I’M not sure I want to live in an “enclave of the affluent”. We moved house last year. It wasn’t a purposeful decision to be closer to the countryside.
It just happened that way, because the house we fell in love with happened to be in the middle of the hills and dales of the lovely Dove Valley in Worsbrough, South Yorkshire.
It certainly feels different in comparison to living in Barnsley town centre. Within 10 minutes’ walk of our house, we can be in the middle of a wood where nothing is heard but birdsong. If we look out of the window, we see the farmers in the fields starting to bring in the early harvest. All around is the landscape, shaped by our ancestors for generations. It feels rooted, somehow.
I’ve lived in towns. I’ve lived in cities. My heart, however, has always been here, watching the seasons change and the sun rise and set. That said, I’m no sentimentalist. I know that the countryside can be a brutal place.
And nowhere is it more brutal than in politics. That’s why a dozen pressure groups and organisations have come together to form the Rural Coalition, demanding that all Brexit negotiations, post-exit policies and funding is “rural-proofed” to secure a fair deal for the nine million-plus people living in the countryside.
From the National Farmers’ Union to the Town and Country Planning Association, and headed by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, the Rural Coalition sets out a number of demands. Chief amongst these is a focus on affordable housing.
This makes total sense. We can’t talk about the countryside as an abstract concept. It’s a place where people live, and not just at the weekends. Yet the sheer price of property in many rural communities is simply beyond the reach of ordinary families.
In the Yorkshire Dales, for instance, the average price for a home is now £281,374, according to property website Zoopla. This is sobering enough. Of even greater concern is the fact that this statistic represents a price rise of more than two per cent in a year. That’s why the Bishop is concerned about the “enclaves of the affluent”.
Clearly, someone has the money to buy the houses. Sadly, it is not often local people. This state of affairs is forcing first-time buyers and families away from the villages they have grown up in.
The Rural Coalition is right to call for imaginative solutions. It wants the post-Brexit world to support innovative schemes such as “community led housing”, which allows people to club together to build their own homes, to be rented in perpetuity.
This, of course, makes sense in the longer term. If generations of families can live in close proximity, strong support networks are sustained between parents, grandparents and offspring. Young people can stay close to family who may help with childcare, and older members can downsize and free up larger homes, yet remain near those who love them.
This kind of thing makes perfect sense. It can’t happen in a vacuum, however. It needs the Government to put in place organisations and processes which offer the necessary funding to get these building schemes off the ground and provide the practical support people need.
For too long now Westminster – by and large – has regarded the countryside as a place it only goes to at weekends. A lot of politicians fail to realise that rural communities have needs as complex and demanding as urban dwellers.
As Margaret Clark, chairwoman of the Rural Coalition points out, rural England is not just about farming and the environment. It is also desperately trying to address the problems which face us all.
Social care for the elderly, for example. What the Rural Coalition would like is for communities and families to be enabled to organise care for themselves and their relatives, rather than relying on ever-dwindling local authority provision. This means that volunteers must be taken seriously and woven carefully into a well-thought out plan to ensure that networks and support are there both now and in the future.
And then there is investment in shops, post offices, public houses and all the businesses which allow a community to thrive. It is understandable that with the country as a whole in such flux, those who contribute to the economy in so many rural places are worried.
That’s why Ministers should not sideline the concerns of this new group as Brexit gets underway. Every government department should listen to what it has to say, to ensure that rural infrastructure, economy, transport, housing and the rest are an integral part of the policy-making process.
England’s glorious countryside brings great joy to many people. It should also offer homes, work, schools, services and a future for anyone who chooses to live there, not just the privileged few.