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Developing rural services

Part 1
Local services in rural areas

The challenges


1.1. What is meant by local services in rural areas?


Local services cover a wide range of activities
that are essential to the lives of individuals
and families. Services are a key element in
maintaining communities in the rural areas
where, in general, the population density is low.
This raises questions such as service proximity
and accessibility to users, the frequency of
use, the remoteness of service providers and
competition from urban services faced by
service providers in the rural areas.


1.1.1. The range of local services

Local services refer to all services supplied directly or indirectly to individuals and/or families and which respond to individual and/or collective needs of an economic, social and cultural nature. They include:

  • basic economic services such as water and electricity supply for domestic consumption, collection of household waste, treatment of used water, etc.;
  • basic social services such as education (schools) and health care (doctors, pharmacists, hospitals, ambulance service, etc.);
  • other social services such as homehelps, support for child care, the elderly, etc.;
  • security services (police, caretakers, etc.);
  • transport services;
  • communication services (post offices, telephone services, etc.);
  • information services;
  • fixed or mobile shops (grocer’s shop, bakeries, etc.);
  • cultural and leisure services.

The various services are different in nature both in terms of the cost for the users and in terms of the providers or suppliers.

a) In terms of cost for the users, there are:

  • market services, i.e. sold at prices determined by the market;

  • market services with public authority intervention in fixing prices and ways of organising provision, e.g. the post office, pharmacy, water and electricity supply, etc.;

  • free-of-charge services financed by the public authorities, such as schools, upkeep of public roads etc.

  • services whose costs are partly subsidised by the public authorities and partly paid for by the consumer (often on a means- tested basis), such as crèches and other social and cultural services.

b) In terms of suppliers, the different types of services can be supplied by:

  • national, regional and local authorities;
  • the private sector;
  • the not-for-profit sector.

In the past, the provision of free services was the preserve of the public sector, whereas the private sector was confined to supplying market services. Today, this compartmentalisation is fast becoming a thing of the past with each of the three sectors being able to supply market services, market services with public intervention and free- of-charge services. For instance, there are now contractual arrangements for sub-contracting between the public sector and the private or not-for-profit sectors for carrying out functions which had exclusively been the role of the public sector. Furthermore, in some cases, the public sector has entered the commercial domain, providing tailored quality services that are paid for by the consumers.

This distribution of services between the three sectors varies from one country to another, depending on each individual country’s own history and traditions.

For example, community transport services may be: public but partly paid for by the consumers; public and free-of-charge; private but with public authority intervention; or of a private/commercial nature. The services can be supplied by private or public companies, associations or local authorities.

The supply-demand relationship for each of the three types of services is evolving in a different way. With regard to market (profit-making) services, supply depends, above all, on the financial solvency of the demand and on a minimum profit threshold to ensure the activity’s financial viability, in the case of shops for example.

As for market services where there is public intervention, supply corresponds to a “protected” demand and sometimes depends on a minimum financial threshold, decided on by the public authorities. For instance, the viability of a post office in an area depends on the number of users. Finally, with respect to non-market services, service provision depends on the availability of the resources to be distributed or managed for the collective well-being. In addition, service provision here also depends on a minimum threshold decided on by the public authorities. For example, the number of pupils considered as sufficient for maintaining a school, or the voluntary resources available in the case of certain cultural services.


A different sector, a different approach
Type of sector Market Non-market (non-profit making) Market with public intervention in fixing prices and modes
Evolution in the supply according to the financial solvency of demand according to a protected demand according to the availability of resources to be distributed or managed for the collective well-being
Minimum threshold financial profit threshold decided on by public authorities decided on by public authorities or depending on the volunteer resources available


Order of priority in attracting facilities,
shops and services in France

55 facilities, shops and services are classified between 1 (least frequent/widest covered area) and 9 (most frequent/smallest covered area).
Level 1:
urban centre
Level 2:
market town centre
Level 3:
Level 4:
minimum social life services
  • Hospital
  • Maternity hospital

  • Medical analysis laboratory
  • Cinema open on a regular basis
  • Large do-it-yourself shop
  • Clothes shop (for men)

    = 6 facilities/services
  • Private school
  • Music school
  • Savings bank
  • Supermarket
  • Dry cleaning shop
  • Clothes shop (women, mixed)
  • Furniture shop
  • Shoe shop
  • Camera shop

  • State school
  • Police station
  • Tax office
  • Fire brigade/emergency service
  • Retirement home
  • Solicitor
  • Banking service
  • Dentist
  • Physiotherapist
  • Veterinary surgery
  • Ambulance service
  • Retailer's shop
  • Bookshop
  • Hardware shop
  • Haberdashery
  • Household appliances shop
  • Flower shop

    = 26 facilities/services
  • Doctor Nurse Pharmacist Hairdressing saloon Taxi service

  • Petrol station Diesel station Fuel distribution

  • Post office Butchery Grocer's shop Bakery Decorator's shop General electricity Plumbing Car repair

    = 16 facilities/services
  • Masonry Carpentry Weekly religious service Daily newspaper outlet

  • Pub Tobacconist Gas distribution

    = 7 facilities/services
  • Source: INSEE and the Ministry of Agriculture (France) - Inventory conducted in 1988 at the district level (cited by Bernard Leurquin in “La France et la politique du Pays”, Syros/CNFPT, Paris, 1997)


    1.1.2 The specific feature of rural areas with regard to services

    As a result of the low levels and scattered nature of the population, services in rural areas are faced with a certain number of difficulties that are particular to rural areas.

    Certain difficulties concern the service users and are relative to:

    • proximity;
    • accessibility.

    Other difficulties are related to the suppliers of services and are linked to:

    • frequency of use;
    • isolation;
    • competition from urban services. The difficulties concerning the consumers

    a) Proximity

    The proximity of a service in rural areas is, above all, linked to how frequently it is used, i.e. on a daily, one-off or exceptional basis. People in rural areas are inclined to travel longer distances for exceptional or higher quality services. In France, for example, it is estimated that for services used everyday, consumers travel on average within a 20 minute radius, whereas for exceptional services, consumers are willing to make a journey of about one hour.

    In France, a certain order of priority given to facilities is noticeable with regard to the type of service and frequency of use, as the table below demonstrates. The most often used services manage to sustain themselves in the most isolated areas, whereas the least frequently used services have to be located in more urbanised areas in order to be viable. In this logic, the rural areas are dependent on urban centres. However, for certain services, other solutions can be envisaged as we shall see in the next chapters of this guide.

    b) Accessibility

    The problem of accessibility in rural areas is even greater than that of proximity.

    In some cases, it occurs in terms of transport facilities by which consumers can travel to service centres. From this point of view, public transport is an essential basic service. When transport facilities are not available, the only possible alternative is privately owned transport, a means that is not accessible to all groups of the population.

    In other cases, accessibility is realised through home delivery services, which entail extra costs in terms of investment for the equipment used and running and maintenance. This is the case with the supply of electricity, water and gas, post office services, telephone services, meals-on-wheels, home medical care, etc.

    Other services needed to ensure accessibility are information and communication. Through these, it is possible to find and access a service; to contact an emergency help service (by telephone or the Internet) or quickly obtain advice or information that is needed immediately.

    Transport facilities for delivering services and means of communication make it possible to push the limits of accessibility beyond proximity, that is, to make a service accessible even if the point of supply is not situated nearby. Difficulties encountered by suppliers

    a) Frequency of use

    The concentration of people in towns guarantees the services installed in urban areas a certain regularity in the flow of clients, thus facilitating return on investment both in terms of materials and human resources.

    In rural areas on the contrary, due to the low population density, services are confronted with irregular demand and must, therefore, find other ways of operating to compensate for this disadvantage, such as grouping services together or providing more than one type of service.

    Another way of overcoming this difficulty would be to increase the number of clients in order to attain a sufficient level of demand to ensure the service’s viability.

    For instance, for a service delivering cooked meals at home to be viable, it needs to produce a certain number of meals per day, which in the rural areas requires a good distribution network. This requirement can be met by supplying several types of clients e.g. school canteens, meals delivered to the homes of the elderly, etc.

    b) Isolation

    The remoteness of certain services may cause problems in terms of securing and supplying a service. A small shop in a village can, for instance, encounter difficulties in stocking certain products or goods.

    c) Competition from urban services and the cost

    Transport and communication put services in rural areas in competition with urban services. Competition is heightened by the fact that services in urban centres benefit from comparative advantages linked to the concentration of consumers. Moreover, commercial urban services in particular attract customers more easily because they are grouped together, function on a daily basis and are wider in the range of services on offer.

    This general trend compels local authorities to reflect on policies that can alleviate the problems. One of the solutions that could be investigated is the supply of rural services that are at least of an equivalent quality to that of urban services.

    In the small rural municipality of Castel San Pietro (Emilia-Romagna, Italy), the only existing school was insufficiently equipped in comparison with the schools situated on the outskirts of the nearest town. The parents gradually deserted the local school and enrolled their children in the towns schools in spite of the distance. With the support of the district authorities, the local school was restored and re-equipped. It has progressively become more popular and is now attracting not only the local village children but also the children living in some neighbourhoods close to Castel San Pietro.

    Attractive towns and market towns in the county of Aude (Languedoc- Roussillon, France)
    A line links each district to the frequently visited town

    Source: Inventaire Communal 1988
    IGN - INSEE - SCEES - 1988

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