The quality of life is better in a rural village, people say. There are undoubtedly some advantages: the children can play outside in the street, the air is pure, you are close to nature, you know who grew the tomatoes in your salad, you know your neighbours... but village life in 2021 can also mean someone having a heart attack and the ambulance taking half an hour to get there (if you're lucky and it is not out on another emergency). Or not having access to a bank or cash machine. Or your children going to school by bus every day, along a dangerous road. Or needing a car to go anywhere or do anything. Does all that sound like quality of life?
The pandemic has led many people to long for rural life, but the attractions of small villages are outweighed by a long list of inconveniences because so many services have been lost. Villages have no weapons to fight depopulation. Initiatives to attract inhabitants and employment, from cultural and artistic programmes to tax incentives or grants, can have no more than a modest effect when there is a lack of basic services such as healthcare, education, banking and transport.
A study carried out by the Valencian Economic Research Group (IVIE) in 2019 shows that the progressive disappearance of services is beginning to create situations of "vulnerability" for the residents of small villages, who now have to spend at least 20 minutes getting to the nearest health centre, school or bank and even 45 minutes to reach a hospital. The situation is especially worrying in the Axarquía and Serranía areas of Malaga province.
According to the study, 28 villages in Malaga have no bank. Since 2008, the province has lost more than half its branches, the number of places without a bank has increased by 133 per cent and more than 19,000 people now have no access to banking services.
The study looked at how long it takes someone who lives in a place with no bank to get the nearest one. The national average is 10.6 minutes, but Malaga has the highest rate in Spain: 17.8 minutes.
With regard to healthcare, no village in the province lacks this altogether but 74 of Malaga's 103 municipalities have no health centre, just a surgery that normally opens for a few hours on two or three days a week.
The IVIE shows that 16 towns or villages have no infant or primary school, although all of them apart from Cútar have at least one classroom at a rural school, shared by several municipalities. In 28, there is no secondary school.
The report did not look at public transport, but this is a major source of complaint for the residents of small villages. In many cases there is only one bus a day.
Alleviating the problem
Natacha Rivas is the delegate for depopulation at the Diputación, the provincial government. She says the lack of facilities is just one of the reasons it is difficult to attract people to live in these places.
"Job opportunities are even more important. If there is work and people come, services will be reinstated," she said.
Communications are also essential. "This year we are starting to improve the roads between villages, to reduce the time people have to spend getting to the bank, the doctor or the school," she said. "And let's not forget digital communications. We are talking to the operators about that."
In the Serranía, the Diputación is also organising transport so that elderly people can get to the nearest banks. And in Cútar and Júzcar there is a pilot project so people can withdraw cash at pharmacies.
The mayor of Genalguacil, Miguel Ángel Herrera, is highly critical of the way small villages have been abandoned.
"We are the victims of the dismantling of services in villages and centralising all of them in the big towns. When it comes to giving out money, the administrations only think in terms of population numbers, and of course, votes," he said.
Herrera has no faith in the projects announced by the Diputación to combat depopulation.
"I only believe in the budget. When we receive 500,000 euros instead of 300,000, then I'll believe it. They are just doing more studies. I'd rather they stopped carrying out studies and repaired our road instead," he said.