The Pains of Rural Poverty Are Very Real

05/12/2013 11:43 GMT | Updated 03/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Sherborne is a postcard of upper and middle-class tranquillity in Dorset. Famous for its historic abbey and private schools. But Sherborne is a Potemkin town. Look beyond the superficiality and the poverty is very real. You simply need to wonder past the high-street and the often ignored 'Big Issue' sellers to find the local Citizens Advice Bureau.

This rural CAB has seen an increase of clients this year (with over 2,000 unique visitors) and 46 per cent of cases revolve around benefits (e.g. pension credit, jobseeker's allowance, disability living allowance and housing benefit).

Nor is Sherborne immune from the crisis of falling living standards and unaffordable rents. For example, single-room properties can cost £300-£400pcm. Some letting agencies openly discriminate against housing benefit claimants by displaying 'no DSS' on adverts.

Welfare reform has made the system more confusing and the bureau finds many clients struggling to adapt. For those trying to find work, the stigma of benefits is rife, as the divisive rhetoric of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor remains strong in a traditional Tory heartland.

Last year, the town's first foodbank was established by the local church, and it is maintained by volunteers.

Rather uniquely for this part of Dorset, Sherborne CAB has a specialist caseworker to help clients with mental health problems. A majority of who need help claiming employment and support allowance (ESA) or disability living allowance (DLA).

Within the first few years of this project, nearly 150 clients received help with benefits and debt. However, 54 clients needed assistance with the appeals process to claim the most basic of benefits.

One of their biggest successes was helping a client called Charlie who has 'treatment-resistant' schizophrenia receive the correct level of DLA.

Charlie was originally placed in the work-related activity group for ESA, which meant trips to his nearest jobcentre to discuss a 'return' to work. As he was claiming the lowest rate of DLA, his father was unable to claim carer's allowance and was required to look for work.

But caring for his son was a full-time job and looking for anything else became impossible.

Thanks to his local CAB, Charlie is now in the ESA support group where is he not required to attend jobcentre meetings. Moreover, his rate of DLA was increased, which meant his father was able to successfully claim carer's allowance.

As a bureau, Sherborne can arrange home visits for clients who are unable to visit due to ill health or a lack of public transport. Specialist cancer and debt caseworkers are available on certain days of the week. Not only that, the service to clients remains dignified and bound by the common thread of empathy.

However, no Citizens Advice Bureau is government funded. Any money comes from fundraising or grants from external sources. Cuts have created another race to bottom for charities and organisations as more and more chase fewer funding options.

As a result, Sherborne CAB has lost one mental health outreach facility and its projects will need to find new funding avenues in the future. However, on a brighter note, a merger of Dorchester and Sherborne Citizens Advice has helped them re-allocate some funds to their front-line services.