BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
I have a confession to make.
Even though I joyously agreed to be one of the founder writers of Country Squire Magazine, I’ve spent most of my life as something of a plastic exurbanite in the Surrey villages stockbroker belt, where the hedges are perfectly trimmed, Barbours are mere fashion accessories, tractors get polished to a patina and paddocks are mowed in aesthetically-pleasing stripes. I also spent many years living in London where, shamefully, I seldom ventured outside of W1.
So, a few years back, when I moved with my young family, two dogs and Mouse the cat to the countryside proper, I admit I carried significant townie baggage. If you’d asked me then about fox hunting, I’d have smugly quoted Wilde – “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” (holding similar derision for those spitting and anoraked antis).
Back then I never had any issues with townies owning a second home in the countryside. Buying British produce from British farmers was never much of a priority – getting in and out of the supermarket to go somewhere else fast was. Closed rural Post Offices on the news I merely chalked off as another failed business model against the backcloth of modern supermarket efficiency. Rural problems were hardly a blip on my radar – a solitary cowpat perhaps on a stretch of endless concrete.
However, after moving to the countryside, once the holiday feeling had worn off, the scales fell from my eyes.
Over ten million people live in rural areas in the UK. Hunting is the largest participatory sport in the country, with something between 4 and 5 million regularly involved. I can see now the ban on hunting has certainly not been won based on an informed and consistent policy towards animal welfare. Live animals exported to countries with far lower welfare standards than ours would appear to have a far greater impact on animal welfare. Those in Noho and Islington should have zero influence on what the countryside should think or do. The British Public – especially the urbanites – do not know the facts. The national aversion to hunting seems to me to be at least partly due to a townie alienation of the actual reality of living and working with animals.
While the Hunting Debate is important, it too often becomes the single issue in the rural debate, because it raises the temperature and gets people motivated, and neither side seem particularly interested in listening to the other side’s arguments. Other rural problems abound:
I now have countryside friends whose families have been living 500 years in the same village but whose children cannot afford to buy homes there as the picturesque houses in their village have been snapped up by stockbrokers and lawyers as weekend retreats. Families are getting split as holiday home ownership proliferates. Along with the discounted right to buy of rural council stock and deregulated public transport, which has meant no effective bus service to many villages and remote rural locations for years now, there is a severe shortage of housing for people who work in the countryside. As a consequence, countryside homelessness is on the up and employers in certain areas just cannot find the staff.
Specific government policies, which seemed no-brainers looking out from town to countryside, such as privatising some of the profitable services in the Post Office, turned out to be the services that kept rural sub-post offices going. Banning smoking in pubs seemed a logical step also but that has seen so many rural pubs close – pubs which were the only focal point for certain villages. Such seemingly well-intentioned policies have even further hollowed out rural communities; turning them into mere commuter dormitories.
Rural policy is decided more by the logistics companies masquerading as supermarket chains than by government. As a result there has been a disastrous fall in many farm incomes, (particularly fruit and milk producers), as these products are often bought below the cost of production by a single buyer. Supermarkets’ primary concerns are linked to their shareholders. Every Little Counts.
The incredible levels of wastage caused by supermarket buyers are mind-blowing and dispiriting for farmers – only something like 20% of potatoes grown in the UK ever reach a plate, as most of them are rejected by supermarket buyers as being too small, blemished, too large or, like my knees, too knobbly.
I have discovered more than once personally how rural post offices are lifelines. Literally.
Many sub post offices have gone and the village stores they were part of have closed down too. Many rural villages have clubbed together to create volunteer-run enterprises in their place so the local elderly and other vulnerable souls have somewhere to go to get in supplies. It’s when it snows or floods that these lifelines come into their own. (Townies simply do not comprehend this, as they’re never more than a few miles from the nearest Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s and roads in and around towns invariably get gritted. In the countryside, you’re often several miles away from the nearest cashpoint or petrol station let alone supermarket. When there’s snow or flooding you are stuffed unless you have a four wheel drive or access to someone with a boat or tractor or both).
Most people blame the Government for rural problems. I don’t. That’s too easy.
I put rural problems down to the unfortunate lack of countryside political representation in Westminster (especially, historically, in the Labour Party when it was an electable force) and also the inability of the Countryside to impress its issues effectively upon mainstream media while other lobbyists, such as Green interests, have had comparative success. This has led to short-sighted policy decisions over the last decades.
One thing I find nonsensical – the lack of countryside co-ordination in forcing supermarkets (whose countryside customers make up a sixth of UK consumers) to react to countryside complaints. Maybe Brexit will force the supermarkets into focusing more on healthy locally-produced food and a sustainable rural economy; less on foreign imports and product aesthetics. Let’s hope for the British countryside that David Mellor lookalike Guy Verhofstadt scores an own goal on this.
The good news is that there are solutions aplenty: a change in planning law meaning people should need to apply for a change of use if they want a second home, charity status for volunteer-run village stores, state schools being forced to use locally-cultivated excess produce for school meals … We hope to feature some policy ideas in this magazine; on this platform for Countryside voices.
I personally love both town and countryside. I am now firmly an exurbanite and that is why I agreed to write for this magazine. I regret personally my wearing of townie blinkers all these years – not seeing through the issues sooner and sensing the plight of countryside folk.
At the end of the day us Britons are a United Kingdom. It’s time we started acting intelligently and symbiotically rather than getting in each other’s way due to stubbornness, pride and blinkered ignorance. Time to drag the townies out to the countryside so they know what it’s all about. Time to put more exurbanites in Westminster.