December 13, 2018

The British countryside is painted either as a rustic idyll or a boring surrogate for the excitement of city life, depending on your taste. For me it was always the latter. I was born and brought up in Somerset, and from about as early as I can remember I wanted to get away.

I was of course informed by older friends and family members that, as age took its toll, I would soon want to move back. This was usually relayed to me in terms of having children: “you won’t want to bring children up in the city…”.

And overall, economic outcomes do tend to be better for those living in rural areas than for those living in cities. 15% of households in rural areas live in relative poverty, for example, compared to 22% in urban areas. And over three quarters (77%) of working-age people in rural areas are in employment, compared to 73 per cent in urban areas.

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Yet one of the lessons from the Brexit referendum was the extent to which statistics can belie reality. The pre-referendum period now feels like ancient history, but Britain in the first half of 2016 was said to be on the ‘road to recovery’ after a long recession. News broadcasts were filled with good cheer about the ‘record number of people’ in work, and so on. But one did not have to look very far to see a very different reality.

Indeed, a striking spectacle in the aftermath of the referendum was the wave of liberal journalists voyaging to the north of England – in a way reminiscent of 1930s depression-era writing – discovering, in fact, that many of their fellow countrymen were leading unhappy and unfulfilling lives. If anyone had bothered to look, they would have seen this had been true all along.

Something similar might be said of Britain’s rural areas, where statistics such as those I have quoted – together with television property shows and an outdated view of ‘grim’ inner cities – help to fortify a vision of rural life as an unchanging nirvana of long walks, hearty meals and log fires in cosy pubs.

This attitude is decades out of date, if it was ever accurate in the first place. A 2017 joint report by the Local Government Association and Public Health England notes that “within even the most affluent [rural] areas, there can be real hardship, deprivation, ill health and inequalities”, in particular due to seasonal work and poor access to services.

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Even before the recession, three rural post officers were closing each week in England. In Scotland almost a quarter of post offices have closed since 2002. Rural communities suffer from poorer access to even supposedly universal services: while 98% of the urban population live within four kilometres of a GP surgery, the figure is 80 per cent for those living in rural areas. Moreover, just 55% of rural households live within eight kilometres of a hospital, compared to 97% of urban households.

As the wider economy has become more digitised, economic opportunity has come to depend increasingly on a person’s technological proficiency, but also their access to a high-speed internet connection. Yet in rural areas broadband is often patchy – during the time it’s taken to write this article my Somerset broadband has dropped off twice, for ten minutes at a time.

According to Ofcom, rural broadband speeds come in at around 13.7Mbps, which is more than three times slower than urban areas. “As remoteness and population sparsity increase so too does the likelihood of an area having no or very poor broadband connectivity,” the LGA and PHE report notes.

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Internet access is just one factor in determining the opportunities available to people. Opportunity also correlates with a university education. In the village I grew up in, unless a position in the family business awaited once you finished school, to get a well-paying job you had to leave. When young people choose to spend their most productive years elsewhere it hastens the decline of rural economies.

Moreover, as young people move out en masse, the age profile of rural communities is creeping up, making areas less vibrant and, arguably, even less attractive to young people. People aged 45 years and above now make up more than half of those living in rural areas – in urban areas it is closer to 40%.

Many of these older residents depend on public transport, which has suffered severe cuts in rural areas in recent years due to the unprofitability of out-of-the-way services. As I wrote in a piece for UnHerd back in August, long-standing bus routes have been abolished or significantly reduced as a result of austerity.

Last year Somerset County Council announced it would be scrapping Saturday Park and Ride services in Taunton, and Webberbus, one of Somerset’s biggest bus operators, collapsed entirely in 2016, leading to the disappearance of 24 services across the county. Services like these are a lifeline for the elderly, who rely on local buses to visit shops and access services – without them they’re isolated.

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Often, when I hear city-dwellers talk about moving to the countryside in order to raise children, I wonder if they know what they are letting themselves in for. For one thing, certain kinds of drugs – particularly cannabis – were far more prevalent in the corner of Somerset I grew up in than when I moved to Nottingham in my early twenties, a city that was supposedly the ‘gun crime capital’ of the UK.

Moreover, in recent years there have been reports of drug gangs increasingly targeting rural communities to boost profits. So-called ‘country lines’ activity – where gangs enlist young people to go out and sell drugs in rural areas and market towns – was reported by 71% of police forces in England and Wales in 2016.

Perhaps because there is less to do in the countryside, particularly in winter, the use of recreational drugs has a more obvious appeal. The West Country smokes more cannabis than anywhere else in the UK. Cannabis growers also appear to prefer rural to urban areas, with 55,166 plant seizures in the north west in 2017 compared to 19,397 in London.

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The countryside has its advantages to be sure. The air is less polluted than in the city. Crime rates are lower. And while the sense of local community fetishised by outsiders may be exaggerated, in many areas, for better or worse (you know everyone, but everyone knows you), it does exist.

Yet this idyllic view of cleaner, safer countryside communities ignores a darker side. Obesity rates tend to be higher in small towns and rural areas than in big cities, according to research (something also true of the United States). Educational attainment among disadvantaged children is far worse in rural and coastal areas – London boroughs dominate the Social Mobility Commission’s list of schools in which poorer pupils achieve the best results. And for those without a university education, London life at least offers the remote possibility of an internship to get a foot in the door at a company. In the countryside such things are largely inaccessible.

In common with the country’s ‘left behind’ towns, up to now precious little interest has been shown in exploring the deprivations of the British countryside. Turn on a television set and rural life is depicted as an agreeable and tranquil Eden – green fields and picturesque country lanes enclosed by hedges and songbirds – where one can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and take a trip to a nearby retail park on the weekend, to paraphrase Marx.

But the countryside is much more than a bolthole for the affluent. Rural communities have their own share of social problems; the idea of the ‘troubled’ inner city versus ‘our green and pleasant land’ is hopelessly antiquated. I should know – like many young people I made the reverse journey to the one usually depicted in popular culture: I fled to London to escape.

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