After 800 years, what next for country living?

Britain’s obsession with country living is understandable but unsustainable.

When one grows tired of London, one grows tired of life? That claim is increasingly failing to stand up to scrutiny. Many of the frazzled commuters battling train strikes and artisan coffee prices, secretly yearn to escape to peace and tranquility of the England’s green and pleasant land.

It’s been that way since the industrial revolution. William Morris, the home furnishing designer made his fortune by tapping into the city dweller’s mythical vision. And today’s TV schedulers have also cottoned onto that same dream with programmes showing just what you can get by flogging in Fulham.

I had the pleasure of experiencing this first-hand while house-sitting in a very splendid country village away from London for a few days recently. Like every other townie, I was soon pondering a life of fresh air, morning running through ancient woodlands and quiet pubs with open fires.

The village largely consisted of historic cottages that had originally been built for workers who dug flint out of the ground for housebuilding. Modest and quaint, most could now feature in any of the home design magazines that fill newsagents’ shelves extolling the virtues of open-range ovens and flagstone floors.

The busiest moment on the High Street was a group of cyclists meeting at the independent coffee shop. The butcher sells local farm produce and the cricket team has a splendid field of play in the middle of the village with a well-kept pavilion. What’s not to like?
Like every fairytale, there’s trouble in paradise.

A brief glance in an estate agent’s window revealed that a family home there costs £700,000. The irony being that the flint digger – or his modern equivalent – wouldn’t be able to live in it.

And there’s the rub. In no way could you describe the place as a working village. Conversations in the village’s gastro pub were with tech entrepreneurs, accountants based in the Square Mile and even a film producer.

Their concerns were familiar; the nearest hospital miles away is on the brink of collapse because of bed-blocking and fears were rife that developers will eventually “concrete over” the surrounding fields.

The dilemma is right there.

The bar staff, dog walkers, cleaners and – most important – the care staff for the retired residents of the village all live at least two towns away. Farm workers were nowhere in sight. The employees of the remaining working farms now live in the cheap part of a market town that expanded in the 60s. Unsurprisingly, none of the locals go there because of the high levels of violent crime.
The residents that do own businesses in the area revealed a struggle to hire staff because of the high cost of renting properties.

Wealth hasn’t insulated them from other problems. Those supping their flat whites after their morning ride talked of the challenges for their children: many are graduates trying to find solid work opportunities that would pay them enough to move out. They also revealed a significant drugs problem among the young people who have failed to achieve.

On local revealed that mental health issues among both these groups and other residents are common but not talked about.

The LGA and Public Health England has raised concern over health outcomes in countryside communities. They are right; there is almost no awareness about the reality of life outside of the city. The challenges are just as complex as urban areas.

That escape to the countryside looks increasingly unsustainable for older people while the social care system creaks at the seams. Sketchy provision is a critical issue. But jobs and housing are also issues that impact on our health.

Sustainability has for generations been called stewardship by the farming community. A form of community stewardship to make them sustainable for current and future generations is urgently needed. If the place has been there for 800 years, placemaking isn’t the right answer.

But a starting point would be to challenge the media myths of the countryside that exist in magazines and on the plethora of TV channels running house shows in their schedules. It’s the same challenge facing social housing – reality is very different from the view of policymakers and programme makers. Change for the better won’t happen without confronting them.

 

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