Without schools or medical centers: the problem of basic services in unpopulated areas


Access to services is a key aspect in the welfare society. Quality depends on the capacity we have to guarantee that basic services, such as education, health and commerce and banking, reach everyone in an adequate way.

The concepts of threshold and scope explain the distribution of goods and services in the territory. The threshold refers to the demand necessary for a certain service to be profitable in a location, while the scope is the distance that the demand is able to cover to reach a service. The combination of both concepts prioritizes the specialization of services on the territory, with population and distance as fundamental variables.

The consequence translates into two problems: cost and territorial imbalance. The latter raises structural difficulties that have to do with the growing gap between urban and rural spaces, where the contrast is increasing, consequently increasing costs and progressively aggravating the problem.

The situation of services in unpopulated areas

In health, more than 75% of Spanish municipalities do not have a basic care center . Of these, more than half are more than 30 minutes from a hospital. We are talking about around 5 and a half million inhabitants without direct access to a basic health service, and about 4 million inhabitants more than 30 minutes away from a specialized service.

In education, more than 40% of municipalities do not have second cycle or primary pre-school education, but the incidence is 500,000 inhabitants, reflecting the low proportion of young people in the rural world. In secondary education there are more than 3 million students who do not have a center in the town where they reside.

The affected municipalities are preferably located in the northern half of the peninsula, in inland areas and far from the main provincial capitals. Castilla y León, Aragón and Extremadura, together with Castilla-La Mancha and peripheral areas of Andalusia and the Cantabrian coast are the spaces that show these deficits in access to services.

The challenge of sustaining basic services is joined by private divestment, with the exclusion of banking as a more recent and obvious consequence , not only from the point of view of the individual client, but also due to the lack of financial services to local companies. The increased use of digital banking has driven this process, which negatively affects access to personalized services in the rural productive fabric.

Technology, infrastructure and mobility: challenges and solutions

In a context in which the withdrawal of facilities and infrastructure is the general trend, the solution that appears is the increase in rural mobility. This is far from ideal, as it increases dependence on the private vehicle.

Transport by own car is the most flexible and viable alternative, public transport services are also scarce, with long connection times and frequent waits.

The problems can be summarized in three:

  • Service areas : rural areas are generally large surfaces with long distances and many stops, which raises problems related to the articulation of effective routes.
  • Coordination of services: public services tend to be articulated with different logics and from different decision areas. This generates logics that sometimes overlap or exclude each other, causing significant coordination and service provision challenges.
  • Infrastructures: there is a deficit in quantity and quality, both in physical transport and in terms of communications.

The solutions go through two paths. On the one hand, there is the role of information and its development in applied demand information systems. Second, the use of technologies that support flexible transport services that are adaptable to rural demand . Examples of these technologies are high-capacity internet access, smart phones, and retrofitted computers.

However, the different levels of adaptation and the capacity to use technology cause difficulties of use, especially in communities vulnerable to digital exclusion due to age, gender and training. We are faced with a paradox in which the solution further emphasizes the problem and access to health, educational and commercial services is exacerbated by the so-called digital divide.

Technologies offer solutions that reduce the impact of non-provision of services, but do not replace them. Examples such as real-time information on routes and itineraries, intelligent collective transport systems (transport on demand, shared vehicles) are alternatives, but there must be a minimum allocation and a response from the administrations.

Despite these possibilities, the reality is that their deployment in rural settings is still quite limited , when in urban spaces they have become common. Again, the contrast is remarkable.

If we are committed to maintaining services in rural areas, we have to talk about the professionals who work there. They usually travel from other areas (urban) and offsetting their income in relation to distance is a way of setting their destination in the towns.

Commitment to unpopulated areas

Given this situation, it would be important to have, in the first place, a broad agreement that recognizes the problem and understands access to goods and services as a state priority. In recent years there has been talk of a State pact in this regard, but it does not seem to be on the agenda in the short and medium term.

Urban society, far from this problem, should increase sensitivity and commitment to this situation. It is necessary to build solutions from the conviction that the territorial justice of the new European Territorial Agenda 2030 speaks of functional and balanced spaces, with less difference between territories of the Union, but this inevitably involves an awareness on the part of the majority of the population that neither perceives nor experiences this problem.

Author Bio: Héctor S. Martínez Sánchez-Mateos is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Castilla-La Mancha