assessment . 2015
3. Vision Strategy 2016, Diocese of Exeter