Countryside in crisis: why rural Britain needs a new deal

Countryside in crisis: why rural Britain needs a new deal

From the high ridge of Whitcliffe Scar on the north-eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales, it is hard to escape the idea that all looks right with the world. From this vantage point the eye travels west up the deep Swaledale valley, with the late-afternoon sun falling on woodland and fields of sheep, and to the west to the market town of Richmond, where the dale meets the lowlands. Along the valley floor there are occasional glints of the meanders of the river Swale itself and, in among the valley folds, villages and farms and hamlets, like outcrops of local stone.

This view has barely changed for centuries – but this is also a landscape that is not immune to the current crisis facing rural communities.

The contours of that crisis were set out in two reports published in the past week. The first came from the campaigning group, the Rural Coalition, which unites representatives of a dozen agencies as diverse as the National Farmers Union, the Church of England (in the form of the bishop of St Albans) and the Town & Country Planning Association.

In a pointed letter to the Times, the coalition declared that: “More than nine million people live and work in rural England, yet their concerns are in danger of being squeezed out if Brexit discussions focus only on agriculture and the environment.”

The effects of austerity and corporate cost-cutting had already decimated vital rural services, it argued, “risking rural communities becoming enclaves only for the wealthy”.

Talking to various members of that group, you get a feel for the range of different perspectives, but also of the shared insistence that Brexit will not just affect the countryside in terms of a withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy and related regulation and subsidy, but is also likely to bring to a head issues concerning the fabric of rural life that have long been unravelling.

Minette Batters, a dairy farmer and eloquent deputy president of the NFU, admits that the strands of that fabric are necessarily hard to separate out. Although she had reservations about European Union policy, she was not in favour of Brexit; even so, she says: “Now has to be a moment to say what road do we want the rural economy to be on in the next five, 10 years? And how are we going to get there?’

“Do we want the countryside just to be a national park and import our food from elsewhere or do we want it to be full of thriving communities that can be a productive part of the economy?”

Beyond agriculture there are many other elements to these challenges – transport infrastructure to remote areas, broadband services (“worse than in parts of Africa in many places”, Batters suggests), and support for small businesses – but at the root of many of them, as in the urban landscape, are questions of affordable housing. If the productive part of the population cannot afford to live here, how can any opportunities take root?

In Richmondshire, which includes Swaledale, the average house price is £228,000, but the average local household income is £22,000. In many villages the problem of access to affordable housing is exacerbated by the demand for second homes. One result of that is that only 16% of the population of these dales are aged 19 or under – half the proportion of that age group who lived here at the start of the 1980s.

Across North Yorkshire the local authority is at pains to address this, though progress is limited. The policy is to double the rate of housebuilding and triple the rate of affordable housing. Sarah Hall manages this strategy. Last year the ambition was to get 100 new affordable homes across the whole area and 174 were completed. Meanwhile, however, Hall points to “thousands and thousands” of people and families on the waiting list for social housing.

At the sharpest end of those statistics are those identified in the second report, which came out last week from the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, which exposed the growing reality of rural homelessness and detailed how the promotion of the countryside as a “rural idyll masked households at risk of becoming homeless or already without a roof over their heads”. From 2010 to 2016, “rural” local authorities recorded a 32% rise in homelessness.

Though there is a small but growing number of rough sleepers in Richmondshire, Hall suggests that of equivalent concern are the “concealed households with people still living with family or mum or dad” with all the related difficulties that brings.

The Rural Coalition wants at least 7,500 affordable houses for young families to be built per year to reverse this trend. Paul Miner of Campaign to Protect Rural England argues that, with concerted policy action, “a commonplace sight in the countryside could be thriving communities boosted by new affordable homes”.

Looking out from Whitcliffe Scar, the only evidence of that particular hope is one small development of houses on the opposite flank of the valley. This building plot of three new homes in local stone is in the village of Hudswell. In some ways the tiny development reveals both the scale of the challenge, and also the power of localised solutions. In the whole of North Yorkshire, these are the first houses being built by a village for people with connections to the village.

Hudswell presents a microcosm of some of the issues that the Rural Coalition highlights – and perhaps a path to some solutions. It is a ribbon settlement village with a population of 220. One side of the road is under the jurisdiction of the local authority, the other of the national park.

In the garden of the George and Dragon, Paul Cullen, an independent councillor here for three decades, and fellow villager Ron Lightfoot explain to me the history of those challenges.

Cullen dates the start of the housing problems to the 1980s. “This used to be a typical dales village with a mixed population,” he says, “with people who lived here and worked in farming, or in manual jobs at the Catterick army base.” That changed when the Tories’ right to buy scheme saw the village’s council housing sold off at a 60% discount for £18,000. Leon Brittan, Margaret Thatcher’s home secretary, was the local MP.

“We met him in the village hall in Leyburn to protest about the sale, and the fact that the money wasn’t going to be allowed to be used to build any more houses for local families,” Cullen recalls. “Brittan said words to the effect ‘I know what you are saying, but when it comes down to it I’m a minister in this government, so sod you lot.’”

In Hudswell there had been 14 council houses, half which were home to young families, with a total of 25 children. After the houses were sold, “all of those kids had to move out of the village,” Lightfoot says, “because there was nowhere for them to live here”.

That shift led to other inevitable changes. Private housing in the village back then was worth about £100,000 in today’s terms. Now some properties go for £300,000 or £400,000. The population aged, and amenities went one by one. “A village needs a school, a shop, a post office and a pub.” All of them went. The school closed in the absence of young families. The shop and post office went.

The last thing to go, in 2008, was the pub, the George and Dragon, when during the financial crisis the then owners – the 20th set since Cullen arrived in the village – overreached themselves with a loan. The suspicion was that the pub would go the same way as many other watering holes in the county. It would be boarded up for a couple of years, at which point its licence would be removed and it would be sold as a private residential property.

“It’s like at night now,” Cullen says, “if you go into a village you look for a light, and if it isn’t there the village is dead. All the people are commuting to wherever or they are second homes, and they come in at night and close the door and that’s it.”

It was after the pub had been closed for some months that Cullen, Lightfoot and others first floated the idea of the community buying it themselves. At first, people said: “Buy the pub?” Eventually though, with no sign of a buyer and the prospect of the pub closing for good, they made an offer and hastily worked out a finance model. Two hundred people, nearly all local to the village, bought a share, with a guaranteed interest rate of 3%. The average investment was £1,200.

The directors of the village pub company, including Cullen and Lightfoot, leased the building to the current landlords, Stuart and Melissa Miller, initially at £10,000 a year (the same they had been paying for a one-bed flat in Islington.) The pub, which has gardens running down to the Swale, also houses a shop staffed by villagers, a library service and allotments. This year the Millers’ efforts have seen the George and Dragon named national Camra pub of the year.

The idea of a community-run asset also gave the residents a proper taste for the possibilities of cooperative action. Ironically the vitality of the pub exacerbated the other problem facing the the village – the absence of affordable housing. Its popularity as a community hub made house prices rise even further.

In response, the villagers have worked out a way of adapting the model to create six community houses in the village, three completed and three now being built.

Hudswell had a bit of a head start. A charitable foundation already existed in the village, founded in the 1600s by a local landowner to provide books for the school and coal for the poor. The legacy also included two fields.

Two of the prime movers of the pub scheme, Martin Booth and Annie Sumner, took on the challenge of using that charity to create a housing scheme that would work for young local families. They applied for supplementary funding from a new government grant to support community housing projects.

Booth explained how, crucially, the local involvement overcame certain problems that had seemed intractable: national park planning regulations made it very difficult for developers to come into the village and impose housing, and the village didn’t want to allow a housing association to build new homes only for them to be sold off again under the current government’s extended right-to-buy policy. So they decided to build themselves, and keep the houses in the ownership of the village charity in perpetuity.

The three new homes will be completed in October; applications from young families with connection to the village have already been submitted.

Not surprisingly, given the scale of the housing problems facing rural communities, the local authority is attempting to seed the model in other villages. So far, Hall says, they have identified 12 possible locations. “In terms of opposition to development and planning it makes it easier,” Hall says, “and if the village is involved it can be easier to find land. The really hard part, though, is getting the volunteers to take the lead on it.”

Increasingly, it seems, this latter aspect is a crucial divide in these communities. The realisation has long dawned on them that the council will not do the things that the council once did. “They keep telling us – and you have to believe them – that they just don’t have the money,” Lightfoot says. The far-flung villages of the dales used to have a bus service, subsidised to the tune of £60,000 a year. That money has been cut completely and a bus service is now run entirely by a network of 40 local volunteer drivers. Libraries have all gone and are also now voluntarily run.

These local initiatives are a desperate kind of riposte to what Cullen suggests have for too long been the priorities of governments, local and national. “For 30 years in these kinds of places people have wanted to organise everything for the convenience of the bloke with the big expensive house and three cars,” he says. “We really have to start organising things more around kids here who need a bus to get to college in Darlington, and get themselves a start in life.”

That is one of the messages of the Rural Coalition’s initiative, which looks optimistically towards community partnership as a replacement for subsidy and local authority provision. In the beginning, when there was only one other community-owned pub in the country (there are now 70), the Hudswell villagers took some advice from the Plunkett Foundation (another coalition partner) which nurtures these kinds of projects. James Alcock, its general manager, suggests that having “one goal in Hudswell, to save their pub, helped them realise they could do so much more than that by working together”.

But surely that’s all very well where there is an engaged community with a bit of time and resource on its hands. What about places where those things are in shorter supply?

Alcock believes it can be a viable model for communities across the country, or at least the only available one that offers much hope.

“From our perspective, rural communities have always worked out ways of surviving and adapting, despite government intervention or without it,” he says. Brexit, with the withdrawal of subsidies and related effects will, in this positive light, offer further opportunities to generate resilience. “We need to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat,” Alcock says, “but only if government takes these rural-proofing policies seriously and supports the goals we are trying to achieve.”

There is a very big if there, of course, to go alongside the multiple other ifs on the horizon. At the heart of this one is the question of what we collectively understand rural Britain to be about. Whether it is a green and pleasant backdrop to insistently urban priorities, or whether it can re-establish a community that works for all generations and income groups. Hudswell suggests perhaps part of that solution can be created by the communities themselves.

“The story really is,” Lightfoot says, “if you sit back, nothing happens.”

“Or,” Cullen says, “you look around one day and think, hey, Christ, we have lost everything.”

17.4% of Britons live in rural areas, according to the World Bank (2016 figures).

The total rural population is
11,337,632

Property in rural areas across Britain is on average a fifth more expensive than in urban areas.

55.3% of voters in rural areas voted to leave the European Union.

31,440 sq km
of the UK is taken up by forest.

1.13% Employment in agriculture as a percentage of total employment.

231 pubs closed in rural areas between December 2015 and June 2016.

70% of the UK land area is actively farmed either as arable or pasture land. This is one of the highest proportions in Europe.

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