Notes from the Rural Vulnerability Research Panel held on 15th January 2020

Meeting held on 15th January 2020 at 63 Bayswater Rd, London

Present:  Nicki Johnson, Stakeholder Engagement Officer, Western Power Distribution; Jo Giles, Customer Safeguarding Manager, Cadent Gas; Andy Parker, Head of Strategy & Corporate Affairs, Calor Gas; Rachel Ryan-Crisp, Vulnerability Lead & Customer Services Manager, Southern Water; Elizabeth Warwick, Stakeholder Engagement Officer, Wales & West Utilities; Nigel Winnan, Customer & Social Obligations Manger, Wales & West Utilities; Brian Wilson, Chair of Directors, Rural England CIC; Graham Biggs, Company Secretary, Rural England CIC; David Inman, Director, Rural England CIC

Apologies:  Doug Stewart, Chief Executive, Green Energy; Richard Allcock, Western Power Distribution

1. Welcome and Introduction:

Those present were welcomed and introductions were made.

2. Election of Panel Chair:

It was decided that the Panel would operate without a formal chair certainly at this time.

3. Explanation about the roles of Rural England CIC and the Rural Services Network

Graham Biggs explained the need for Rural England to be created to be able to undertake independent rural research and the link with the Rural Services Network with its representation base and role.

4. RSN Rural Vulnerability Statement Current 2020 Statement (See link)

David Inman explained the basis of the Parliamentary Rural Vulnerability day with its Research base.  He mentioned the intended Rural Vulnerability Group of MPs and as this was a representation base it would have to be a RSN activity.  It was for that reason that RSN, through its RSP Vulnerability Group, had prepared an annual statement on Rural Vulnerability.  The 2020 version was circulated to the meeting.

Link to Statement:

Following Notes covering Agenda Items 5-10

Rural England’s (RE) purpose and ways of working was outlined, as was the link with its stakeholders including the Rural Services Network.  RE’s State of Rural Services report was mentioned: 

It was noted that the word ‘deprivation’ was typically used in an urban context.  Vulnerability was felt to be more appropriate to describe rural issues (as well as being the word that is used by the utilities sector).  It was also noted that indicators, such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation, did not work well in a rural context, where needs were usually geographically scattered.

For the utility companies, delivering services and anxious to support their vulnerable customers, there can be compounding rural factors.  These were not necessarily well understood.

The companies present confirmed their commitment, in principle, to a three year research programme with RE.  As things stood, there was £19,200 available for research in 2020/21 and £17,200 available for the two following years.  It was agreed that ‘research’ could include things such as running workshops to gather real life experiences and that some of the budget could be used for research dissemination activity.  It was important to be clear about target audiences from the start.

If possible, it would be interesting to have a telecoms network provider involved with the Panel.  That could add a new dimension.  Industry bodies, such as Energy UK and Water UK, were discussed, but on balance it was felt they should not be invited to join the Panel.

The group discussed generally potential topics or approaches for the research.  There was, for example, potential an interest in:

  • Safeguarding issues in rural areas;
  • Decarbonisation and SMART futures (including for off grid customers);
  • The perspective of carers who support vulnerable customers;
  • Producing a baseline report of the existing rural vulnerability evidence;
  • Seeking to track changes/trends in rural vulnerability from year to year.

It was noted that RE was already planning a (stage one) project on the rural implications of net zero using funding provided by Calor.  The University of Gloucestershire, with whom RE has good links, has indicated that it may be able to manage a stage two or follow-up project.  This is due to be discussed with them.  That should provide some findings of interest to this group.

Having discussed options, the group decided that the first piece of research (for 2020/21) should seek to surface and explore through a more “deep dive” approach vulnerability issues faced by some of their rural customers, which are likely to vary for electricity, gas and water.  This should highlight any specific rural aspects and identify some lessons for the support that utility providers (and partner organisations) offer to vulnerable customers – what are the gaps in current support?  This should look at different types of vulnerable customer and should recognise different types of rural settlement or area.

At the core of this research would be events and workshops with customers that explored real experiences seeking to establish what vulnerability in a rural area means in practice in the experience of customers.  However, the research should use statistics and other evidence to provide context.  The project should also include workshops or interviews (as appropriate) with some carers – both paid and unpaid (from which case studies could be produced if the customer was happy in that regard).  As well as considering recent/current experience, the research should give some consideration to upcoming issues, such as the impacts for rural customers of the switch to low carbon and SMART metering. The thrust of the activity from the utility provider perspective is “what are the issues in the rural context? how can we help? how do we ensure Vulnerable rural customers are not left behind?”

Panel members noted that their companies held a considerable amount of research and data already (albeit not rural specific) and there were online data tools to aid analysis.  They would send through links for these to David Inman.  More detailed data from the companies might be made available in due course.

RE would circulate a note from this meeting by the end of January, to ensure that the decision about research in 2020/21 had been accurately captured.  A first draft of the research brief would then be produced by the end of February, for comment.  Another meeting of this Panel would be called for April to sign off the project.  The group was happy for this to be a face-to-face meeting in London.  However, it was noted that some future contact could make use of remote access facilities.

This note has now been circulated and can be downloaded here

11. Any Other Business