22 June 2009

County House

So apparently rural communities are under threat from the closure of their shops and pubs

Hardly news, but I was more interested in the belief that it is the lack of 'affordable housing' causing this problem - meaning villages are full of commuters and holiday houses, instead of 'local people'

League of Gentlemen jokes aside, I feel this is a rather short-sighted approach

The problem is that not enough people use rural services and provisions - shops and pubs don't get enough business in essence, and I agree that to some extent this is caused by the rise of commuter belts and holiday villages, although the two are a bit different

But there is more to it than simply needing to add more people to the community - why exactly is there less business? Because nobody is at home in the day

Now if you asked me, being a village person myself, why very few people use the local provisions I would indeed say there is nobody home - only pensioners and housewives, but I would like to emphasise that last group housewives (fine, or househusbands) - there has been a huge decline in the number of stay-at-home parents in recent decades, meaning rather than one spouse being at home, engaging with the local community, the house is empty and they are both off somewhere - hence nobody to pop to the post office for a bottle of milk

I am not endorsing a return to the old sole bread-winner lifestyle, as certain right-wing pundits do, I merely point it out as a fact that both partners are more than likely to be working these days

I feel that this is a major factor in rural decline - I don't pass judgement on society for it, that's just the way we've gone and this seems a fairly obvious economic outcome

Secondly, there is the point about commuters - images of well-attired London yuppies heading off to the city at 6am springs to mind, but one must remember that virtually all workers in a village 'commute' - that can be, as in my case, a six mile drive to town, likewise all my family work locally, but not in the actual village - villages do not have jobs, unless as in a few cases I know they happen to house an office or other large employer

Were you to build more housing in my village, assuming these people intended to work, they too would be commuters - unless they found a (low-paid) job in said pub or shop, where the combined employment is about 15

There are other rural jobs - arable farms of course in my native East Anglia, but now they are very intensive, highly mechanised operations, the few employment opportunities they present are seasonal - not great for securing the rural economy

The holiday home issue, which blights the south coast, is not the same as this and probably makes the situation worse, but it is not something I've had first hand experience of, but arguably the commuter aspect still threatens underneath that anyway

So at the bottom of this is that there aren't enough jobs to support the communities - this has always been the way in rural places (at least since the industrial revolution kicked off), children grow up in the village and move to the towns to find work - now that the agricultural employment sector has been reduced to nothing and few spouses stay at home it is unsurprising that village economies have been harshly exposed

What these campaigners want is more housing for people who 'live' there - thus using the services and keeping them going - but I fear they are over-simplifying, more people would just mean more empty houses

With regard to the places that are vacant for half the year, I understand, but I still feel they will hit the next hurdle if they clear that, which villages like mine are currently at

So ultimately the solution is to bring more jobs into villages - the most active villages in my area tend to have one notable business located there, which does keep things like shops going - but many small, particularly farming based, ones, are completely devoid of employment opportunities

Likewise it's clear that society is damaging the role of the post offices with the Internet, so the villages must fight back with the Internet - one core way for rural-dwellers to make a living is through Internet businesses or tele-working - thus there are more people at home to use the local facilities rather than their local tesco express in the city

You must also keep up with modern life - people still like pubs, but these days it's all about catchment - pubs need to attract their locals from far wider than just the few hundred people in the actual village, our 'local' is actually in the next village and is very popular - the decline is in part down to rising overheads, a problem in itself, and changing drinking habits, but it should be remembered that if a pub only has a handful of punters it's not really a successful business - very free marketeer of me to say so, but like I say, I think campaigners should focus their attention on the costs, taxes and the breweries before simply wanting to expand the population

Likewise, while still in free-market mode, half the problem with small rural shops is they are reliant on pensioners and welfare claimants - now while I like my shop and try to use it, the fact is post offices are unfortunately almost redundant now - you don't need to collect payments, pay bills, tax etc at the PO anymore - it's all done online, hence why the PO has tried in vain for years to basically be a bank or anything else that will get people in the door - it has got to the stage where subsidisation seems appropriate, and I don't completely oppose that - basing public services purely on profit does not produce good service in my experience, and while we're on public service, it's not convenient for many old people to live in villages anymore - with bus routes non-existent and rather ironically, the most convenient shops disappearing, they are better off in the towns

Truth is there are a lot of reasons why the rural communities are dying, modern life stacks the odds against a rural business - but throwing catch-all ideas about increasing housing probably won't solve a thing - it needs novel, and ultimately individual, solutions to preserve each one, if it is even right that we should

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