England's pastoral paradise lost?

Wetzel Dave davewetzel at tfl.gov.uk
Thu Aug 5 09:08:35 BST 2004

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From: Wyn Achenbaum [mailto:wyn at attglobal.net]
Sent: 04 August 2004 22:22
To: mtts; mason Gaffney; Wetzel Dave
Subject: CSM: England's pastoral paradise lost?


England's pastoral paradise lost?
The iconic English countryside is losing its luster, as growing poverty and
isolation stalk idyllic village outposts.
By Mark Rice-Oxley | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

SALFORD PRIORS, ENGLAND - This village, a stone's throw from the birthplace
of William Shakespeare, is postcard-perfect. There are rolling fields,
undulating country lanes, thatched cottages, and a rugged Norman church.
It's the rural idyll that inspired some of Britain's finest poets.

But behind the Cotswold stone and half-timbered exteriors lurks a malaise.
Country life is seriously threatened.            

Across Britain, shops, post offices, banks, and even pubs are shutting at
alarming rates. Transport links are becoming fitful. Local farms, squeezed
by bulk-purchasing supermarkets, are on their knees. And wealthy second-home
buyers are driving up home prices beyond the reach of locals.

The result is that deprivation is now stalking the countryside. For all its
pockets of affluence, rural Britain is home to 3 million people who live
below the poverty threshold, according to one recent study.

"Certainly some aspects of life in rural Britain are under threat," says
Quintin Fox, head of consultancy at the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that
works to improve life for rural residents.

The problem is essentially one of big driving out small. Banking giants
bought out smaller networks and promptly closed down those little,
inefficient branches that glued communities together.

The money-losing national postal service has shut thousands of costly post
offices - vital centers that dispense an array of administrative services
from mail to social welfare benefits. Mammoth supermarkets have
proliferated, squeezing out local retailers. Privatized transport networks
circumvent undersubscribed routes.

"You are getting a gradual erosion of local services, banks, post offices,
corner stores, news agents, lots of things piling up on top of each other
which lead communities to a tipping point," says Andrew Simms, policy
director for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a London-based think tank
that has conducted extensive research into what it calls "ghost-town
Britain." "It's self- reinforcing because once people can no longer get
goods and services from local communities, the greater the incentive to go
to the big out-of-town superstores."

According to NEF, a general store shuts every day somewhere in Britain, a
third of banks have been shut in the past decade, and 1 in 5 post offices
has closed in the past 20 years.

Benign neglect

Locals tell a story of benign neglect. Norman Wilson used to run the post
office in Tibenham, in eastern England. In recent years, he says, the school
closed, the last village shop shut, and the post office was squeezed into
submission by the national postal authorities.

"Now, we have a community hall, a public house, and a church. That's it," he
says. "If you go back to the mid-19th century, there were seven pubs and two
dozen shops and double the number of people."

Transportation troubles

Shutting down services wouldn't be so bad if transport links to major towns
were better. According to the Plunkett Foundation, more than a million rural
residents live without cars in villages with no shops.

For others, public transport is the only link between remote communities and
vital services. And yet the same efficiency drive that has downsized postal
and banking services has eaten away at bus and train links. Many villages
are lucky to have a twice-daily bus service. Some pensioners now face hours
of bus journeys just to collect their pensions.

"Transport is a problem," says Reg Stokes, a Salford Priors resident. "The
bus service is fairly infrequent and quite expensive, yet people need it to
get to the supermarkets and doctors."

Of course, it's not all gloom and doom in Britain's rural heartland. Stokes
says most Salford Priors villagers are happy to live in splendid isolation.
Inconvenience, he says, is just the price of living in an unspoiled part of
the world.

"This is just life in the country and there are many benefits, too," he
says. "Most of us realize that people from towns and cities still want to
live in the country."

Ironically, this desire on the part of cityfolk for a place in the
countryside is creating a new problem for rural Britain.

In recent years, thousands have lined up to buy second homes in far-flung
corners of the country, driving up property prices beyond the reach of
locals and creating a ghost-town effect when they leave their weekend
retreat to return the city.

Realtors estimate that England has more than 200,000 second homes worth some
$70 billion. The downside to this hot market is acute in the rugged
southwest. In the village of East Portlemouth, more than 60 percent of its
properties have been snapped up as second homes.

Simms says the problem with second-home owners is that they do not invest
locally. "You might load your Mercedes up with plastic bags from Sainsbury's
or Tesco's and head off for the weekend, and a swift drink in the local pub
is the limit of your investment in the local community."

So what can be done to save the British countryside? Some activists are
pushing measures to help local food markets cut out the middleman, helping
both consumers and local businesses. It is argued that money spent locally
has a positive regeneration effect, continuing to circulate in the local
community. Some also urge antitrust measures against supermarkets that
dominate any rural landscape.

Others like the Plunkett Foundation are concentrating on self-help
initiatives. In one community near Oxford that lost its post office, two
shops, and a pub, locals joined to turn the village hall into a

Another set up a charity to build affordable homes for locals so they
wouldn't be outmuscled by the second-home brigade.

"Communities are being encouraged to take a more enterprising approach,"
says Fox. "It's a self-sustaining process. There is still a lot of work to
be done, but they are beginning to plug the gaps."
Copyright © 2004 The Christian Science Monitor

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