A quick scan of Britain’s countryside using Google Earth reveals these rural twilight zones. Where subsisting folk live in caravans or dilapidated homes literally in the middle of nowhere. Down unpassable lanes or hidden off main roads where even the postman daren’t venture past a battered postal collection box barely attached to some post or tree.
You may pass these locations as a rambler, walking hotfoot, following some old map. The chickens and the dogs give the game away. The untaxed, old cars inhabited by the aforementioned chickens suggest that here are places which time has passed by. It doesn’t matter whether Labour or the Tories are in power. For nothing will change for these rural poor, who live off eggs, home-grown vegetables and stray or poached game. Their electricity was cut or smart-metered years ago. Their moonshine is mind-blowing and their apple juice sour. They suffer from the digital gap – no broadband here. Welcome to the world of Britain’s rural poor.
The view that people who live in the countryside are rich and enjoy a rural idyll masks tragic pockets of rural deprivation and poor health — both of which have been exacerbated by lack of access to the Internet — according to a study by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Public Health England (PHE) published just last week.
And what an important study. It should lead to a national debate.
How do local authorities handle these lost souls?
It is not as if these people are using local services, so are they to be given automatic exemptions from council tax? Should they be considered mentally ill? They are not on benefits because, frankly, their local job centre is dozens of miles away and just travelling there every couple of weeks would result in any benefits being used up on the journey. They may eventually end up in hospital but they will only go there kicking and screaming when they are really ill. Most council and health workers are too scared of a shotgun in the face to bother attending such locations, where forgotten residents tend to be angry and gruff, or unwilling to ever answer the door.
Not all those featured in the report live like hermits, of course. The transport issue brought up in the report is the key one. People in the countryside who are far away from local services do not use them. They can live off £30 a week cash in hand from gardening or flogging logs if they ignore their bills. This means they miss out on modernity altogether, they cannot afford to (legally) run a motorbike or car. No point pedalling around on a push bike as that only gets them so far.
The Government has to be seen to be fair to these stragglers. After all, good citizens pay their share. But, in fact, the rural poor are not costing the taxpayer much at all. Should there not be a set of rules for the townies and another set for rural paupers? Or is the Government obliged to try and lift these poor souls up and out of their mire?
The LGA/PHE report presents manifold problems. Where does the state’s remit for poking its nose into citizens’ lives end? What if the local officials refuse to visit and there’s a case of slavery going on at that address? What if a child living there is malnourished or not getting an education? There must be some state intervention or unspeakable things may be allowed to persist out of sight.
The rural poor merit help. Generally, they are good souls and just want to enjoy the green fields of Britain away from the mad, materialist rush. Yet their eyes light up when they look at modern technology. Who are we to say they can’t train themselves up remotely as web developers or game manufacturers and sell their wares to the global economy from a field in Somerset or Cumbria? They could be a huge benefit to the country. Why not?
There must be some way of getting benefits to them using a mobile job centre office. To get them on their feet. There must be focus on rural broadband. Living in poverty as some people do in the countryside should not be socially acceptable to the rest of us. In other words, when Theresa May talks of a Britain post-Brexit working for all of us, she must not forget these deprived pockets of Britain, even though they likely never vote; even though they likely have no idea who she is.
Help these people and we may be surprised by how they flourish and contribute. Leave them as they are and we risk more than they deserve.