12th November 2008

University of Manchester, Manchester , United Kingdom

The University of Manchester hosted the November 2008 Day Conference on the specific theme of exploring issues for the voluntary and community sector in rural areas. Thirty six people took part in what proved to be an interesting and engaging set of discussions around rurality and the VCS.

Duncan Scott, formerly from the University of Manchester, chaired the conference, kept everyone to time and guided the discussions in his inimitable style. Duncan has a longstanding interest in rural issues, from both academic and personal perspectives, including the role of voluntary and community action. He introduced the day by inviting participants to consider contrasting images of ‘rural’ as displayed by the covers of two books: “New Labour’s Countryside”, a recent collection of academic papers edited by Michael Woods, and “Two Caravans”, a novel by Marina Lewycka. The covers raise questions about how ‘rural’ is often regarded (as somewhere different or remote), and may be changing, but also how our conceptions of ‘rural’ may obscure important issues contemporary issues such as ethnicity, migration, class and differentiated rural places.

Dr Graham Gardner from Aberystwyth University gave the first paper, drawing on research focusing on the changing nature of the state in rural areas undertaken over the last decade. For this presentation, he concentrated on how some dominant conceptions of the relationship between the state and the VCS (in particular, the ‘shadow state’ thesis and ‘governmentality’) may lack an appreciation of rural context. More specifically, he argued that the relationships between the VCS and the lowest tiers of the state (for example, at parish level) were less asymmetrical than in urban areas. He illustrated this argument with empirical examples from a range of research studies, including those looking at rural governance, parish and town councils and community empowerment. He concluded that a more complex understanding of state-VCS relationships was required to embrace different local circumstances and contexts.

Roy Greenhalgh, a PhD student from the University of Southampton, then presented a paper based on his Masters dissertation focusing on micro community relationships amongst residents of a small village in Gloucestershire. The presentation was a fascinating example of social network analysis in use, with graphical displays to understand the complex connections and relationships between residents involved in three community-based activities: a village shop, a Women’s Institute committee and a Parish Council. Informed by social network and social capital theory, the study aimed to examine the extent to which and how cohesive networks can spread beyond organisational boundaries. Roy concluded that bridging does occur through some individual relationships, but there is little evidence of inter-organisational networking.

The annual general meeting of VSSN was held before lunch (AGM minutes and papers available here). In his Chair’s remarks, Peter Halfpenny welcomed the formation of two new research centres (Third Sector Research Centre and the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy), while acknowledging that the processes through which they were established had led to a certain amount of competition across the Network and the subsequent need to re-build collegiality between members. The independence of VSSN from the two centres was stressed, alongside an acknowledgement of the importance of working with them, as with all institutions engaged in voluntary sector studies. Representatives from both centres expressed their commitment to VSSN.

The afternoon papers continued the discussion on rural issues. Chris Elton, a PhD student from Sheffield Hallam University, gave a paper discussing the development and delivery of rural policy over the last 20 years, with a particular emphasis on the implications for the voluntary and community sector of redesigning rural policy. The paper provided an account of the twists and turns of policy development in terms of successive attempts to provide a coherent and integrated approach to rural issues. Chris concluded that rural policy has suffered from an unstable institutional and policy framework, and that the latest policy shift, involving attempts to ‘mainstream’ rural issues across government, may blur the distinctive identification of rural concerns.

The last paper focused on capacity building in rural areas, given by Dr Jill Mordaunt and Dr Kristen Reid of the Open University Business School. The presentation was a reflection on some emerging issues involved in supporting voluntary and community organisations in rural areas, based on an ongoing evaluation of the work of Sustainable Funding Cymru. Jill and Kristen sought feedback on how two theoretically framed issues might operate in rural areas: the skills required for building horizontal and vertical networks amongst voluntary and community organisations, and the challenge of resource acquisition, which importantly involves power and legitimacy as well as money. The presentation concluded by noting the specific challenge of capacity building in rural areas – namely working with small, thinly stretched organisations, operating within relatively closed networks, with little spare capacity to develop sustainable funding approaches.

Finally, Duncan Scott rounded the conference off with some closing remarks reflecting on some of the common issues raised by the papers, as well as some neglected avenues for further exploration. A key theme underlying much of the discussion was the nature of any difference between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’: whether, to what extent and how the experience of voluntary and community action might differ between rural and urban contexts. Some avenues for further research included the role of ideology, class and gender in rural areas, the importance of ‘goldfish bowl’ social relations and the impact of new issues relating to migrant workers and the changing demographic composition of rural areas. Overall the papers had the great value of bringing ‘rural’ into VCS studies, and more work was perhaps needed in understanding the different kinds of voluntary and community organisations operating across different ruralities.