The only thing neglected south of Rotherham is taste – David Behrens

I drove to my temporary bolthole past grass verges as wide as a row of back-to-backs in Barnsley. When I emerged from the car, blinking in the south-east sunlight, the scrunch of gravel beneath a thousand pairs of brogues broke through the birdsong.
Newly elected Liberal Democrat MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green is welcomed to the House of Commons by party leader, Sir Ed Davey in WestminsterNewly elected Liberal Democrat MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green is welcomed to the House of Commons by party leader, Sir Ed Davey in Westminster
Newly elected Liberal Democrat MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green is welcomed to the House of Commons by party leader, Sir Ed Davey in Westminster

This is leafy South Buckinghamshire, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills yet just off the M40 and within 15 minutes of Heathrow. It is quintessential English suburbia, and if you want to see the North-South divide at its most gaping, this is where you should come.

Oak trees mark out the property lines along the pavements, but not even the tallest can conceal the affluence beyond. Nor would their owners want them to, for this is prosperity at its most public. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

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Three or four decades ago, these houses would have been occupied by characters from an Alan Ayckbourn play – the type with a job in the City and several mistresses on the side. Today, the ownership is spread more widely, with new wealth from the Middle East and elsewhere. Yet it remains the living embodiment of Middle England.

Boris Johnson is accused of 'neglecting' the affluent SouthBoris Johnson is accused of 'neglecting' the affluent South
Boris Johnson is accused of 'neglecting' the affluent South

It is the very last place from which to mount an assault on our national values system. But that’s what seems to have happened last week when the result of a by-election ended 70 years of Conservative representation.

It’s hard to say who was more surprised by this mutiny: Boris Johnson or the Liberal Democrat beneficiary, a Welsh marketing executive named Sarah Green. Her party attributed her thumping 8,000 majority in Chesham and Amersham to the electorate having “felt neglected” by a Johnson administration obsessed with levelling-up parts of the country other than theirs.

Forgive me for not passing around the Kleenex. The relative’s house in which we’re staying while waiting for our own to be ready back in Yorkshire is on the very edge of Ms Green’s constituency. It stands in a village of some 9,000 residents, one in 10 of whom are said to be millionaires. Their detached homes – mansions and grand villas occupying plots big enough for a block of flats – line every avenue. Each one makes an architectural statement more vulgar than the last. Nearly every street is named after the Duke of Buckingham, as if the feudal system is still enforced. Perhaps it is. Neglected? The only thing overlooked here is taste.

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So the fact that the newly-constructed “blue wall” of Tory seats up North has apparently punctured the local bubble of complacency and self-entitlement must seem beyond the pale to the residents of Wentworth and Dearne near Rotherham where the Labour MP, John Healey, accused the Government this week of being dishonest in its stated wish to level up the country. Communities like his, where money was needed most, were being ignored in favour of less deprived areas, he said.

If you were to take all the voters of Chesham and Amersham to South Yorkshire on a mystery coach trip; show them the rows of modest, ordinary terraces with driveways of Tarmac, not gravel, would they still feel neglected? It would be a fascinating social experiment.

Actually, they needn’t go as far as Rotherham to find out; they could drive 10 minutes over the Berkshire border into working-class Slough, or one of the other nearby towns that are as Northern as anywhere in Yorkshire, but for their broader vowels and ruder people. Only the width of a grass verge separates the haves from the have-nots.

This disparity within a few square miles illustrates the impossibility of trying to level-up the country. You can’t make the playing field more even without flattening parts of it, and as soon as you start doing that you have a panicking electorate sending its tactical vote the Lib Dems’ way and scuttling your agenda.

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Prosperity is not just a southern phenomenon; there are plenty of posh parts of Yorkshire, and you’ll get a lot more property for your money – 
though sadly not the transport network. What you won’t get is complacency; it’s not a Northern trait. Wealth is a reward for quiet, hard work; not a medallion to wear around your neck.

Besides, the Chilterns are as flat as a Yorkshire vowel, compared to the Pennines or the North York Moors. There’s character in every hill and dale – and that, for all the money sloshing about in the Home Counties, is something you just can’t buy.

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