View From the Countryside

BY BEN EAGLE

It’s now under a month to go until we all revel in the Christmas festivities (those of us who celebrate Christmas at any rate, which is most people in this country). It will almost be time to wave goodbye to 2017, which, with my hat on at least, has not been the most optimistic of years, particularly it seems as it draws to a close.

The autumn budget did nothing to revive my positivity.

The recent economic headlines have been overwhelmingly gloomy, leaving many in the nation feeling both dejected about the long term future and confused about their position in the short term. How to plan ahead and cope in a society in which wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living and the prospect of this situation changing is minimal?

Our problem, at least according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), is all to do with productivity, the amount of output that workers in the UK can produce each working hour of the week. In short, as a nation, we are not working hard enough. Productivity is still rising, but not as quickly as the OBR thought it would. By 2022 they believe we’ll be looking at an annual growth rate of 1.3%. This links to slower rates of growth in wages, overall incomes and GDP. At the same time we have to put up with the prospect of mass housing within our communities without the benefits of improved local infrastructure. Not a happy situation.

However, all over the country there are little pockets of success: small and medium sized businesses that are growing, employing increasing numbers of people and investing for the future. We could probably all name a company in our local area that fulfils this image. At the same time there are companies that are stagnating or moving backwards. Investment in individuals by boosting skills and in companies by improving infrastructure (across the country) should help to boost overall productivity. The government just needs to be brave enough to do it, and I haven’t seen enough evidence that they will do it on the required scale.

We’ve lived with austerity for many years now and whilst the aim to bring down the deficit and overall national debt might be admirable (I was a supporter for quite some time), if it means sacrificing quality of life for one, perhaps two generations (my own generation included), we need to shift our priorities. We risk the 21st century being filled with not winters but whole decades of discontent. Spending must be encouraged to give businesses confidence to invest in the future. If they are worried about short term cash-flow this is likely to limit their ambitions for the longer term and encouraging spending is one way to allow for this.

In the countryside the problem with productivity and investment is all the more important. With Brexit discussions there has been a tendency to saddle all rural issues under the banner of farming or the environment. This simply isn’t good enough. Rural Britain’s issues run deeper as does its need for investment in infrastructure. The countryside has suffered from limited investment for years and it’s having an impact on the way we see ourselves. Pubs and rural services continue to close, despite the financial meltdown moving into the history books. The crash was almost a decade ago now, but each day we wake up to its consequences.

I know that this seems a rather pessimistic article, and if you are still reading I want to say thank you for bearing with me. Those of you who know me personally will probably think of me as generally optimistic with a positive outlook, always looking for the brightness in a situation. However, the rhetoric in politics and economics this year has driven me down. It is difficult to be hopeful when the politicians seem to be constantly pushing us down a path that leads to despair, and the media do their best to wallow in this negative narrative, providing the rhetoric that echoes round the country. To be hopeful certainly isn’t easy. I’ll try harder in 2018, but I hope I’m spared one bout of dejected writing.

At the top of my Christmas wishlist is therefore the hope that 2018 will bring about a break in the doom and gloom, although I’m not holding out too much. Enjoy the run up to Christmas. We all need some festive cheer in the recent age of gloom.

Ben Eagle is a writer from Essex who usually specialises in environmental and agricultural topics.  He regularly blogs at www.thinkingcountry.com  and you can follow him on twitter at @benjy_eagle  

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