Colin Speakman: Yorkshire Dales braced for difficult times as Brexit looms

WE lived in the village of Grassington for about 10 years. We well remember how beautiful the Dales are in those few magical days after Christmas and into the New Year when most visitors have gone home '“ the soft winter light, the outline of trees against what are often snow-covered fell tops.

What will life be like for the Yorkshire Dales in 2018?
What will life be like for the Yorkshire Dales in 2018?

I especially remember the warmth and friendliness of local people. We could rarely cross Grassington’s little cobbled market place without meeting a friend or neighbour and exchanging a greeting. We were truly part of a community.

But what does 2018 offer people in the Yorkshire Dales? Behind doors in even the prettiest of villages, life can be tough for some – for families and individuals on low incomes, or with a disability.

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It is easy to imagine that as events unfold towards Brexit-day in March 2019, whether offered a hard or soft divorce from our European neighbours, life for many people in the Dales could get harder. Hill farmers face both a loss of guaranteed CAP payments and access to vitally important mainland European markets, and threat of cheap lamb and beef imports from America and New Zealand.

We shall also lose many major EU-financed funding packages which have brought jobs and prosperity to many regions of England, including rural Yorkshire. Who can have confidence that money saved from withdrawal from the EU will be spent by a London-centred Government anywhere outside the favoured Home Counties?

The Yorkshire Dales also has an ageing population. Cuts in social services, health and care budgets affect rural communities especially hard. As people age, driving becomes more of a challenge at the very time bus services are being slashed. Whilst community groups such as the Upper Wharfedale Venturer and Little White Bus are doing magnificent work, replacing paid drivers with volunteers is a far from ideal solution. The truth is that far less people now travel on fragmented weekday minibus services in than in the days of full size vehicles on through services which had greater capacity for summer visitors.

Given this situation, it is great news that that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is to pursue vigorous policies to create more affordable homes for local people, even if it means restricting second home ownership for outsiders. Contrary to popular perception, there are ample brownfield sites, or areas around market towns and larger villages, where houses can be built with minimal impact on the wider landscape of the National Park.

The year ahead may not be all bad news for people and businesses in the Dales. If Britons can no longer afford to fill their homes with cheap imports from abroad and overseas holidays are less affordable, more people will take their holidays in the Yorkshire Dales. Hoteliers and restaurants may have difficulties in attracting cheaper East European labour, so wages will have to rise to attract local youngsters.

Again, if more affordable housing is made available, reducing the need for people to travel, this will help the labour market, as would restoring local bus services. Local business sponsoring bus services may be necessary to bring workers both from within and to the Dales to where they are needed. Broadband is also critical in allowing Dales businesses small and large to flourish.

What people in the Dales have in abundance is resilience. Hill farming communities are tough, adaptable people, who over centuries have learned to survive in difficult economic conditions.

Self-help and good neighbourliness allow people to cope even on low incomes. But equally there must be awareness that for many people, rural isolation can mean loneliness and depression. Politicians, locally and nationally, need to recognise that self-help can only go so far. Local schools and services need to be supported to provide the essential services an ageing community will increasingly need.

Rural transport is critical. It must be more than a basic minimum offered by volunteers, but in larger villages and market towns should be regular and affordable with modern vehicles offering adequate space for luggage, buggies and wheelchairs, linked to the national rail network.

Farmers need to be supported to diversify towards new high and added-value food crops. Cheese making, high-quality beef and lamb, vegetable, fruit and salad crops, can all help core farm businesses in a post-Brexit environment. Creative arts can also add value to the tourism experience as can Dales-based Arts Festivals which, in differing ways also create wealth.

So even in this darkest time of the year, with unprecedented challenges ahead, the Yorkshire Dales are well placed to survive and even prosper in 2018 and beyond.

Colin Speakman is an author and vice president of the Yorkshire Dales Society.