FOR many households across Scotland, dealing with the cost of living crisis has meant tighter budgets and shopping around for the best bargains.

But for those living in rural and island communities, a lack of choice over where to buy everyday essentials means the soaring price of food is having even more of an impact.

On the Isle of Bute - aside from local shops - there are two supermarkets, both of which are run by the Co-op.

A brief comparison shows prices at the store can be higher than at other retailers on the mainland, with four pints of semi-skimmed milk costing £1.75, compared to £1.55 in Morrisons and Asda. A 200g jar of Nescafe Gold Blend is £8.85 – more than £2 than an offer price of £6 in Asda.

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“It’s as cheap for us to go off island even paying the ferry fare and do our shopping, as it is to shop on the island,” one resident said.

A report from the Scottish Government two years ago found that weekly food costs are up to 13% more for island communities and up to 4% higher in remote rural Scotland, compared to urban areas in the UK.

Professor Cesar Revoredo-Giha, senior economist at Scotland’s Rural College, has carried out research prior to the cost of living crisis looking at whether there is a “remoteness premium” when it comes to food prices in rural areas.

He found comparisons of a basket of the same products were slightly higher in statistical terms in rural areas compare to urban location– but in practice they were “basically the same”.

But he said: “However something that matters is things like having availability of products - in that sense it matters whether you have access to particular supermarkets or not. That changes the comparison.”

The research suggested that people in remote areas are “outshopping” – going to stores outside their local area – but Revoredo-Giha pointed out this could mean incurring extra travel costs.

He also pointed out that even if prices remain largely the same across the country, it would have more of an impact on people in rural areas who tend to have lower incomes.

“In terms of the cost of living, the pressures are not just prices it is incomes,” Revoredo-Giha said.

“If you look at Switzerland, the place is more expensive than Belgium. But if the incomes are high enough to pay the prices in Switzerland, there’s no problem.

“If people in remote areas have incomes that are lower and the prices are the same, you have a problem of purchasing power in remote areas.”

When it comes to solutions to the issue, he said one consideration could be a type of “weighting allowance”, similar to that often offered for London jobs.

“Right now when you work in London, when you see all the adverts about jobs in London, there is an extra amount of money paid because of the expenses in London,” he said.

“You could have that for rural areas- but the question is who will pay that. If it is your personal decision to live in a remote area, your company will not pay you that.

“Of course it is a matter for the company that wants you to be in a remote area to pay the initial cost of living there.

“On the other hand if the government wants those remote areas to be sustainable, there may be a way that it could to subsidise or give incentives to compensate for the less number or variation in supermarkets.”

Andy Newing, associate professor in applied spatial analysis at the University of Leeds, said research looking at boom in online grocery deliveries during the pandemic had highlighted the geographical inequalities in the provision of these services.

“We were only able to obtain data on the major players in this market - the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Ocado and so on, who essentially are trying to have a near national coverage, they're not regional players,” he said.

“But essentially we found that if you an urban area or an accessible rural area - suburban and rural fringe, commuter belt - then generally, you're incredibly well served.

“All of the major players typically provide delivery coverage to those areas, as do the likes of Ocado and other sort of urban focused players in this market, such as Iceland.

“So if you live in an urban area, generally you've got a choice of provider, and that typically means that you get a choice of delivery slots or delivery windows and that competition between retailers hopefully keeps service levels and customer satisfaction higher and prices lower.”

But he added: “When you get into those more remote rural areas and including sort of market towns here as well, but particularly in your context, those Scottish islands and so on, your grocery retail supply side is much more limited.

“You've generally only got one or two of the major players who are actually providing delivery coverage, and to neighbourhoods or areas that are remote from their stores the actual availability of delivery slots might be quite limited.

“So although in theory they deliver to a particular postcode because of that supply demand imbalance and because of the distances that vehicles need to travel to deliver those orders, the actual number of delivery slots or for some retailers, the cost of those delivery slots might actually act as a barrier and mean that the provision of that service is not so good.”

Newing said online grocery deliveries could particularly be a lifeline for older people living in rural communities who are “ageing in place”, who had previously lived a healthy active life but were now finding it harder to reach all types of services.

He added: “From a social good perspective, we would all want retailers to do more, but ultimately, they have to be driven by where the demand is.”

The Co-op said prices were consistent across stores in Scotland.

A spokesperson said: “Whilst we do not pass these costs onto our members and customers, it is true to say that transport and delivery costs to our convenience stores in rural and island areas are significantly higher compared to mainland locations.

“However, we absorb these as part of the cost of serving rural and island communities, a responsibility we take very seriously.”

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The spokesperson added: “In the past 12 months, Co-op has significantly invested into prices to reduce the cost of key lines in stores to help its members and customers during the cost-of-living crisis.

“Products included in this price investment include everyday lines such as fresh chicken breasts, bread and milk.

“Additionally, we’ve created more value for shoppers through our member prices launch in April, to help our members save more when shopping in our stores.

“Some price rises are inevitable because of higher costs for our supplies and our own network, from rising commodity costs, wage rises and increased shipping costs.

“However, we continue to work closely with our suppliers to create efficiencies and keep costs down during a challenging inflationary period.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scottish Ministers recognise the pressure on household budgets and have allocated almost £3 billion, both last year and this, to support policies which tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible during the ongoing cost of living crisis.

“In 2022-23 this included an additional £1.8 million for food groups – including projects supporting rural and island communities - and an extra £2.5 million for the Scottish Welfare Fund.

“We know that there are particular and distinct challenges, barriers and opportunities for rural and island communities.

“We will continue to identify, develop and deliver place-based solutions that mitigate the detrimental impacts of rising food costs and help communities to navigate the challenges that they face.”