For several years, everyone from bloggers to singer-songwriters to MPs have been desperately trying to draw attention to the increasingly desperate situation in the beleagured English countryside. But every so often, articles such as this one on the BBC website from late last week emerge, and each one appears to treat the situation like it’s news, or something new.
Perversely and hilariously avoiding the titles of ‘England’ and ‘English’ wherever possible- even though using ‘British’ actually misrepresents the content of the article- the article draws attention to the fact that ‘rural life is dying’. I can’t read the words without detecting a subtext of shock. As if this is something new. Few recognise the sheer scale of the incompetance or wilful ignorance of successive governments stretching back to the 1960s, of the devastation and havoc wreaked on our countryside, of the desperate situation of all the pretty little villages and their inhabitants.
Attempting to quantify cataclysmic loss through the lifeless language of statistics has its drawbacks, but the figures are still stark. The article recounts the fact that 893 pubs closed last year, and goes on to state that
“… about 400 village shops closed in 2008, while in England, between 1997 and 2008, rural schools shut down at the rate of one a month.”
Even the most superficial analysis of these statistics could paint a picture. The loss of such fundamental totems of English country life, of these institutions that communities have been centred around for a substantial portion of the history of this nation can only have led to a total change in the way in which our countryside works. It has.
It is not difficult to look at these statistics and suggest that what we are looking at is an abandonment of the countryside on a scale not seen since Victorian London emptied its satellite counties of their workforces before swallowing and refilling them with buildings. It is entirely plausible to suggest that this history will repeat itself, as the new identikit, heartless suburbs swallow vast swathes of England’s countryside.
These suburbs are deadly on more than one level. Not only do they obliterate the entire fragile system of town and village life, they swell the glut of housing that ‘historic locals’ cannot afford. They add to the swathes of housing purchased in rural areas by hugely affluent City workers and their ilk that is now substantially out of the reach of young people in rural areas, and in addition to a critical lack of jobs, further reduce the viability of living in villages. Indeed, the article makes clear the fact that
“… the closures reflected a declining demand for services in villages where local families had been priced out of the area by wealthy commuters, pensioners and second-home owners.”
And so it goes on. And on. What the article reveals are the symptoms of problems that have been affecting England’s countryside for decades. We are, in fact, almost too late to rectify the situation.
Articles such as this provide us with a stark insight into the danger of our national identity crisis. Not only do we take for granted what makes us who we are, but we somehow manage not to know what we stand to lose. Every English person holds a rural idyll sacred. They dream of watercolour scenery, of simplistic life, of unbreakable community in its old-fashioned, organic sense free of state sponsorship or pure synthesis, of an earthy honesty that is long-dead in the spheres of concrete and brick. They dream of an imaginary ‘elsewhere’, of a Real England that is, in reality, on its knees. They do not see the closed schools, the derelict pubs, the boarded-up Post Offices. They never hear of them.
“No-one marched or subsidised
To save a country way of life…”
Show of Hands
One wonders if, among all the bluster about ‘swingeing cuts’ and the ‘damage’ it will do to public services et al, anyone will spare a thought for how funding cuts could be to still further detriment to our rural communities. Or of how many times they have been passed over for affordable housing. Or of married couples sleeping on floors because they can’t afford a house in their own town. Or the bitter irony of how the second-home paradise of Cornwall has to rely on EU funding to drive its economy as, as the only place in the UK of its ilk, it loiters below 70% GVA.
Local Government Minister Bob Neill said that as well as making rural communities able to preserve their pubs, the new government had already axed cider tax and was stopping below-cost sales of alcohol by supermarkets.
Fascinating. Perhaps Neill is alluding to the kind of co-op system pioneered by the residents of Caldbeck Fells in Cumbria, who saved their local pub, the Old Crown, from the clutches of developers and generopub suits (as featured in Paul Kingsnorth’s excellent book Real England). Even so, the naivety of this statement is staggering. Saving our countryside will take a substantial amount more than a cider tax cut and a slap on the wrists of the supermarket juggernauts that have nearly eradicated the individuality of English towns from Northumberland to Land’s End. Perhaps it is a token effort to atone for years of Conservative ineptitude and the fact that in chasing inner-city Labour seats and lavishing fortunes on foreign aid and perpetuating the leftist multicultural doctrine, the Conservatives have entirely forgotten their most reliable and solid voting bloc.
We must take real action now. We must be uncompromising and steadfast in protecting what is ours. There is too much to lose not to. Write to your MP. Start petitions. Force the hand of self-serving councils. We must make our voices heard about these matters. If we do not, we will lead our mystified children around ghost towns and have nothing to say about the people who used to live here or what they did, and how they made us who we are.