Guest Blog: Tackling rural poverty and isolation

15 March 2019

THE BACKGROUND

Most people, when talking about rural Worcestershire, Shropshire and Herefordshire, mention farming, the lovely countryside and poor amenities and public transport: few speak about the real financial hardship many people face, particularly single women in isolated areas.

Founded in 2009, and a registered charity since 2013, the No Interest Loan Scheme – or NILS – has begun to tackle this as a result of a grant from The Smallwood Trust.

Started originally in Tenbury Wells, NILS also has offices in Leominster and Ludlow and in 2018, following the grant from The Smallwood Trust, began reaching out to single women in the surrounding rural areas through its rural outreach project.

WHAT NILS DOES – AND DOESN’T DO

NILS offers a helping hand, not a hand out. We purchase essential items on behalf of clients in acute financial need who then repay us at an amount they can afford over a period of up to 2 years. We buy direct from local supplier partners who support our mission and values and who offer a supportive, respectful service to our clients, many of whom are vulnerable in terms of their physical and mental health, and in terms of where they live, often in isolated rural areas.

We do not give cash loans, we don’t charge interest, there are no arrangement fees and there are no penalties for early settlement of loans.

We provide loans for white goods, medical equipment, school uniforms and laptops, and travel passes to help people into education and employment. We don’t provide loans for mobile phones or televisions.

We stand by our values of Integrity, Inclusivity, Community and Respect and build long-standing relationships with our clients, many of whom come back to us for further loans. We offer a local, ethical alternative to store cards, payday loans and other high-interest sources of finance.

We alleviate stress and increase the sense of self-worth in our clients who feel trusted, respected and supported by NILS, while at the same time helping local independent suppliers by putting money into the local economy.

HOW THE SMALLWOOD GRANT HELPED

NILS receives no regular funding from government, local or central, and is reliant on donations from its local communities. While we realised there was a much wider need for NILS’ services, until The Smallwood Trust grant, we were restricted to operating out of our 3 town centre offices.

Since the end of last year, we have been able to take the NILS service out and about to women facing poverty and isolation in our rural communities. Our outreach team – one part-time Project Administrator funded by the grant, supported by several of our fantastic volunteers - visits community-based groups and venues, such as playgroups, community lunches and village halls, as well as linking with mainstream services and other charities, where we can take referrals directly as and when a need is identified.

HOW NILS IS HELPING TO TACKLE RURAL POVERTY

The three counties which NILS covers are characterised by polarised financial circumstances, with rural poverty and remaining largely hidden by the beautiful country homes and large-scale farms that dominate the landscape.  On the whole, rural communities are relatively affluent areas, which makes it very difficult to identify the small pockets of poverty and isolation which exist within them.

Financial stress and social isolation are known to adversely affect mental and physical health. The factors which contribute to the negative impact on the health and wellbeing of our clients in rural areas include low-paid work, unemployment, high cost of housing and fuel poverty. In addition, rural areas often suffer from lack of public transport, while poor broadband and mobile phone network availability hinder communication and access to online health services, banking, and shopping.

Our rural outreach service helps to tackle some of these issues by allowing clients to take out small loans in order to gain control of their lives and situations by providing them with a helping hand through affordable finance. We are essentially helping people to help themselves. While loans are at the forefront of our work, by forging links with charities such as The Smallwood Trust, we are also able to refer clients for grant assistance, and signpost them to services which will best fit their needs that they otherwise may not have known about, or not been able to access themselves.

In many rural communities, we see services such as post offices, village halls and local pubs are disappearing. This has a negative impact on the social aspect of people’s lives, often leading to social isolation, which we see particularly affecting the elderly.

A typical example of the NILS rural outreach project in action is where we were able to help a lady who had no way of cooking due her oven breaking. Her way of maintaining social contact was to have her family over for Sunday lunch. Without a cooker this wasn’t possible, and she had been unable to cook for herself.  Due to her low income she had no savings to purchase a new cooker,  and was unable to obtain credit via conventional sources. When NILS visited her village, she was able to quickly access a loan and a new cooker was installed within two weeks of meeting the rural outreach team and those all-important family Sunday lunches were resumed.

WHERE DOES NILS GO FROM HERE?

We are collecting anonymous data on the need for NILS among women in rural areas, and the impact our loans are having on their lives, so that we can substantiate the case for future funding of our mobile rural outreach. We are 4 months in to the project and it is already exceeding our expectations.

If any of you reading this would like to know more or explore ways in which we can work together, please do get in touch.

I look forward to updating you again later in the year.

Lisa Watkins

NILS Rural Outreach Administrator

lisa@nils.org.uk

www.nils.org.uk